I’ve long been intrigued by Jaredite geography. Unfortunately, even those that accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon and have geographic models they fight over, find the book of Ether bewilderingly sparse. Yet the text is very clear in some instances on what is affecting the story, even if you don’t know where it is. It mentions plains, sea shores, valleys, hills, lands of first inheritance, strategic deposits of ore (steel, which invites another 1,000 words of analysis on its own), a great city, and a capital land. In the years of researching and writing I’ve become a firm believer that geography matters a great deal in a nation’s development and most importantly, in the conduct on the battlefield despite variations in date, culture, and regions. The following is a list of major geographic forms listed in the text and insights from history in how those places might affect battle.
Seashore– supply and protection
The biggest advantage of the seashore comes from those who have a strong navy. I’ve never read about the “embark, circle around via the sea, and then amphibiously invade the opposing army encamped on the seashore” maneuver in history. (But if you’ve heard of an example please let me know.) Because of that fact the sea shore provides a secure flank. This may mean that they are trapped, but since the power on the sea shore usually has a navy protecting the sea, it often becomes a secure exit door and not a trap. The encamped army can then maximize their defenses facing inland.
The British at Yorktown, and again at Dunkirk relied upon the sea for resupply and rescue. It was the temporary French advantage in sea power that allowed the Colonials to capture the British at Yorktown and win the war. The ancient Athenians actually made their entire city a fortified sea colony. Athens on the on the mainland, but they built the long walls that provided a fortified harbor and connection to their city. In contrast to the British examples, this was a more permanent solution and even imperial policy, instead of something done by an army in the field after a defeat. Since Athens had the preeminent fleet for much of the early classical period they could always count on resupply by their navy. In fact, it was only the Spartan defeat of the navy and blockade of their port that finally brought them to their knees.
Alma 51 describes the repulse of Amalickiah’s army, and their camp on the sea shore. While not directly stated in the text this strongly suggests the same principles. They moved back to the ocean to provide additional security and resupply. In fact, the defection of the Zoramites may have been so dangerous in part because it gave the Lamanites an outlet in that region, when the Nephites relied on inland riverine transport. Ether14:13 described a running battle in which Lib retreated to sea shore. Again, the context of a recent battlefield defeat, followed by a retreat to a secure base and possible resupply strikes me as entirely consistent.
Valleys– power base.
Valleys provide a good base of power. Valleys are usually formed by a river, has good farm land, restricted pass in and out which lead to relatively easy security. Multiple dynasties in China rose to power via secure river valleys as I described in my book on Chinese battles. The Di tribe settled in Wei River valley during the period of disunion. With only one pass to the east they could fortify their position, engage enemies, such as those at Luoyang, at their leisure and they eventually established the Former Qi Dynasty. The eventual founders of the much more impactful Tang Dynasty started as governors of the Fen River Valley, to the North East of both the Wei River valley (and its ancient capital of Chang’an), and the frequent Chinese capital at Louyang. The famous war lord Cao Cao started his career as a soldier in Ye, which was one pivotal pass away from the Fen River Valley. But he could also swing around towards the South East and attack the capital through Hulao pass. When the Tang were consolidating their power, one of the most famous battles in Chinese history happened at Hulao Pass, which was often called the Chinese Thermopylae. And to wrap up the importance of valleys, rebellious members of the Jin Dyansty held commands at each of the above centers (Ye, Chang’an, Taiyuan in the Fen River Valley and more), which explained why they so often swooped upon the hapless capital during the War of the Eight Princes to the point that what was once the rival of Rome in the ancient world became a desolate place of huddled refugees. The carnage was so great in such a short time that contemporary historians described piles of white bones that covered the field and that quote inspired my research into comparing the War of Eight Princes with the Jaredite denouement (Ether 14:22).
Of course the Nephite center of power was in a river valley surrounding Zarahemla and the “most capital parts” of the land (Helaman 1:27.) In the Jaredite fighting the Valley of Gilgal witnessed an “exceedingly sore” (Ether 13:27) that lasted three days. (This is a very similar and thus unsurprising time frame compared to the Battle of Hulao, as much of the time was spent eyeing each other across the narrow pass, feeling each other out, and sending out raids before finally engaging each other. Once the fighting started it was rather fierce, one leader of the Tang forces hacked his way across the battlefield so many times his armor looked like a porcupine with jagged arrows and broken blades.) V. 28 and 29 describe a back and forth between that valley and the Plains of Heshlon. The armies likely fought over a key pass that led to the power center in the Valley of Gilgal. The chaos described in verses 1-3 of Ether 14 describe the loss of a power base very well, as I discussed in my first book.
