Evidence #408 | June 12, 2023

Realistic Warfare

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Scripture Central


As assessed by various individuals with military backgrounds and expertise, the Book of Mormon’s accounts of warfare are strikingly realistic.

The Book of Mormon’s accounts of ancient warfare contain some of the most intriguing and harrowing material in its thousand-year narrative.1 The stories are replete with battlefield strategies, military maneuvers, topographical awareness, innovative fortifications and weaponry, concerns over provisions, military intelligence, and even covert, late-night operations.2 These military narratives have captured the imagination of Latter-day Saints of all ages, from children and youth to popular fiction writers. Perhaps less recognized, they have also caught the attention of several individuals with academic and professional military expertise.3

A Survey of Military Perspectives

Before Hugh Nibley was a popular BYU professor and scholar, he was a soldier in World War II.4 After experiencing the horrors of war, he strenuously avoided the war chapters in the Book of Mormon.5 Yet when he finally turned his critical-eye toward the military accounts, he quickly recognized their authenticity: 

It is real war that we see here, a tedious, sordid, plodding, joyless routine of see-saw successes and losses—brutally expensive, destructive, exhausting, and boring, with constant marches and countermarches that end sometimes in fiasco and sometimes in intensely unpleasant engagements. 

Furthermore, Nibley felt this kind of war could only be described by someone who experienced it.

The author writes as one would write—as only one could write—who had gone through a long war as a front-line observer with his eyes wide open. Everything is strictly authentic, with the proper emphasis in the proper place. Strategy and tactics are treated with the knowledge of an expert: logistics and supply; armaments and fortifications; recruiting and training; problems of morale and support from the home front; military intelligence from cloak and dagger to scouting and patrolling; interrogation, guarding, feeding, and exchange of war prisoners; propaganda and psychological warfare; rehabilitation and resettlement; feelers for peace and negotiations at various levels; treason; profiteering; and the exploitation of the war economy by individuals and groups—it is all there.6

Hugh Nibley in uniform. Image via plonialmonimormon.com.

Several years later, former U.S. Army reserve officer John E. Kammeyer concluded, “the Book of Mormon does indeed depict warfare on three levels: it is realistic war, it is realistic Iron Age warfare, and it is realistic Mesoamerican warfare.”7 Consistent with these assessments, William J. Hamblin, a military historian, concluded that “the Book of Mormon [warfare] uniquely reflects its dual heritage of the ancient Near East and Mesoamerica.”8

Morgan Deane is a military historian who also served in the Marine Corps. Bringing his unique experiences and expertise to bear on this topic, Deane remarked, “Leaders in The Book of Mormon responded in realistic and organized fashion.”9

David E. Spencer has a background that combines U.S. Army experience with an academic and professional expertise in defense studies. After careful study of the maneuvers in Alma 56, Spencer stated, “These seemingly sudden, illogical actions … speak volumes about the authenticity of the text and the military expertise of the author, as when all of the clues provided in the text are examined in depth, the logic becomes apparent.”10

Zeniff Battle by James Fullmer, Book of Mormon Central Adaptation.

Although lacking a formal military background, Dan Peterson was struck—after reading up on several ancient and modern works regarding military strategy—by how realistic the Book of Mormon depicts various aspects of guerrilla warfare. Following a detailed discussion of maneuvers in several battles and showing their congruence with known guerrilla-style tactics, Peterson described them as “a totally believable and coherent complex of military behaviors and responses.”11


Many aspects of military theory are universal across time and space. Nonetheless, an accurate understanding of the strategy and tactics of war typically requires significant study, extensive training, or real-life experience. Although Joseph Smith lacked that kind of background,12 several modern readers with just such qualifications have found that the Book of Mormon accounts of wartime strategy are strikingly realistic. 

According to Spencer—who has been involved in creating battle scenarios for training purposes—the Book of Mormon’s military realism was likely well beyond Joseph Smith’s ability to fabricate.13

This is the sort of unconscious consistency in war accounts that would be almost impossible for someone writing a made-up story—as Joseph Smith has been accused of—to get right. And yet the Book of Mormon gets them right repeatedly.14

Peterson reached a similar conclusion regarding the book’s textbook display of guerrilla tactics:

I have tried to depict an aspect of Gadiantonism that, as plausible historiographical material, goes considerably beyond anything Joseph Smith would have been likely to create out of his own imagination. It is not simply the Book of Mormon’s precise portrayal of irregular warfare that is foreign to Joseph and his environment. Its realistic and wholly unromantic military narratives do not, it seems clear to me, come from the mind of that Joseph Smith, who, while he abhorred actual battle, loved parades and military pageantry, relished his commission as Lieutenant-General of the Nauvoo Legion, and, uniformed in elegant blue and gold, liked nothing better than to review the troops while mounted on his black stallion, Charlie.15

David E. Spencer, Captain Moroni’s Command: Dynamics of Warfare in the Book of Mormon (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2015).

Morgan Deane, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon (self-published, 2014).

John E. Kammeyer, The Nephite Art of War (Far West Publications, 2012).

Daniel C. Peterson, “The Gadianton Robbers as Guerrilla Warriors,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 146–173.

Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 7 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 291–333.

Ray C. Hillam, “The Gadianton Robbers and Protracted War,” BYU Studies Quarterly 15, no. 2 (1975): 215–224.

Jacob 1:10–14Enos 1Omni 1Words of Mormon 1:13–14Mosiah 9Mosiah 10Alma 2Alma 3Alma 16:1–11Alma 24Alma 25:1–14Alma 28Alma 43Alma 44Alma 45Alma 46Alma 47Alma 48Alma 49Alma 50Alma 51Alma 52Alma 53Alma 54Alma 55Alma 56Alma 57Alma 58Alma 59Alma 60Alma 61Alma 62Helaman 1Helaman 4Helaman 6Helaman 7Helaman 8Helaman 9Helaman 10Helaman 113 Nephi 23 Nephi 33 Nephi 43 Nephi 63 Nephi 7Mormon 1Mormon 2Mormon 3Mormon 4Mormon 5Mormon 6

Jacob 1:10–14

Enos 1

Omni 1

Words of Mormon 1:13–14

Mosiah 9

Mosiah 10

Alma 2

Alma 3

Alma 16:1–11

Alma 24

Alma 25:1–14

Alma 28

Alma 43

Alma 44

Alma 45

Alma 46

Alma 47

Alma 48

Alma 49

Alma 50

Alma 51

Alma 52

Alma 53

Alma 54

Alma 55

Alma 56

Alma 57

Alma 58

Alma 59

Alma 60

Alma 61

Alma 62

Helaman 1

Helaman 4

Helaman 6

Helaman 7

Helaman 8

Helaman 9

Helaman 10

Helaman 11

3 Nephi 2

3 Nephi 3

3 Nephi 4

3 Nephi 6

3 Nephi 7

Mormon 1

Mormon 2

Mormon 3

Mormon 4

Mormon 5

Mormon 6


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