The discussion of the war in the Book of Alma towards its end covers several periods. The first is a Lamanite attack on the Nephites that is readily repulsed by the Nephites and the Lamanites do not follow up with additional action. The second is when Amalickiah stirs up the Lamanites to attack the Nephites: the Nephites remain in their strength and again, they repel the attack and enjoy several years of peace following that attack. The third is a second offensive led by Amalickiah that leads to a protracted conflict covering a roughly six-year period from the 25th year of the judges to the 31st.
Amalickiah is killed off quickly at the start of the conflict, but his brother Ammoron continues the war. In the war, the Lamanites gain a number of Nephite cities and territories early on and hold them for nearly the duration of the conflict. The Nephites liberate a few at a time, but do not regain all their lands until the last year of the war. On a military map with arrows and armies moving about, one can follow the Nephite campaigns as outlined in the narrative. But I wish to look at the civilian experience in those years of war and attempt to surmise what may have been going on that was mentioned in passing or left unsaid, but hinted at.
First, the experience of the Nephites conquered by the Lamanites: who suffered? Who collaborated? Who joined enthusiastically? The Nephite polity itself had recently fractured, with the Zoramites dissenting and joining with the Lamanites, constructing a revisited history in the process to cast themselves as descendants of a victim and, thus, made victims themselves. What of the Mulekites, who were glossed over soon after encountering them in the narrative? Not being descendants of Lehi’s group, they have a secondary position in Nephite society, which would lead to tension. Moreover, the Mulekites themselves included descendants of Jewish nobility. I surmise that the agitation among the Nephites to have a king would come from that quarter and/or other descendants of Nephi’s line. The point of this would be that these pro-king groups were ideologically allied with Amalickiah’s cause and would step forward to administer the cities taken by the Lamanites.
How can we assume that the cities held by the Lamanites were being run by dissenters? Because there’s no mention of a revolt in any of those cities. With other details of valiant efforts being included in the narrative, the silence about resistance indicates a likelihood of pro-king collaborationist governments. Joining with them would be people who surmised that resistance would be futile and would result in needless bloodshed. Carrying out the Lamanite will saved lives in their view, so they would cooperate with those in charge over them.
Famine is mentioned more than once in describing the years towards the end of the war, so it’s likely that disease came along with the famine. Such is natural in any war. The people of the conquered cities would likely be pressed most for supplying the armies in their midst, so famine would hit them particularly hard. Those outside of government would probably face seizure of their crops and those doing the governing would have slightly more to eat each day than the people they took from.
At the end of the war, the Lamanite armies are in general retreat. In their retreat, they send back to their lands “many women and children” – permanent captives, to serve as slaves or sacrifices. This would add to the depopulation of the region. Losses due to famine and disease were then compounded by forced population transfer. Top collaborators would likely also withdraw with the Lamanites, as they knew what would await them in the hands of the Nephites.
Were any people left behind in the cities the Lamanites drove captives out of? That is an interesting consideration. One could assume that those too old to move would be left behind. The question then would be if the Lamanites would leave them alive or kill them off on their way out. Knowing from Mormon’s comments later in his narrative that he did not want to dwell on gore could be a reason as to why the full impact of the Lamanite occupation is not described in much detail. Mormon is writing about people who stood as heroes in his view – he is writing to encourage his readers to persevere through hardships, not to describe a hellscape of war. Moroni gives us a peek into the hellscape, but just a peek. So while we don’t know the full impact of the war on the conquered population, enough is said of the Lamanite ferocity and cruelty to assume the worst.
Within the Nephite lands, the years of war absolutely take their toll. Towards the end, the loss of population that can work a harvest is evident in the growing famine in the land. Disease, of course, goes along with the malnutrition. Now, a question arises about how the food is collected and distributed among the Nephites during this time of protracted, constant war.
In other actions, the wars happened in short spaces of time, leaving the soldiers a chance to return to their lands for harvesting. In this war, that is not possible. A reduced population is working the home front, and the harvest necessarily suffers. From that limited harvest, a substantial amount has to be stripped away to service the soldiers at the front. What might be a noble sacrifice in earlier years of war likely becomes a seemingly never-ending burden in the later years. Again, famine is mentioned – a crop failure in a critical time such as this could leave entire regions depopulated through starvation.
And if the meagre food available is itself reduced to supply the soldiers? That is a breaking point for the humanity in this tale. With their entire population effectively under siege, a faction arises to overthrow the judges and to declare a kingship. That kingship then seeks to ally with the Lamanites in order to bring the war to an end. Those who are kings and aristocrats among the Nephites would enjoy a position of privilege among the Nephites in that they themselves would not necessarily have to pay the tribute to the Lamanites of their own wealth, but would exact that tribute from the people over which they ruled.
