Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon is not a manual on warfare. Even so, its final compilers and redactors chose to incorporate a number of war-related elements into the narrative, including not only the seemingly incessant civil wars in Ether but also the more carefully structured, more detailed chronicles in the aptly named “War Chapters,” Alma 43-63.
For many readers, these passages represent stumbling blocks to be endured in order to get to the more spiritual portions of the Book or Mormon; but for others, they provide opportunities to examine some of the few particulars given of life among the Lamanite and Nephites—glimpses, as it were, into the nuts-and-bolts events that support the Book’s primary purpose: to act as a witness to the mission and divinity of Christ.
It seems ironic that warfare should offer insights into the worldview of an ancient people when the larger goal of their histories is to establish peace, but scholars such as Morgan Deane argue that precisely because the annals of warfare are so detailed they are an invaluable support for the Book of Mormon as a whole. Including among his guides the work of Hugh Nibley in books such as Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites, which set out to establish the validity of certain cultural and geographical claims in the Book of Mormon, Deane performs a similar analysis of one element of the book, warfare, and demonstrates that the details presented, often as afterthoughts or asides to a verse, support the Book of Mormon’s claim to be an ancient document. He does not assert proof that the spiritual message is true—that comes only through the Spirit; but he does suggest that to take the book seriously as an ancient document requires that one compare it with what is known of similar ancient societies and that to do so enlarges both understanding and acceptance of the underlying implications. As he states: “The often repeated spiritual message of The Book of Mormon, that obedience brings prosperity and disobedience destruction is fulfilled through warfare.”
In seven chapters Deane tackles key issues, beginning with the often inexplicable obsession with warfare in the relatively brief book of Ether. To do so, he draws parallels with a similar drawn-out and destructive series of civil wars in ancient China, the War of the Eight Princes. While not arguing that one directly influenced the other, he does contend that complex similarities between the two histories suggest that both accurately reflect their times. The comparisons include
a similar moral lesson from their respective contemporary historians; a breakdown of trade interpreted as a curse or loss of divine favor; a multitude of related claimants to throne; regional power bases, with control of the capital often serving as an apple of discord; armies formed by personal oaths of loyalty, political ruses, and a constant appeal to divine favor to justify war; similar military practices and reliance on pre-battle ruses; and the sanguine [i.e., bloody]results of the conflict in terms of duration, intensity, and casualties.
Minor differences in structure and interpretation of the two wars arise primarily from the historians’ differing purposes, especially the moralizing and spiritualizing lessons to be drawn from Ether’s account.
In another chapter, he anatomizes what is known of the various incursions of the “Gadianton Robbers” into the Nephite narrative, noting that the language used to describe them and their actions—especially the consistently pejorative “robbers”—dovetails neatly with strategies used by other societies, including ancient China, Persia, and Rome, to marginalize and make other, to “isolate and confuse enemies” that threaten the centers of power. Deane connects the bands with ancient and modern examples of insurgency, ultimately tying the Book of Mormon account into modern concerns for and experiences with political terrorism in ways that are insightful and enlightening.
Subsequent chapters examine the details of recruiting armies, the rituals incorporated to make warfare palatable to soldiers and civilian populations, the tactics and logistics of warfare itself—from brutal “shock battle,” in which opposing armies simply charge each other, hacking and slashing as they go, to more sophisticated (and perhaps more questionable) strategies of ruses, ambushes, deceit, and assassination. He looks closely at the military career of Captain Moroni, assessing modern attempts to paint him as excessively violent, in essence a “war criminal” whose spiritual lessons should be ignored; Deane argues instead that in terms of ancient practices, modern necessities, and classical studies of the art of war, Moroni stands apart as a military genius.
In the final chapters, Deane approaches what seems the core of the study: The Book of Mormon as a defender of offensive warfare and the dangers of passive defense when the existence of a culture or society is at stake. “This chapter,” he says at the beginning of chapter 7, “doesn’t just examine the ancient imperatives from geography and strategic threats that fueled the Nephite decisions and results. It identifies the principles that governed their decisions and updates them for a modern age,”…the age of George Bush and Iraq, of ISIS and Iran. He definitely has an agenda as he brings Bleached Bones and Wicker Serpents to a Conclusion, one with which readers may agree or disagree, but he sets out his arguments clearly and, for me at least, persuasively.
Throughout the study, Deane consistently points out elements of The Book of Mormon that agree with what is known about other ancient cultures, both from contemporary accounts and from modern studies. In doing so, he does not claim to have proven that The Book of Mormon is true; instead, he argues that there is substantial evidence that it is what it declares itself to be: an ancient document that chronicles the warfare—and the shifting levels of spirituality and morality—of an ancient people.