Book of Mormon/Warfare/Tactics

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Warfare in the Book of Mormon: Tactics and strategy

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Question: What is known about battle tactics in Book of Mormon?

The clash of melee soldiers described in the Book of Mormon alternated between relatively bloodless and elite versus elite combat

Miriam Webster’s dictionary defines tactics as “the science and art of disposing and maneuvering forces in combat.” [1] Nephite tactics were the culmination of their strategy and resulted in combat determined largely through shock battle. [2] William Hamblin noted that

Battles frequently began with an exchange of missiles to wound and demoralize the enemy. Only when the missiles were exhausted did hand to hand combat occur. The battle described in Alma 49 offers a good description of archery duels preceding hand to hand melees. When panic began to spread in the ranks, a complete collapse could be sudden and devastating. The death of the king or commander often led to the complete collapse of an army, as happened in Alma 49:25. Casualties occurred most during the flight and pursuit after the disintegration of the main units. Battles in the Book of Mormon often end with descriptions of just such routs, flights, and destructions of armies (see Alma 52:26–36; 62:31, 38). [3]

The clash of melee soldiers described in the Book of Mormon alternated between relatively bloodless and elite versus elite combat in Mosiah 19:14-15, 20:24-25 and Alma 2:29-33. But verses such as Mosiah 20:10-11, Alma 43: 43-44, Alma 52:33-34 and 3 Nephi 4:11 suggest a bloody and vicious scrum with combat falling upon the leaders and masses alike. [4] In a letter to Moroni, Helaman recorded what would be the standard tactical goal. He said that “we were desirous… to fall upon them in their rear, and thus bring them up in the rear at the same time they were met in the front” (Alma 56:23).

Command and control was affected through battle standards (Alma 46:21). [5] This system was effective enough to both end and restart the melee described in the Alma 43-44.


Question: What is known about strategy in Book of Mormon warfare?

The Nephites adopted a strategy that most closely resembles what military historian Russell F. Weigley labeled the “offensive defensive”

Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines strategy as “the science and art of military command exercised to meet the enemy in combat under advantageous conditions." [6] As might be expected of the history of a people covering around 1,000 years, there were likely changes in military engagements that varied with the times and with the available population. Our best evidence for strategy and tactics begins in the middle of their history with the massed engagements described in the Book of Alma within the first century before Christ. The basic strategies are similar in the battles of the final destruction of the Nephites around 400 years after Christ.

The Nephites adopted a strategy that most closely resembles what military historian Russell F. Weigley labeled the “offensive defensive”. [7] They were commanded to avoid offensive wars, (Mormon 3: 9-15)and multiple leaders such as Mormon and Limhi specifically refused to lead the Nephites in their offensive operations outside of Nephite lands (Mosiah: 21:6-12). They believed that their temporal safety and strength in war making were ensured through righteous living and pre battle ritual (Alma 61:13, Alma 46: 9-28, Alma 48: 7, Helaman 4: 24-26). However, once Nephite lands were attacked they were commanded by the Lord to “resist evil…with [their] swords” (Alma 61:10-13), and they felt it was “no sin” to use stratagems and offensive operations to defeat enemy armies (Alma 43: 30).

As part of this defensive mindset the Nephites built towers (Helaman 7:11), walls and small forts (Alma 48:8). [8] Under the reign of Pahoran, Moroni evicted Lamanites settlers along both the east and west seas so he could establish what anthropologist John Sorenson called “military garrison cities”. [9] These settlements strengthened the Nephite position (Alma 50:10-13). One researcher suggests this strength derived from the placement of the city Moroni upon a pivotal river crossing. [10] Further research postulates the existence of military colonies established closer to the west sea to bolster the defense of that area. [11]

Upon the invasion of Nephite lands military leaders relied upon defensive fortifications in many cases (Alma 49). However in later Nephite history this often proved ineffective (Helaman 1). Historians A. Brent Merrill and Morgan T. Deane suggest that Moroni used what are now called the principles of war in seeking to attack and defeat enemy armies. [12] Additionally the Nephites used “complex pre battle maneuvering”, [13] pre battle divination (Alma 43:23), ambushes (Alma 43:31-33), spies (Alma 50:31), assassination (Alma 51: 33), and feigned retreats (Alma 52:23, 56:36), that culminated in shock battle (Alma 43:37, Alma 52: 32-34) [14] (see tactics). Sometimes the various parties requested battle at a specific time and place (Mormon 6: 2, Alma 52:20). Although several pre battle ruses such as raids upon enemy supply, [15] aiding internal dissension (Alma 61: 8), and obstructing marching armies [16] suggest that some strategic options were designed to weaken armies through means other than battle.

