A particular discussion of forts and strategy prompted an interesting reexamination of what I thought I knew. Arthur Ferrill writes about the Late Roman Empire:
In a situation in which the enemy can almost certainly pierce the defensive perimeter, defense in depth and elastic defense are the two most likely military responses. The idea of elastic defense is simply to seek out the enemy’s attacking force and defeat it whenever possible. But defense in depth permits limited retention of frontier territory in forts manned by small forces…Defense in depth is based on the assumption that the frontiers cannot be made impenetrable (at least not at a reasonable cost), and that attackers will inevitably succeed in piercing the defensive perimeters. Such invasions can be thwarted, however, by maintaining relatively strong forts in a fairly deep band along the frontiers and a mobile army (or several scattered regionally) within the Empire. The forts must be strong enough to withstand attack and yet not so strongly defended as to become a drain on manpower weakening the mobile army. Since the barbarian invaders of the Roman period normally knew little about the techniques of siege warfare and could not place forts under blockade for fear of being caught by the mobile army, defense was in some respects theoretically realistic. During an invasion the forts served as pockets of resistance for storing food and fodder. Later, as the mobile army coordinated its efforts against the enemy with the small defending frontier forces, supplies could be denied to the invader while they were made available to the central reserve. When situated at strategic points such forts might also hold river crossings and passes thereby impeding the enemy’s movements.
What interested me about this is that everything I’ve read tends to support the Nephite strategy of a defense in depth. For example, here is Nibley’s discussion of the practice:
Moroni’s defenses were based on a series of strong points, being a defense in depth, as modern defense-lines are; beside specially placed ‘small forts, or places of resort,’ towns and cities on the line were also converted into strong points (Alma 48:8). Such an arrangement can take the momentum out of any military steamroller and slow down or stop any attacking force, no matter how formidable, by forcing it to reduce one strong place after another or else bypass the fortifications and thereby leave dangerous enemy forces in its rear to disrupt communications and launch harassing counter-attacks on invading units.
So far so good, Nibley provided a decent description of the chapter and compares nicely to Ferrill’s definition of defense in depth. But the only problem is that the verse that talks about a system of forts and resorts, is never really mentioned again. The strength of fortifications for some major cities such as Bountiful, and Nephihah, and Mulek are mentioned. Moroni wrote his angry letter to the government because he felt it was easier to keep those fortified cities than take them. He tried to entice Jacob out onto the plains, and needed some extracurricular climbing to secure Nephihah.
But the vast majority of the war chapters suggest something different. When the Lamanites invaded with their “wonderfully great” army in Alma 51:11, they quickly seized most of the new cities along the seashore: Moroni, Lehi, Morianton, Omner, Gid, Mulek, and in an apparent typo or a narrative that got ahead of itself, Nephihah is listed here as well (Alma 51:26, compare Alma 51:24; 59:7.) There is little strategic depth here as Teancum searched out and “met” the Lamanite army. The Nephites didn’t hold key river crossings, or have fortifications with “limited retention of territory” behind enemy lines and definitely didn’t have a “fairly deep band” of forts throughout their territory. They were relatively close to Lamanite territory, (they did call it the “narrow strip of wilderness” after all, Alma 22:27) and they had little strategic depth. In the vast majority of cases it was Nephite armies that advanced to meet an invading foe in battle. This suggests the elastic defense more than defense in depth.
There were several times that what could be described as mobile armies operated with fortresses to attack and kill armies. But the limited Nephite geography combined with lack of institutional difference between the mobile army and garrison forces (that became rather prominent in late Roman history) makes this less persuasive for the defense in depth theory.
Moreover, I’ve read that there are actually differences between refuges, strongholds (Alma 50:6), and strategic defense. What we have in Nephite society is the first two, but it’s very unlikely they had the third. As David Jones wrote:
Refuges function as short-term defense and only work against an enemy without the means to linger in an area for long periods. Refuges simply have to deter an enemy from organizing an assault. A stronghold, on the other hand, must be able to withstand attackers who can maintain supply lines to the siege site. Strongholds must be large enough to protect and house a garrison when under attack. They typically possess walls, towers, and some sort of moat—wet or dry. In the “strategic systems” type of fortification, multiple strongholds connect, much like a wall, to deny enemies access over a wide offensive front…Refuges are most likely found in small-scale societies of the band or tribal type, whereas strongholds are a product of small or divided sovereignties; they proliferate when central authority has not been established or is struggling to secure itself or has broken down…Strategic defenses are the most expensive form of fortification to construct, to maintain and to garrison, and their existence is always a mark of the wealth and advanced political development of the people who build them.