I can see the appeal of a tributary peace to a people wracked with a free hunger. The victims of the famine are not dying proudly on their feet instead of living on their knees: they’re dying of malnutrition, collapsed in the dust. Those not dying are facing reduced health as a result of improper nutrition, with life-long consequences. Faced with a choice of grim life as an alternative to a grimmer death, people at the end of their patience will choose food – and life. After all, what is the difference between paying tribute to the Lamanites or paying tribute to the Nephite armies except in the amount being diverted?
The answer there is that there are spiritual implications beyond just the matter of worldly survival. But that answer means nothing to those among the Nephites who themselves are not very religious. People could have lost their faith or never had it to begin with, except as an external, communal-social expression. They could have chosen to redefine their faith, so as not to be in conflict with what they see as the eventual victor, the Lamanite polity. For the faithless, there is no benefit in prolonging the conflict. Any way to end it is preferable to them, and the proposed tributary arrangement leaves the leaders in a rather nice position, overall.
While the kingship group does take power in the capitol, the outlying provinces remain true to the cause of the Nephite armies. They suffer, but they do not lose faith. This could be because, as rural rather than urban people, they have more access to foodstuffs in times of famine. The urban civilian population, after the demands of the farmers and the soldiers, comes last in the distribution of food. That could explain why the revolt described in the later years of the war is an urban activity, not a rural one. From the strength in the rural areas and with reinforcements from the front, the Nephites restore their judges and put to death any of those who supported the kingship who are not willing to serve the state.
That area is an uncomfortable one to read about. To the casual reader, it would seem that bad guys got what they had coming from good guys, nothing more. But in reading about the aftermath of the Second World War, we read of how vigorous purges of collaborators tended to spill over to include personal conflicts, oppression of minority populations, and death for those who may not have been involved in the collaboration, but who others denounced as merely being in sympathy with the collaborators, regardless of there being any proof of the matter.
As such, given the urgency of the moment and the desperation of the Nephite polity, I can’t assume that the justice meted out was anything other than a rough and brutal one, that likely took in a number of people innocent of any actual crime. The narrative reads, “whosoever would not take up arms in the defence of their country, but would fight against it, were put to death.” This does not necessarily mean that the accused were given a choice. In the next passage, we read, “And this it became expedient that this law should be strictly observed for the safety of their country; yea, and whosoever was found denying their freedom was speedily executed according to the law.” And in the passage after is the comment that the loyal Nephites “… inflicted death upon all those who were not true to the cause of freedom.”
How far-reaching were those executions? How brutal were the executions themselves? How many were carried out by people looking to settle old scores, unrelated to the recent revolt? We simply don’t know. But, given how other episodes of wartime mass reprisals went, one can reasonably assume that some percentage of the reprisals went too far.
Readers of the Book of Mormon have to resist the urge to put a halo around every major Nephite character. These are all men with flaws, with some of those flaws being illustrated more vividly than others. By extension, we the readers cannot assume that “Nephite” automatically equates to a righteous, stalwart superman. Even the narrative constantly points out, over and over, that the Nephites always have a substantial number of wicked people in their midst, and that those wicked are easily a majority of the population most of the time. If wicked men subvert a righteous cause for their own purposes, that is on them.
Ultimately, in and around Mormon’s retelling of a hero cycle involving Captain Moroni, Teancum, Helaman, Pahoran, and the Sons of Helaman, we have marginal details that hint at true horrors. Those details are there to remind us that Mormon’s heroes are not one-dimensional avatars. They are men with flaws and failings who nevertheless strive to do good as they understand it. They strive to avoid shedding blood and they strive to keep their rage in check – and there are a few episodes where we see Captain Moroni fall victim to his demons, along with Teancum’s mental exhaustion leading to his demise. The story is not that “anyone can do it” but that “everyone *must* do it” in order to survive spiritually. The violence, starvation, disease, mayhem, and misery are all real in this history even if they are not dwelt upon.
The Nephite polity comes very close to utter destruction in this narrative, and that destruction’s chief cause was from the dissension among the Nephites themselves, not from the external, Lamanite threat. Left on their own, the Lamanites seem to have settled into a state of arm’s-length coexistence with the Nephites. The major attacks upon the Nephites described in Alma are all a result of Nephite dissenters going over to the Lamanites to stir them up against the Nephites. The Lamanites themselves are not an ultimate evil the Nephites have to face in a fight for their survival. The ultimate evil the Nephites must face is within: the factions and social forces that drive towards inequality and social stratification are the greatest threat and eventual undoing of the Nephite polity.