For groups such as the Gadianton Robbers, the Nephites adopted a military strategy of “search and destroy”

For groups such as the Gadianton Robbers, the Nephites adopted a military strategy of “search and destroy” (Helaman 11:28). This policy often failed miserably due to difficult terrain that these robbers occupied. When operating outside of that difficult terrain the Nephites consolidated their position to their central cities. They tried to defend those cities and engage the enemy army in climactic shock battles that took advantage of additional ruses, such sending an army to cut off their retreat (3 Nephi: 2:11, chapters 3-4).


John W. Welch: "Alma effectively showed in the record that this fate befell them in accordance with divine law"

John W. Welch,

While Alma clearly lacked both the desire and the power to have the city of Ammonihah destroyed by a Nephite military force, and certainly no legal decree was ever issued calling for the extermination of the city, Alma carefully recorded and documented the fact that the inhabitants of Ammonihah had satisfied every element of the crime of being an apostate city. When the justice of God destroyed that city, Alma effectively showed in the record that this fate befell them in accordance with divine law. —(Click here to continue) [17]


John W. Welch: "On closer examination, however, even war cannot be conducted successfully in a total state of anarchy or chaos"

John W. Welch,

At first, law and war appear to be opposites. Especially in the modern experience, wars are thought to be basically extralegal. They break out when law and order break down; rules and conventions can become next to meaningless in the heat and rage of war. On closer examination, however, even war cannot be conducted successfully in a total state of anarchy or chaos. To a greater or lesser extent, all civilizations accept and employ certain laws, rules, customs, rituals, and conventional practices in times of war. In ancient Israel and in the Book of Mormon, this was certainly also the case. —(Click here to continue) <re "f>John W. Welch, "Law and War in the Book of Mormon," Warfare in the Book of Mormon (1990)</ref>

  1. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tactics (Accessed August 22, 2009).
  2. For more discussion, see wikipedia article on "shock tactics".
  3. William Hamblin, "The Importance of Warfare in Book of Mormon Studies," in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds, (Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), xxx. ISBN 093489325X ISBN 0934893187 ISBN 0884944697. off-site GL direct link
  4. See this preliminary research for more: http://mormonwar.blogspot.com/2009/02/homeric-warfare.html
  5. Compare with David A. Freidel, “Maya Warfare, Myth and Reality” Cal State East Bay University, Yuxana papers. (Accessed February 20th 2008).
  6. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/strategy (Accessed August 19, 2009).
  7. Russell Weigley, The American Way of War (Indianapolis IN: Indiana University Press, 1973), 96-97.
  8. See Fortifications subsection of wiki.
  9. John L. Sorenson, Mormon's Map (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 97. ISBN 0934893489.
  10. Preliminary research posted on http://mormonwar.blogspot.com/2009/04/naval-warfare-in-book-of-mormon.html (Accessed August 19th 2009).
  11. Unpublished research: “Notes on a Curious Verse: Alma 56:28” by Morgan T. Deane.
  12. A. Brent Merrill, "Nephite Captains and Chief Captains in the Book of Mormon," in Ricks and Hamblin, eds., Warfare in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), xxx. Morgan Deane “No Sin by Stratagem” BCC E Journal 4:1 (2009), 1-32. (Forthcoming)
  13. William Hamblin, "The Importance of Warfare in Book of Mormon Studies," in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds, (Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), xxx. ISBN 093489325X ISBN 0934893187 ISBN 0884944697. off-site GL direct link
  14. John Welch also argues that the Almicite War recorded in Alma 1-2 was prearranged: John Welch “Why Study War in the Book of Mormon,” in Ricks and Hamblin, Warfare.
  15. Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 Vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 4:Alma 52:22.
  16. Morgan Deane, preliminary research posted on http://mormonwar.blogspot.com/2009/02/army-composition-and-tactics-part-ii.html (Accessed August 19, 2009).
  17. John W. Welch, The Destruction of Ammonihah and the Law of Apostate CitiesReexploring the Book of Mormon (1992)