As mentioned above, the fight for a power base in the Valley of Gilgal led to more fighting in the plains. This is the best place for shock battle, wherein opposing groups of infantrymen rushed toward each other, seeking to cut their way through to their destination or out of a trap (Alma 52:33–34; Alma 43:39–43). The battle recorded in Alma 52 only occurred after the Lamanites refused to meet and battle on the plains, and had to lured out of their strongholds (Alma 52:20-21) The Greeks were particularly adept at this. Their small cities and farming valleys pitted opposing groups of heavily clad infantry that charged each other. The farmers couldn’t be away campaigning for long so the battles had to be decisive. While they typified what some call the Western Way of War, one of the earliest recorded battles in history between Egyptian and Caananite forces that charged across relatively flat land. Again, a pass proved critical in the course of the Egyptian’s march. This connects with the previous point that flat land near bases of power and likely critical valleys were prime locations for shock battles.
Wilderness– hit and run
The other type of battle consists of more lightly armored soldiers often with lighter or ranged weapons conduct hit and run attacks. These can occur on their own or sometimes as a result of a collapse of the army during shock battle. Cao Cao in battle of Red Cliffs had his army trampled in the swamps. They had won plenty of victories before, and were a good army that got routed but they didn’t maintain discipline in the retreat. The Noche Triste of the Spanish fleeing Aztec capital featured the same result. They tried to sneak away from the palace complex under siege. In the running fighting in the streets and canals leading out of the city, and under fire from Aztec light infantry and archers, many people died, and much like Cao Cao’s force, the mounted cavalry used the foot soldiers to gain footing in the muck.
Helaman 11:25 described the Gadianton robbers redoubts in mountains, wilderness and secret places. The Nephite military attempted to route them out but had a great deal of difficulty. The text says they were “driven back” (v.29) with “great havoc [and] great destruction” (v.28). This mirrors Mao Zedong’s (Mao Tse-tung) and Zhe De’s experience in the Jinggangshang highlands. The mountain villages had few entrances, few roads, and could be blockaded with great difficulty. The few roads and avenues of approach made counter attacks extremely successful. In short, the remoteness makes it nice as another kind of power base (usually from predatory forces or those on the usurping side of the power scale compared to valley bases).
Chapter 14 in Ether described how Coriantumr was defeated and retreated to the wilderness of Akish (v.3). His enemy Shared tried to invade, but then “laid siege” to it but was subjected to counter attacks (v.5). Coriantumr stayed there two years while his enemies occupied the center of power (see below.) After a see saw battle against Lib that went all the way to the seashore, Coriantumr was again defeated and again retreated there (Ether 14:12-14). Again, see that the losing side took cover in the wilderness, gained strength, and could launch successful counter attacks against forces trying to root them out.
Capital City- Political and cultural nexus
From the debate about taking Moscow or Ukrainian farms in World War II, the burning of Washington in the War of 1812, or the bombing of Chongqing, the capital is always extremely important for political, cultural, and logistical reasons. They organize the armies that defend the nation and losing the capital is often represents the defeat of the nation.
Ether records how leaders held court (Ether 9:5), dispensed justice (Ether 7:24), oversaw religion (though sometimes it was the other way around, “murdered in a secret pass by High priest” Ether 14:10), and represented others at “outcasts” (Ether 10:9). The Land of Moron was a nexus of important cultural and political power. Though holding it wasn’t a guarantee of victory. As mentioned above, Luoyang was the capital but powerful frontier commanders could force their way into the capital at will. Coriantumr remained in the wilderness regaining his strength enough to still contend with for the throne.
Based upon my experience researching military history for years I found this a useful thought exercise in how fundamental geographic realities affect war fighting. Each region has a particular strength and often provides the economic growth, farming land, key passes, or inspirational center that determines where battles are fought, and often what tactics are used. In fact, my latest book goes further and suggests that geography largely determines what kind of armies are created as well. Each geographic feature mentioned in the brief narrative helps us better understand the bitter struggle for survival and power and the way terrain affected their decisions.
