When Is War Justified?
The “war chapters” in Alma cover some basic principles when it comes to war, when Christians are “justified” in entering a war, and the attitudes and motives that Christians should have when engaging in warfare.
The main principle that is taught in the “war chapters” could be stated this way: “When you enter a conflict the Lord’s way, you get the Lord’s help.”
I do not get into a discussion of when the United States (or any other modern nation) has been involved in a justified war- that is not a positive discussion, I leave this up to students to decide for themselves. I do, however, teach the principles of war and then let the students think for themselves how this applies to modern situations and conflicts.
The Nephites (see Alma 43:13-14) were compelled, obliged, and with (see Alma 48:21) much reluctance did they contend with the Lamanites. We read in Alma 48:21-23 that they were compelled reluctantly, and were sorry to be in conflict with the Lamanites (see also Alma 55:18-19). Righteous leaders of the Nephites did not desire conflict, and they were not quick to arms, rather they had been compelled to fight.
The Lamanites were seeking power over the Nephites (Alma 43:8), to put them into bondage (Alma 43:8), to destroy them (Alma 43:29), or subject them to bondage. The Lamanites were power seeking (Alma 44:2), as well as seeking to destroy (Alma 43:10) and sought for revenge (Alma 54:24).
The Nephites sought to preserve their rights, their lands and their liberty (Alma 43:9 & 30), and it was their only desire. They fought a war to defend themselves (Alma 43:45-48, 44:5, 46:12) and that which was most dear to them (their wives, children, and their faith). The Nephites fought to protect their liberty and the things they valued most (Alma 46:12, 53:17)
3. Not guilty of 1st or 2nd strike
Another general rule in warfare that we get in the war chapters is this idea that we are not to be guilty of the first or the second strike. We see this idea also put forth in the Doctrine and Covenants (see Alma 43:46; D&C 98:22-44; 134:11). This is a general rule that serves as a test for your heart. The idea is that if someone attacks you and you immediately retaliate, that you both deserve each other. By not becoming a “second striker,” you prove your motives, that you are willing to endure, if only for a time, unjust treatment. I do not believe or maintain that the pacifist approach under all circumstances is the right approach to conflict, and neither does the editor of the accounts of war in the book of Alma. The war chapters in Alma show that defense is not only justifiable, but essential if we are to maintain liberty and protect the innocent.
Duane Boyce has done some excellent work on looking at war from an LDS perspective. His book “Even unto bloodshed: An LDS perspective on war” deals with many of the issues addressed in this post, as well as engaging ideas of some of my personal favorite scholars, Hugh Nibley and Eugene England. Duane has also written a three part article for Meridian Magazine in which he briefly tackles this topic. I have included a portion of the third part of his article, “Logical Puzzles”. I love how Brother Boyce uses his argument to show that the Book of Mormon deals with the concept of a justified war and does so right from the start, with Nephi, throughout the book of Alma, right down to the prophets Mormon and Moroni:
But failing to read carefully enough is not the only problem that occurs in pacifist claims. Part of the time there exists a logical difficulty as well. One line of thinking we might adopt, for example, is to (1) point out that Mormon had an intent and theme in creating the Book of Mormon and (2) then argue that the theme of the book is pacifist in character—from which it naturally follows that pacifism was the theme Mormon himself had in mind.
But while this approach might have surface appeal, it leaves us with logical puzzles (which I can discuss only in abbreviated form here). We might notice in our reading, for instance, that it is Mormon who expresses justification for the Nephite military action under Captain Moroni in Alma 43, appealing, with approval, to their need to defend their lives, families, lands, country, rights, and religion (Alma 43:47). Similarly, we might notice that Mormon expressed justification for fighting during his own lifetime in a comparable way. He tells us that he urged his people “with great energy, that they would stand boldly before the Lamanites and fight for their wives, and their children, and their houses, and their homes” (Morm. 2:23). Both instances are significant since, if it is true that Mormon fashioned the book of Mormon to be an anti-war text, then in both cases he is explicitly contradicting that intent. He is justifying people in fighting, and even urging them to fight, at the same time he is creating a book with the intent and theme that people should not fight.
