A Vital Resource for Understanding LDS Perspectives on War

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Review of Duane Boyce, Even Unto Bloodshed: An LDS Perspective on War (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015). 312 pp., including appendices and index. $29.95.

Abstract: Even Unto Bloodshed: An LDS Perspective of War by Duane Boyce is a thorough and engrossing philosophical discussion describing the failure of secular and spiritual pacifism. Boyce provides a detailed summary of secular views regarding just war and pacifism, and systematic rebuttals of almost every major pacifist thinker in LDS thought. The text is far more brief describing the LDS theory of just war, but remains an essential resource for creating that theory.

Our age isn’t unique in facing dangerous threats and deadly conflicts, and Latter-day Saints no doubt hear the phrase wars and rumors of wars often enough. Thankfully, in addition to clichés and predetermined positions, there is a growing body of Mormon literature on war. Most of this literature, such as the Greg Kofford volume War and Peace in Our Time: Mormon Perspectives1 tends to focus on anti-war strands in LDS thought.2 Others, such as my volume Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon,3 focus on a historical approach. In his new book, Even Unto Bloodshed: An LDS Perspective on [Page 160]War, Duane Boyce offers a substantive philosophical contribution to this field. Boyce argues that the framework for secular and spiritual pacifism fails and seeks to replace it with an LDS framework for just war theory (2). Because of his methodical approach, succinct style, and profound insights, he succeeds beautifully in contesting the rationale for pacifism, though the work remains too brief to do full justice to a full LDS just war theology.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, Boyce examines secular arguments for both pacifism and just war theory. He provides concise, insightful, and thorough descriptions and reasoning. This section is particularly helpful since every argument within Mormonism is built upon this “complex, intricate, and largely unarticulated web of other beliefs, assumptions, predispositions, and preconceptions” (213). He includes clear and substantive sources as varied as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, international law, Emmanuel Kant, and Howard Zinn. This section has little direct relation to Mormon thought but is an excellent primer on the intellectual waters in which Mormons swim.

Boyce also sets the foundation for just war theory by explaining the stark moral difference between the actions of an attacker and those of a defender (23–30). Boyce did this through a somewhat complicated but still accessible discussion of an individual’s rights and their obligations towards each other. When somebody violates our rights, such as the right to life, those violators forfeit the obligation we owe to them. Thus the defender has the moral right, and Boyce would argue in many cases, the obligation to fight back; the violent acts committed by the respective aggressor and defender are not morally equivalent.

Think … of Cain. He attacks Abel, seeking to kill him, and this he obviously has no right to do. He is not free to use Abel in this way, and his killing of Abel is murder. But what about Abel? Is he free to exercise violence against Cain in self-defense? If every person has the right not to suffer violence, then Cain would also share this right. … [But Cain] is seeking to kill Abel, and this he has no right to do. Cain thus forfeits his right not to suffer violence. … [B]ecause he has no right to [murder], he has no right not to be attacked if that is required to prevent him from [murdering]. (29­–30).

The second section constitutes the bulk of the book. Here Boyce summarizes and then dismantles the arguments of almost every major pacifist writer in Mormon thought. Particularly commendable is his [Page 161]criticism of Hugh Nibley’s arguments against warfare. Nibley was an excellent, groundbreaking scholar in many different fields, but too many Latter-day Saints have relied upon his light instead of developing their own insights, to the point that his words are sometimes quoted like scripture. For example, Nibley often argued that conflicts were often fought in the Book of Mormon between bad guys and other bad guys. Boyce explained the moral difference between Nephites and Lamanites, even citing Nibley when he said “all Book of Mormon wars take place on Nephite property, not on Lamanite” (76). Boyce also critiques the ideas that the Ammonites were pacifists, a narrative reading of the Book of Mormon as an anti-war text, the immutable covenant found in Doctrine and Covenants 98, and Eugene England’s pacifism.

