The doctrine of preventive war implies fighting your enemy on your terms, before they (may or may not) fight you on theirs. It is an extension of the idea that “the best defense is a good offense,” and requires a massive network of surveillance and spies to supply the necessary and credible intelligence upon which such operations can be successfully based. It is the pursuit of an alleged enemy to prevent a possible (though not imminent, as is the case with pre-emptive war) future attack.
This doctrine has, in recent decades, come to replace America’s adherence to its opposite, the Just War Theory. This theory of war holds that military action must meet certain moral criteria, such as being in true defense, being initiated by and waged under the proper authority, and being used as a true last resort after all diplomatic and other efforts have failed. The aggression of initiating an attack without meeting the aforementioned criteria is rejected, even when masked in the cloak of pseudo-defense.
There are plenty of statements from modern leaders rejecting preventive war. Two examples will suffice for illustration purposes. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once remarked that he “wouldn’t even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing,” also commenting that “there are all sorts of reasons, moral and political and everything else, against this theory, but it is so completely unthinkable in today’s conditions…” (source). Similarly, in a letter to the US Treasury in 1941, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wrote that “…we do not believe that aggression should be carried on in the name and under the false cloak of defense. We therefore look with sorrowing eyes at the present use to which a great part of the funds being raised by taxes and by borrowing is being put… We believe that our real threat comes from within and not from without…” (via Quoty).
Recent opposition to this war theory aside, it is beneficial for truth-seekers to explore the Book of Mormon for examples and patterns that have modern-day application. After all, President Hinckley said of this book that “in its descriptions of the problems of today’s society, it is as current as the morning newspaper and much more definitive, inspired, and inspiring concerning the solutions of those problems” (source).
Before citing examples that have relevant application to this method of warfare, it must be noted that there are several instances of war in the book that do not have direct application to the usual circumstances of geopolitical strife and global warfare. The so-called “war chapters”, comprising the latter part of the book of Alma, are well known and document one battle after another. But as is explained in more detail here, every war it describes is one in which Nephite traitors have defected and instigated the hostilities. Far from being uninvited, these conflicts stem from division and sedition, thus creating a narrow distinction for applying such battles to modern day hostilities. We cannot so broadly use these wars to scrutinize our own unless circumstances come close to matching.
With that caveat, there are a couple notable examples in the Book of Mormon in which preventive war is discussed by itself, as a tool to vanquish the enemy to avoid the possibility of a future attack. The first such instance occurs about two decades after the Savior’s birth, when society has become infested to the foundation with Gadianton robbers. The leader of this thuggish group, Giddianhi, demands the complete surrender of the Nephite kingdom—the people, the lands, and their possessions all being offered up as recompense for their having allegedly usurped the rightful rule of the government.
The military leader of the Nephites, Gidgiddoni, was a “great prophet” who “had the spirit of revelation and also prophecy”. In light of this security threat (one might easily label the Gadiantons as “terrorists”), the people feared for their safety and begged for a preventive assault on the group:
Now the people said unto Gidgiddoni: Pray unto the Lord, and let us go up upon the mountains and into the wilderness, that we may fall upon the robbers and destroy them in their own lands. (3 Nephi 3:20)
What Norman Vincent Peale said of Americans might equally apply to these Nephites: “[they] used to roar like lions for liberty. Now [they] bleat like sheep for security.” Writing of the previous standard of Nephite warfare, A. Brent Merrill has written:
…it was imprudent for the Nephites to initiate hostilities and to rely much on offensive operations. Instead, the Nephites became more adept at using fortifications to achieve local economy of forces and maintained a grand strategy of protecting the land north (of the narrow neck of land). Fortifications, which needed relatively few men to man, became force “multipliers,” by means of which the Nephites could extend a combat front, and served as a base of maneuver for mobile field forces. This was an effective use of one principle of war, the economy of forces. Even in situations where the Nephites may have faced an enemy of more equal numbers, they were counseled not to strike first.
