Many years ago in Los Angeles, I met a graduate student and fellow member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints named Kurt Weiland. He was a career Army officer, so a few years later when I was serving as editor of the old FARMS Review, I asked him to evaluate a volume on the Book of Mormon and military history.
In his review, he recounted a story that has impressed me ever since.
An acquaintance of his, a combat soldier who had previously commanded troops in Vietnam, Korea and during World War II, enjoyed visiting European archaeological sites while stationed in Germany. One day, the man and his wife went looking for the site of an ancient Roman army encampment. Although their guidebook clearly indicated where the camp should be and they searched through fields and woods for an hour, they couldn’t find it.
Frustrated, he abandoned the guidebook. “If I were that Roman infantry commander,” he asked himself, “where would I place my camp?” Looking around, he weighed such factors as elevation, proximity to water and defensibility. Then they selected a nearby hilltop and climbed to its summit. And there, of course, they found the remains of that ancient Roman camp.
“The point of this story,” wrote Weiland, “is that the principles don't change. In the libraries of military science, the only new texts are on the means of warfare, not the principles. So if a modern student of warfare were to look at the Book of Mormon, that student would be able to recognize the principles, the tactics and the strategies that the Nephites used.”
The fact that fundamental military principles endure over time was also brought home to me by an experience I had while leading a tour of Israel. We visited a site at the foot of Mount Gilboa called, in Hebrew, Ein Harod, “the spring of Harod.” This is the place described in Judges 7 where the 12th-century B.C. Israelite hero Gideon encamped with his warriors just before a major battle with the Midianites. It’s where the Lord, teaching him that their victory would come through divine aid rather than from their own numbers or prowess, told him to dismiss most of his fighters based on how they drank from the spring. Gideon eventually went to battle with only 300 men and defeated the Midianites. (Israeli schoolchildren still visit the site, drinking from Harod’s spring in imitation of their ancestors and contemplating the same lesson.)
I had visited Ein Harod long before. In the time following, I’d spent years studying Arabic, the history of Islam and the medieval Near East. So this time, while members of the tour snapped pictures of each other kneeling and sipping from the spring, I walked over to read the large Arabic sign that described the site.
I was stunned to discover that site's name in Arabic was Ayn Jalut, “the spring of Goliath.”
Why? Because one of the pivotal battles of world history — between the Mamluks of Egypt (who ruled the area) and the Mongols who were continuing their long advance westward from eastern and central Asia — had been fought at Ayn Jalut on Sept. 3, A.D. 1260. I’d studied the 13th-century battle and its effects, but I hadn’t realized until that day that Ayn Jalut and Ein Harod were the same place.
The battle at Ayn Jalut marked the first time the Mongols suffered a permanent military defeat. They'd had a few setbacks before, naturally, but they’d always returned to avenge those defeats and to continue their conquests. This time, though, and with results for world civilization that are difficult to exaggerate, the Mamluks stopped them in their tracks. Had the Mongols continued into Egypt and across North Africa, even Europe’s subsequent history might have been vastly different.
Like Gideon 24 centuries earlier, the Mamluks knew their territory. They chose their battle position deliberately — for the mountain at their backs, the elevation of the site and the access to water that they would control (and that their enemies would lack). Like the Midianites, the Mongols were foreigners unacquainted with the landscape, forfeiting that advantage to their opponents.
Basic warfare principles remain unchanged. The 1990 volume “Warfare and the Book of Mormon” that Weiland approvingly reviewed demonstrates the military aspects of Mormon’s record to be subtle, sophisticated and sound. The book's contents are available online for free at publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/book/warfare-in-the-book-of-mormon.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.