In short then, based on a variety of factors that include a broader examination of the war chapters, and proposed Nephite geography, and the level of society necessary to produce wide spread fortifications, the Nephites practiced something closer to what Ferrill called the elastic defense and what I called the offensive defensive. In Mormon Perspectives on War I wrote:
This strategy was used by the Confederacy during the American Civil War, permitting them to choose the locations where critical military confrontations should occur: “Then the confederacy might muster adequate numbers and resources at critical places despite overall inferiority of strength.” I contend that the Nephites were successful when they adopted this strategy. They were numerically inferior and, for much of their history, “nearly surrounded” by the Lamanites (Alma 22:29). Strategically they would receive the Lamanite attack. Once the attack entered Nephite territory they would then move offensively to force a battle at the time and location of their choosing. These tactical advantages would offset their numerical deficiency and result in victory.
This might seem like an insignificant detail to many people, many others might have their eyes glaze over by trying to see the difference between elastic defense and defense in depth, or the differences between a refuge and stronghold. But being precise is important. Too often people, church members, conservatives, liberals, critics, and defenders, use labels such as war monger, terrorist, and snowflake, and let those labels do the heavy lifting in the argument. Without beating up on Hugh Nibley too much, (though I do have a project that offers a much needed critique of his military arguments), he and many others used the wrong term in this case that has obscured the debate. Apologist arguments in many cases have accepted Nibley’s writings as gospel truth when those writings really needed to be critically assessed.
More importantly than being precise is how the fortifications can tell us about Nephite society. Armies don’t simply float down from the imagination of historians, but are raised, equipped, fed, and trained by the societies that field them. A stronghold defense, (the second kind of forts mentioned by Jones), correctly implies a small, struggling central authority trying to establish itself against external and internal threats.
In my next book, From Sinners to Saints: Reassessing the Book of Mormon, I often criticized Nephite leadership. One of the biggest critiques comes from the expense of maintaining fortifications and garrisons after the great war. In short, the fortifications were decisive in the war, but very few have looked at the unintended consequences of those forts. My chapter and the quote from Jones above suggest that cost of building and maintaining their strongholds led to a rapacious need for taxation and an abusive, self interested class of soldiers and government officials which fueled an insurgency and societal unrest. In plain language, the dysfunction in Nephite society seen in the Book of Helaman was caused by the reforms of Moroni during the war chapters. Jones’ analysis builds on that by providing a general rule which states that a society building extensive fortifications must be wealthy and politically complex.
This should add a great deal of poignancy and nuance to the prophetic denunciations about “getting gain” in the Book of Helaman. War is expensive, and preparing to defend against a Lamanite attack seemed to break Nephite society. (Recall the need to provide “defense at a reasonable cost” mentioned by Ferrill.) War seems like good business for some, Nephite society didn’t have ammunition supplies like World War I, but they likely had local elites that got rich off of the Nephite building programs and garrisons. The government needed more money to pay locals, or to use a modern phrase, pay their contractors. This required more taxes which could seem rapacious enough to fuel an insurgency. The soldiers benefited from the plunder associated with warfare. And the people suffered and there are many more effects. I have hundreds of pages in my book that discuss these items in further detail, but in short, the denunciations against “getting gain” likely refer to what was the ancient Nephite version of a military industrial complex.
- Thanks for reading. What do you think?
- Did the Nephites really contemplate long term strategy or was this a series of ad hoc decisions with little foresight?
- What kind of council or discussion among leaders was there? The war chapters mention a war council, there are several votes put “to the people”, but there is no policy discussion among leaders similar to those found in Thucydides. Could this discuss a fractured Nephite political leadership that Mormon tried to conceal, why or why not?
- I know the audience of W&T skews towards the non historical belief in the text, why might this matter in a purely fictional sense to help people follow Christ?
 Arthur Ferrill, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Military Explanation, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986,) 31, 45.
 Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Books, 1986.) Chapter 11. Please note Nibley’s use of “as modern defenses lines go”, this is quite ironic as Ferrill says most scholars accept certain arguments about Roman defense because it has a modern ring to it.
 Though I write in my new book that the consequences of the war chapters were expensive forts and garrisons for them that had negative effects on Nephite society, so I feel some vindication based on this quote.
 David Jones, Native North American Arms and Armor, (UT Austin Press, 2004), viii-ix.
 Russel Weigley, The American Way of War, (Bloomington, Indiana University Press), 97. Found in, Morgan Deane, “Preemptive Warfare in the Book of Mormon,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, (Draper, Greg Kofford Books, 2012,) chapter 2.