“Why is so much of the Book of Mormon given over to military accounts?” Ensign, Jan. 1978, 17–18
R. Douglas Phillips, chairman, department of Classical, Biblical, and Middle Eastern Languages, Brigham Young University When Mormon set about making his abridgment of the entire Nephite history, as contained in the Large Plates of Nephi, he was (as he repeatedly observes) faced with a mass of materials and sources of every type, both “secular” and “sacred,” and a major problem may have been deciding what to include in his history and what to leave out. (See 3 Ne. 5:8–19.)
If we today feel that Mormon’s inclusion of lengthy military accounts is somehow not in keeping with the sacred and religious purpose of the Book of Mormon, then we must remind ourselves that he, unlike most modern historians, had a theological or religious concept of history. In his view, war was not to be explained merely in terms of political, economic, or racial causes and effects, but was rooted in moral, spiritual, and social problems and unrighteousness.
Above all, he saw the wars in Nephite history as a verification (to use his own word) of the prophecies of Lehi regarding the terms and conditions for occupying the promised land. (Alma 50:19–20.) Though always stemming from the wickedness of men, still these wars were often viewed as occasions of divine punishment and retribution on the one hand and of divine deliverance on the other:
“Their abominations … brought upon them their wars and their destructions.
“And those who were faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord were delivered.” (Alma 50:21–22.)
Mormon was also acutely aware that the final Lamanite wars of A.D. 322–85, in which he himself played the leading military role, were the fulfillment of prophecies of Samuel the Lamanite and a testimony that the principles of the law of the harvest and divine retribution were in full operation. (Morm. 1:19; Hel. 13:5–11.)
“But, behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished; for it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed.” (Morm. 4:5.)
Such an outlook was due in no small part, of course, to Mormon’s personal experience as a military leader. Like the Greek historian Thucydides he was not only a general but was also destined to be the historian who had to account for his nation’s defeat in a terrible war. War was a major element in his life, which virtually coincided with the long period of the final Nephite–Lamanite conflict; and no doubt he saw as one of the main purposes of his life the tragic task of writing the “record concerning the destruction of my people, the Nephites.” (Morm. 6:1.)
But we must be careful not to overstate Mormon’s preoccupation with war. Although he frequently mentions its occurrence in the various periods of Nephite history, he judiciously limits himself to recounting in detail only a few of the many accounts that were at his disposal. Except for his rehearsal of the sixty-three years of war in his own lifetime—with the full account of the causes of war, preparations, battles, retreats, and further battles, including the final one at Cumorah with its losses—Mormon devotes most of his interest in military accounts and wars to the period 75 B.C.–A.D. 25, and in particular to the fourteen years of Lamanite wars at the time of Moroni, which fill some fifty-six pages in the book of Alma.
It was natural that Mormon should have been attracted to Captain Moroni—the brilliant, energetic, selfless, patriotic, and God-fearing hero who had been instrumental in preserving the Nephite nation. So great was his admiration it may be more than simple coincidence that he gave his son the same name. In Mormon’s eyes, the peaceful days under Moroni were a golden age in Nephite history. (Alma 50:23.) But the military exploits of Moroni seem to have particularly interested Mormon. With great care he recounted Moroni’s courage and patriotism in the desperate military and political state of affairs arising from Lamanite invasion from without and sedition from within, his efforts in mobilization and defense, his own and his lieutenants’ brilliant tactics, their sharply fought battles with frightful losses, and their miraculous victories. But throughout his account we perceive the hand of God making use of devout and just military leaders and statesmen in preserving the righteous. (See Mormon’s eulogy of Moroni, Alma 48:11–13.)
If in his account of Moroni, Mormon saw war, at least in part, as a means of divine deliverance for the Nephites, he shows us that the final war fulfilled prophecies of destruction of the nation. With terrifying clarity we witness with Mormon the tragedy of a people that has passed the point of no return socially and spiritually and is bent irreversibly on its own destruction. The law of the harvest will be permitted to run its course.
The implications of Mormon’s accounts of war are clear: the people who occupy those lands today are under the same conditions as the earlier inhabitants; they are subject to the same principles. But it is his son Moroni who, even before he had placed in his father’s record the grim account of the Jaredite destruction, warns the inhabitants of America today against placing themselves in the precarious position of the ancient Nephites (Ether 2:11–12), and warns them to accept with gratitude the lessons of an earlier destruction:
“Give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.” (Morm. 9:31.)