Boyce’s discussion of D&C 98 illustrates his ability to explain complex ideas in plain but engrossing prose. Here he explains how the ambiguity of section 98 precludes the definitive and workable injunction against war that many assign to it:

The matter of definition is especially important when we consider the trespass of one state against another. … When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the assault occurred in two waves and involved six aircraft carriers and more than three hundred fifty planes. During the attack the Japanese damaged or sank sixteen U.S. ships, destroyed some one hundred ninety planes, killed twenty-four hundred Americans, and wounded twelve hundred more. Now, which of these numbers is most pertinent to the commandment that an aggressed party (the United States in this case) must suffer “trespass” three times before responding? Would this assult on Pearl Harbor fall short of that threshold altogether since it was only a single attack and occurred in only two waves? If we saw the matter this way, then it would seem that the United States was obligated to suffer two more attacks from the Japanese before being justified in declaring war in response. (156–157)

The third section describes an LDS framework for just war theory. This section’s brevity is disappointing. The first chapter is largely a summary of section two and why pacifism fails as a moral framework. The second and third chapters expound on fundamental LDS texts regarding war including the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), Alma 48, and Gordon B. Hinckley’s 2003 talk concerning the war in [Page 162]Iraq.4 Here, again, the author spends considerable effort dismantling counterarguments based on D&C 98 and Spencer W. Kimball’s “False Gods” talk.5 These chapters continue his strong emphasis on analytical precision and profound thought, so they are still an enjoyable read. But explanation of LDS just war theory covered merely seven explicit pages (271–278) in the last chapter and eight features of war in Alma 48 found in the previous chapter (241–250). This rather thin coverage seemed inadequate to the task.

In a similar vein, the author included only scattered historical application throughout his book. As quoted above, he cites Pearl Harbor, and at several other places he referred to historical events. Outside of a detailed, but still fairly short, case study of the Grenada invasion (192–205), Boyce did not provide any substantive discussion drawing on historical case studies. For example, he defended preemptive war conceptually (247–249) but didn’t comment upon the Iraq War. He did, however, reprove those that “reproach without evidence” (171–173), a technique used by many pacifists towards ancient and modern prophets while they advance their theories. Since much of the glibness and mutual reproach between just war and anti-war advocates involves discussions of contemporary American foreign policy, this seemed to me a missed opportunity to apply his framework to the Iraq War in practical terms. As somebody who has personally suffered from the “reproach without evidence” method and been called a war-mongering, brainwashing, propagandizing sophist who twisted the scriptures in support of the Iraq War, I would have appreciated this as well.

The author also failed to discuss many of the current texts used (and misused) by LDS anti-war authors, including J. Reuben Clark’s words and David O. McKay’s General Conference statements from World War II. Boyce argues that since neither was serving as Church President at the time, such remarks do not merit discussion (224). I disagree. Any practicing Mormon knows the semi-doctrinal aura that attaches to any formal apostolic remarks. So Boyce’s decision to exclude a discussion of these texts seems odd.

These are, however, still relatively minor complaints that arise at least in part because his analysis was so superb for every topic which he did address. It seems a pity we did not get that same analytical ability applied to texts that anti-war theorists have relied upon.

[Page 163]Even Unto Bloodshed is a critical text for anybody that wishes to understand Mormon thought on war and stands as a much-needed reassessment of pacifist ideas. To use the example of apologetics clearing the weeds of doubt so the seed of faith may grow, this book does an excellent job of clearing away our natural antipathy towards any form of violence and allows for the growth of LDS theories of just war. The development of this framework remains preliminary, but Boyce’s book stands as a vital resource for any wishing to develop it further.

1. Patrick Q. Mason, J. David Pulsipher, and Richard L. Bushman, eds., War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 267.

2. Full disclosure: I contributed to this volume, though I was defending the notion of preemptive war using the Book of Mormon. See Morgan Deane, “Offensive Warfare in the Book of Mormon and a Defense of the Bush Doctrine,” in War and Peace in Our Times, 29–39.

3. Morgan Deane, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon (Sudbury, MA: eBookit, 2014).

4. Gordon B. Hinckley, “War and Peace,” Ensign, May 2003.

5. Spencer W. Kimball, “The False Gods We Worship,” Ensign, June 1976.

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About Morgan Deane

Morgan Deane has a B.A. from Southern Virginia University and an M.A. in History from Norwich University specializing in military history. His publications include Offensive Warfare in The Book of Mormon and a Defense of the Bush Doctrine, and Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon. He teaches history at Brigham Young University-Idaho and has been accepted into the War Studies Program at Kings College London, where he will study the early insurgency of Mao Zedong.

10 thoughts on “A Vital Resource for Understanding LDS Perspectives on War

  1. “Is belief in the morality of preemptive war really to be considered necessary for belief in the restored gospel?”
    This question troubles me, because no position on either side of this debate should be considered necessary for belief in the restored gospel.