Please note, I welcome comments that engage the material. But those that do not will be deleted. This includes exit narratives, dim views of Book of Mormon historicity, snide comments, and any other trollish behavior.
 David Berkey, “Why Fortifications Endure: A Case Study of the Walls of Athens During the Classical Period,” in Makers of Ancient Strategy Victor David Hanson ed., (Princeton University Press, 2009), 58-92.
 Arthur Waley, “The Fall of Loyang,” History Today Volume 1 Issue 4 April 1951. https://www.historytoday.com/arthur-waley/fall-lo-yang
 “By the [end of the war,] trouble and disturbances were very widespread….many suffered from hunger and poverty. People were sold [as slaves]. Vagrants became countless. In the [provinces around the capital,] there was a plague of locusts…Virulent disease accompanied the famine. Also the people were murdered by bandits. Their rivers were filled with floating corpses; bleached bones covered the fields…There was much cannibalism. Famine and pestilence came hand in hand [emphasis added].” Lien-sheng Yang, “Notes on the Economic History of the Chin Dynasty,” Studies in Chinese Institutional History (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1961), 181.
 Old Book of Tang, chapter 60. https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=941042 New Book of Tang, chapter 78.
 Victor Davis Hanson, “Technolgoy and the Wages of Reason,” in Carnage and Culture: 9 Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Culture (New York, Anchor Books: 2002.)
 R. Stolfi, Hitler’s Panzers East: World War II Reinterpretered, (Norman OK, Oklahoma University Press, 1991.)
I agree that geography determines a great deal about the conduct of war. Until modern times war was the primary human occupation.
I think the Mongol invasions of the 13th century is another excellent example of how the vast steppes of central Asia (geography) produced a people who were able to conquer vast regions (war) with only a couple of technological innovations; the laminated bow which increased their range drastically, and the mobile stirrup that allowed a skilled horseman to fire arrows in multiple directions accurately.The Mongols did not have supply line problems because their society was entire mobile/nomadic and lived off the land, herding horses and cattle and could follow close behind the armies.It was the only lifestyle that worked in that place then. They also learned siege techniques from the Chinese. This combination made them nearly invincible on open plains at that time.
Great points. The geography definitely aided nomadic armies. In addition to having secure supply lines nomadic armies could field more soldiers, since their entire society was basically a mobile field army. Sedentary societies have a cap on the percentage of the population that can service in the army (usually about 25%), but for nomads the army is every male that rides. Plus, they could always just retreat into inhospitable terrain when things went bad and infantry armies with their logistical limits couldn’t follow. The Tang Dynasty had cavalry that could pursue (in part because their ancestors were nomads that conquered northern China centuries before), and the Song Dynasty built a system of fortifications, dikes, and ditches that could slow down their foes. It was a tough dynamic for the societies that were opposite of nomadic forces like the Mongols and geography was a bit part of that. Thanks!
Nice article! Re: “embark, circle around via the sea, and then amphibiously invade the opposing army encamped on the seashore” maneuver – Anzio
Valleys can be death traps depending on their size. At Sidon Zerahemnah’s army entered a valley which likely gave the Nephites an advantage. Archers hidden on the high ground could hem in the Lamanite army and rain death on them from the sides of the valley. Leaving them with few options in the ensuing battle, and once Moroni’s swordsmen in armor on a limited front turned the battle the retreating Lamanites were in a bad way, encircled by the Nephites likely on higher ground. When they fled back to the river Lehi’s army were on the far bank and their situation deteriorated further. That’s how I portray the battle in my screenplay and book. As Moroni hid his army I figure the strategy was to let the Lamanites walk into a trap, or even guide them into it. But it was a trap.
Re: “embark, circle around via the sea, and then amphibiously invade the opposing army encamped on the seashore” maneuver.
1. “1 if by land, 2 if by sea.” British invasion on April 18, 1775.
2. George Washington crossing the Delaware and surprising the Hessians
3. Inchon, Korean War
Just want to say that as someone who doesn’t necessarily agree with you politically, I still deeply appreciate your scholarship.
Keep up the good work.