Essentially, Nephite warfare fell under the Just War Theory, and offensive/aggressive war was rejected repeatedly. The situation with Gidgiddoni was no different, though he had to remind everybody of their tradition and the Lord’s preference. Being a great prophet and knowing God’s will, this general counseled his people as follows:
But Gidgiddoni saith unto them: The Lord forbid; for if we should go up against them the Lord would deliver us into their hands; therefore we will prepare ourselves in the center of our lands, and we will gather all our armies together, and we will not go against them, but we will wait till they shall come against us; therefore as the Lord liveth, if we do this he will deliver them into our hands. (3 Nephi 3:21)
Read carefully that verse, and you will see a complete rejection of preventive war by a man of God. Not only does he go so far as to say that they will not go on the offense, but he also mandates a policy of military non-interventionism (erroneously labeled isolationism all too often) by stating that their military might would be consolidated into one defensive force—not spreading them across various locations as spies, satellite operations, and clandestine subversives. Gidgiddoni’s policy is one of defense, not offense; peace, not faux prevention; and moral war, not the degenerated, aggressive type that through propaganda is passed off as being justified.
A second example comes from the namesake of the Book of Mormon, who was appointed as general of all the Nephite armies at the young age of fifteen, and who would later become a prophet. Mormon’s record documents an astounding 35 years of near-constant warfare—”one complete revolution”, as he calls it—before both sides signed a truce. Only a decade of relative peace passed before the Lamanites came down to battle again. The Nephites repelled the threat twice in legitimate defense, but after the second victory became vengeful and arrogant. They began to clamor for a complete extermination of the enemy:
And they did swear by the heavens, and also by the throne of God, that they would go up to battle against their enemies, and would cut them off from the face of the land. (Mormon 3:10)
“Going up” specifies an offensive campaign in the enemy’s territory. This is clearly a demand for preventive war, as the action is being justified through terminating a future (and in this case likely) threat in order to prevent another assault. Mormon’s reaction? He cites their “wickedness and abomination” of which their demands were a part, and “did utterly refuse from this time forth to be a commander and a leader of this people.” His refusal makes clear the depravity that is preventive war; a few verses later, the Lord confirms his reaction.
These examples make clear that ethics in war are not situational. As the Just War Theory asserts, there are certain moral underpinnings upon which the foundation of a war must be based if it is to be considered necessary and justified. The progress of time and technology do not and must not change these principles; short of an explicit commandment by God to the contrary (since it’s His law, He can change it), they remain effectual and applicable.
It is important to note that almost all Nephite battles took place within their own territory. Their military leaders were inspired men who sought the Lord’s guidance. They did not seek for power, and were quick to forgive their enemies and pursue peace. Diplomacy was always, always an option “on the table”. And the Nephites were continually reminded (when they were righteous) of the nobleness of their cause; their defensive struggles were in order to preserve their families and their entire society, both sanctioned and supported by God Himself.
The stories in these pages are included that we might learn from them. It seems, however, that we are repeating them and making them our own—consequences and all. Of this, Hugh Nibley comments:
Not many years ago all of this Book of Mormon extravaganza belonged even for Latter-day Saints to the world of pure fantasy, of things that could never happen in the modern civilized world—total extermination of a nation was utterly unthinkable in those days. But suddenly even within the past few years a very ancient order of things has emerged at the forefront of world affairs; who would have thought it—the Holy War! the ultimate showdown of the Good Guys with God on their side versus the Godless Enemy. It is the creed of the Ayatollah, the Jihad, Dar-al-Islam versus Dar-al-Harb, the Roman ager pacatus versus the ager hosticus. On the one side Deus vult, on the Bi’smi-llah; it is a replay of the twelfth century, the only way the “good people” can be free, that is, safe, is to exterminate the “bad people” or, as Mr. Lee counsels, to lock them up before they do any mischief—that alone will preserve the freedom of “us good people.” (Hugh Nibley, via Quoty)
Prior to this explanation, Nibley references the Jaredite case of Shiz and Coriantumr, “each obsessed with the necessity of ridding the world of his evil adversary.” Vengeful vanquish and preventive war alike have no place in the lives of those who have been commanded to renounce war and proclaim peace.
Contrary to some twisted interpretations, the Book of Mormon neither illustrates nor supports the position of preventive war. If we truly consider this book to be written for and applicable to our day, we would do well to heed its promptings—both personally and as a matter of foreign policy. Those who do not learn from the history of the Book of Mormon are condemned to repeat it.