    • I cannot see any way that the restored gospel would *require* belief in the morality of preemptive war. In fact, if anything, it would make such belief harder. If the prospective enemy had not actually attacked, it is difficult to say that he has been guilty of the first or second offense etc.
      This is of particular concern at present with the Iranian situation. It appears that Iran is about to acquire nuclear weapons and is very likely to use them against Israel, the U.S. or both. Has that country committed enough offenses to justify preemptive attack? That is a good question. In my opinion, it has, with its support of terrorism, providing weapons to our enemies etc. However maybe we could also make a case that credible threats backed by creation of nuclear weapons are offenses enough to justify preemptive attack. That is a question certainly open to discussion.

      • There is no question from Israel’s point of view that a preemptive strike on Iran is justified. Iran has never attacked Israel directly but has been financing and supporting those who do. Iran constantly states publicly that they are going to destroy Israel. Israel must prevent them from having the capability to do so.

  2. Morgan,
    I’ve enjoyed many of your blog posts and articles over the past year or two, even if I sometimes disagree with your analysis. I’d be interested in reading Duane’s book to see how he makes his case.
    While I agree that the case that violence is *never* justified is pretty weak, I also wonder if Duane’s and your take on just-war theory errs too far on the other side. Something I’ve been wondering since reading your review is if there were *any* US wars that couldn’t be justified using Duane’s or your criteria.
    I guess this just reminds me too much of gospel doctrine discussions about other “gospel exceptions”. For instance, while the general principle is that we should attend church on Sunday, there really are some cases like emergency room doctors, where somebody is justified in working on Sundays. And I’ve had many friends that have been in that situation who really went the second mile to keep the Sabbath day as holy as possible in spite of having a job that has to be done and that requires occasional work on Sunday. But on the other hand, I’ve seen far too many people (especially on my mission) who’ve taken those exceptions and stretched them to the point where almost anyone can claim an exception, when in reality the right answer for them should’ve been applying some faith and living the general principle even though it required some sacrifice on their part. I agree that you don’t want to go all Pharisee on the general rule and ignore the reality of exceptions, but if you over-focus on exceptions, you can cut yourself off from the blessings of living the general rule when it’s difficult.
    Bringing it back to the case of just-war rationalization, it may very well be the case you can make a plausible sounding argument justifying almost any war the US has fought. But I wonder if in many if not most of those cases, the US would’ve been better off taking an attitude of “I could be justified in making war, but I’m going to live a higher law” approach.
    ~Jon Goff

  3. I don’t quite understand why arguing for this particular interpretation of “just war” is seen as an apologetic exercise. Is belief in the morality of preemptive war really to be considered necessary for belief in the restored gospel?
    President Hinckley’s favorable remarks regarding the action in Iraq were given in the light of what was then believed about that situation. The Bush administration claimed that Iraq had been infiltrated by Al Qaeda, and in light of that claim the invasion of Iraq didn’t seem strictly preemptive as it was viewed as retaliating against a prior aggressor. But with that claim now discredited, the fundamentally preemptive nature of the Iraq invasion is revealed, and the moral justification for the war that many people—perhaps including President Hinckley—relied on crumbled. Thus I feel no obligation to support preemptive war, and indeed the scriptures seem to argue strongly against this.
    Though politically untenable, perhaps it would be best for the United States to wait until the third offense before responding militarily. Such a policy would have spared us a spurious war resulting from the manufactured Gulf of Tonkin crisis. It would have kept us out of Iraq and Afghanistan. The costs of military retaliation are very high; a policy of restraint would reserve military response for the most egregious belligerents.

  4. My own view is that on rare occasions war is the lesser of available evils, though an evil it remains. Of course before going to war, we should be very careful that it is indeed the lesser of those available evils. Too often, those in power go to war when they need not do so, sometimes even to divert attention from their own failings or to enhance their power.
    I believe that the right to defend ourselves in war is an extension of our individual right to self-defense. The Declaration of Independence says, “That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” To me that means that we delegate some of our rights to government. However, “We can delegate only the powers and rights we ourselves possess. We have a right to defend ourselves; let’s delegate at least part of that right to the police and the military… There are, however, rights we do not have and therefore cannot delegate to government or to any other entity.” (From my book, “Freedom or Serfdom?”, p127)
    Applying that to war, we have no individual right to initiate unjust violence, therefore we cannot delegate to government any right to conduct unjust war. However, if war is indeed the lesser of available evils at the time, we can delegate to government the power to conduct such a war.