It is also relevant that it is Mormon himself who describes Captain Moroni as a man of “perfect understanding” and as “firm in the faith of Christ” (Alma 48:11, 13), and who expresses the wish that “all men” were like him (Alma 48:17). This description is significant because it is hard to imagine Mormon praising Captain Moroni so highly on one hand—and specifically in the context of his extensive wartime conduct—while simultaneously creating a book intended to condemn exactly the way Moroni behaved on the other.
The same paradox hovers over the text every time Mormon specifically praises or refers approvingly to the wartime activities of any Book of Mormon figure, from King Benjamin to Moroni to Gidgiddoni. If Mormon is genuinely creating a text intended to convey a pacifist theme, it is natural to wonder why, rather than praise Captain Moroni without reservation, he wouldn’t find a way to condemn Moroni’s violence at least somewhere along the way. Surely, it is relevant that Mormon never condemns the violent behavior of Nephi, King Benjamin, Gideon, Alma, Moroni, Lehi, Teancum, Gid, Helaman, the two thousand stripling warriors, Gidgiddoni, his son Moroni, or even himself. But isn’t this exactly what he would do if he had a pacifist intent in creating the record? The odds, so it would seem, do not favor Mormon creating a book intended to condemn all war, while simultaneously—in the book—approving of, and even praising, Nephite figures who wage it.
A second serious anomaly is Mormon’s own engagement in conflict to the very end of his life: he died with a sword in his hand (Morm. 8:2–3, 5). It seems unlikely that Mormon would write a book urging one point of view while at the same time failing entirely to embrace that view in his own conduct. On such a reading it seems we must see Mormon to be self-contradictory, either because he was unable to follow his own pacifist advice, or because he was unwilling to follow it. He was either weak or hypocritical. But this creates a genuine puzzle: how could Mormon be of sufficient spiritual capacity that he could see the Lord at age 15 (Morm. 1:15) and be entrusted with creating the record that would be critical to accomplishing the Lord’s work of salvation in the last days, and yet not be of sufficient spiritual capacity that he could live up to the pacifist standard that he really held and desired to pass on to us? The inconsistency in Mormon’s conduct is as serious as the inconsistency in his messages.
So at its heart this approach seems to contradict itself. It asserts that Mormon had a pacifist intent and theme in creating the Book of Mormon and it relies on Mormon’s prophetic credentials to give his views force. The problem is that if Mormon had a pacifist intent in creating the book, he was such an abject failure at living it that we must see him as either a moral weakling or a hypocrite. But if Mormon was either a moral weakling or a hypocrite, there is no virtue in his support for pacifism; why should anyone care what he thought? So this argument is ultimately self-defeating. It appeals to Mormon because of his spiritual credentials, but if the argument is actually correct, it entails that Mormon did not really possess those credentials—which, of course, defeats the purpose of appealing to him.
Once we notice this we might then reflect on how we came to think in the first place that Mormon had a pacifist intent in creating the Book of Mormon. We might notice that he never says this himself and thus that the only reason we concluded it is because we decided that pacifism was the theme of the book—and then assumed, on this basis, that it therefore had to be his intent. But there is actually no evidence to support this. We end up with a self-defeating argument about Mormon because we were mistaken in the first place in assuming that he had a pacifist “intent and theme”—a view that he himself never expressed and, for that matter, that he never held.
There are additional twists and turns in thinking about the case of Mormon, but this much is sufficient to indicate the trouble the approach faces. More importantly, this example of Mormon is far from the only case of support for pacifism that actually relies on mistaken assumptions. For example, although there is not sufficient space to show it here, I can see no way to read the Sermon on the Mount as a pacifist document without making false assumptions in interpreting it. And the same is true regarding various additional passages that have been cited in favor of a pacifist interpretation. I also can see no way to read President Spencer W. Kimball’s famous message, “The False Gods We Worship,” as a pacifist statement without also making false assumptions. Like the claim that we can appeal to Mormon for support of pacifism, these efforts all have logical holes because they all rely on assumptions that are mistaken.