  5. Interesting analysis of conflict between opposing factions. There’s another dynamic though. It involves the buried arcane doctrine of blood atonement. Within that doctrine it is clear that some acts of sin and transgression are not redeemed without the blood of the transgressor being shed.
    We presently live in a society and time when whole groups of people denigrate their Creator and openly transgress His laws. What can the atonement of Christ do for them when they want no part of it and are so willing to even slaughter the unborn in the womb?
    Well D&C 19 is clear on this point. If one refuses the atonement, then they will have to suffer to some degree for refusing the atonement. In addition, God can instigate wars to inflict a just punishment upon whole groups of people for their unrepentant, unredeemed behavior – thus shedding their blood as an act of atonement for their reduced level of salvation within the eternal worlds.
    The Lord makes this clear in the book of Isaiah. Does not the Lord speak of causing a great slaughter in Bozrah because of the level of wickedness of those people? This is the other dynamic that needs to be included. That our Creator uses Lucifer to stir up the children of men to participate in and cause wars. Because in so doing it helps to save those that are ignorant of shedding of blood and sacrifice and all of its ramifications. Of course this doesn’t address every reason for war and conflict and not all conflict serves that purpose.
    Very thought provoking review indeed. Thanks for posting.

  6. Additional vital resources for understanding LDS perspectives on war:
    Exodus 20:13, “Thou shalt not kill.”
    2 Thessalonians 3:16, “Now the Lord of peace himself give you peace always by all means.”
    Hebrews 12:14, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”
    Hebrews 13:20, “Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work.”
    James 3:18, “And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.”
    1 Peter 3:10, “For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile: let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it.”
    2 Nephi 19:6, “And his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”
    Mosiah 4:13, “Ye will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably.”
    Mosiah 12:21, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings; that publisheth peace.”
    Mosiah 29:10, “And now let us be wise and look forward to these things, and do that which will make for the peace of this people.”
    Alma 24:19 “They buried the weapons of war, for peace.”
    3 Nephi 12:9, “And blessed are all the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
    D&C 27:16, “Stand, therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, having on the breastplate of righteousness, and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace, which I have sent mine angels to commit unto you.”
    D&C 39:6, “And this is my gospel – repentance and baptism by water, and then cometh the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost, even the Comforter, which showeth all things, and teacheth the peaceable things of the kingdom.”
    D&C 45:66, “And it shall be called the New Jerusalem, a land of peace.”
    D&C 59:23, “He who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world.”
    D&C 88, “The Prophet designated it as the ‘olive leaf’ […] plucked from the Tree of Paradise, the Lord’s message of peace to us.”
    D&C 88:125, “Above all things, clothe yourselves with the bond of charity, as with a mantle, which is the bond of perfectness and peace.”
    D&C 98:16, “Therefore, renounce war and proclaim peace.”
    D&C 105:38, “And again I say unto you, sue for peace, not only to the people that have smitten you, but also to all people; and lift up an ensign of peace, and make a proclamation of peace unto the ends of the earth; and make proposals for peace unto those who have smitten you, according to the voice of the Spirit which is in you, and all things shall work together for your good.”
    Joseph Smith, “It will not be by sword or gun that this kingdom will roll on.”
    Russell M. Nelson, “Peace Is Possible. Because of the long history of hostility upon the earth, many feel that peace is beyond hope. I disagree. Peace is possible. We can learn to love our fellow human beings throughout the world. Whether they be Jewish, Islamic, or fellow Christians, whether Hindu, Buddhist, or other, we can live together with mutual admiration and respect, without forsaking our religious convictions. Things we have in common are greater than are our differences. Peace is a prime priority that pleads for our pursuit.”

  7. Thank you Mr. Deane, for this topic. I’m wondering if this book talks about Jesus’ injunctions in his sermon on the mount against doing harm to one’s enemy.
    To put it succinctly, when are we supposed to live the command to turn the other cheek and when do we have the right to defend ourselves?

    • Yes, as I said in my review: “The second and third chapters [of the third section] expound on fundamental LDS texts regarding war including the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7)….” He directly addressed your question there. If I have time I’ll transcribe some of it for you.

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