Comparing Book of Mormon Warfare to Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”

Warfare strategies in the Book of Mormon have been studied extensively (see John Kammeyer’s “The Nephite Art of War”…although I have not read it). However, I recently read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” (translated by Lionel Giles, edited by Dallas Galvin, 2003) and based on my personal study I have decided to list some similarities in tactics described in this book and The Book of Mormon. This comparison should help to cement the realistic nature of the strategies used in Book of Mormon warfare.


Sun Tzu:

  • All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him...Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected (I:18-20, 24)
  • “Thus one who is skillful at keeping the enemy on the move maintains deceitful appearances, according to which the enemy will act. He sacrifices something, that the enemy may snatch at it. By holding out baits, he keeps him on the march; then with a body of picked men he lies in wait for him” (V:19-20)

The Book of Mormon describes several instances where the outnumbered Nephites use decoys and feign weakness to lure the Lamanites out of their strongholds and into an ambush:

  • “And in the commencement of the twenty and eighth year, Moroni and Teancum and many of the chief captains held a council of war—what they should do to cause the Lamanites to come out against them to battle …therefore, [Moroni] resolved upon a plan that he might decoy the Lamanites out of their strongholds. Therefore he caused that Teancum should take a small number of men and march down near the seashore…And it came to pass that the armies of the Lamanites did march forth against Teancum, supposing by their numbers to overpower Teancum… Now the Lamanites did not know that Moroni had been in their rear with his army; and all they feared was Lehi and his men” (Alma 52:19,21-23, 29)
  • “when they saw that we were not strong, according to our numbers…and also supposing that they could easily destroy us…they began to make preparations to come out against us to battle…behold, I caused that Gid, with a small number of men, should secrete himself in the wilderness…And it came to pass that when the Lamanites had passed by…Gid and Teomner did rise up from their secret places, and did cut off the spies of the Lamanites…And it came to pass that when they had cut them off, they ran to the city and fell upon the guards” (Alma 58:15, 16, 20)

Joshua uses similar strategies in the Old Testament:

  • “Behold, ye shall lie in wait against the city…And I, and all the people that are with me, will approach unto the city: and it shall come to pass, when they come out against us, as at the first, that we will flee before them, (For they will come out after us) till we have drawn them from the city…Then ye shall rise up from the ambush, and seize upon the city” (Joshua 8:4-7)



Sun Tzu:

  • “In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to capture an enemy entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them” (III:1)
  • “Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field. With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is the method of attacking by stratagem” (III:6-7)
  • “He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared” (III:17(4))

There are many ways the Nephites use stratagem to capture armies and cities without fighting. One example is when the Lamanites become drunk in their stronghold and Moroni sneaks weapons to the Nephite prisoners inside. Instead of killing the drunken Lamanites, he surrounds them and they surrender upon awakening.

  • “And Moroni had prepared his men with weapons of war; and he went to the city of Gid, while the Lamanites were in a deep sleep and drunken, and cast in weapons of war unto the prisoners, insomuch that they were all armed…had they awakened the Lamanites, behold they were drunken and the Nephites could have slain them. But behold, this was not the desire of Moroni; he did not delight in murder or bloodshed…when the Lamanites awoke in the morning they beheld that they were surrounded by the Nephites without, and that their prisoners were armed within. And thus they saw that the Nephites had power over them; and in these circumstances they found that it was not expedient that they should fight with the Nephites; therefore their chief captains demanded their weapons of war, and they brought them forth and cast them at the feet of the Nephties, pleading for mercy” (Alma 55:16, 18-19, 22-23)

A second example is where Helaman divides his forces and lures the Lamanites out of their stronghold. One part of his forces lies in wait and conquers the stronghold while Helaman is being pursued. Helaman then has his troops march in the night to return to the city before the Lamanites.

  • “And behold, it was night and they did pitch their tents, for the chief captains of the Lamanites had supposed that the Nephites were weary because of their march…Now it came to pass that when it was night, I caused that my men should not sleep, but that they should march forward by another way towards the land of Manti. And because of this our march in the night-time, behold, on the morrow we were beyond the Lamanites, insomuch that we did arrive before them at the city of Manti. And thus it came to pass, that by this stratagem we did take possession of the city of Manti without the shedding of blood…[the Lamanites] were astonished exceedingly and struck with great fear, insomuch that they did flee into the wilderness” (Alma 58:27)



Sun Tzu:

  • “If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength” (II:2)
  • the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities. The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. The preparation of mantlets, movable shelters, and various implements of war, will take up three whole months; and the piling up of mounds over against the walls will take three months more” (III:3-4)
  • The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege” (III:5)

Siege warfare is commonly described in the Bible (Isaiah 29:3/Ezekiel 4:2) and the Apocrypha (I Maccabees 6:48-57/10:75-76/13:42-47). The Nephites rarely besiege a city by attempting to break down or climb over walls, but they will camp around a city to cut off its supplies and starve the occupants.

  • “with a part of our strong force, we did surround, by night, the city Cumeni, a little before they were to receive a supply of provisions…and it came to pass that not many days had passed away before the Lamanites began to lose all hopes of succor; therefore they yielded up the city unto our hands” (Alma 57:8, 12)

The Nephites usually avoided attacking strongholds directly:

  • “And it came to pass that [Ammoron] did command that his people should maintain those cities, which they had taken by the shedding of blood; for they had not taken any cities save they had lost much blood. And now, Teancum saw that the Lamanites were determined to maintain those cities which they had taken…and also seeing the enormity of their number, Teancum thought it was not expedient that he should attempt to attack them in their forts” (Alma 52:4-5)
  • “And it came to pass that Teancum made preparations to make an attack upon the city of Mulek, and march forth with his army against the Lamanites; but he saw that it was impossible that he could overpower them while they were in their fortifications; therefore he abandoned his designs” (Alma 52:17)

When the Lamanites attempt to overwhelm the Nephite strongholds with their superior numbers, the results are disastrous for the Lamanites:

  • “they feared Lehi exceedingly; nevertheless their chief captains had sworn with an oath to attack the city; therefore, they brought up their armies…And it came to pass that the captains of the Lamanites brought up their armies before the place of entrance, and began to contend with the Nephites, to get into their place of security; but behold, they were driven back from time to time, insomuch that they were slain with an immense slaughter…and more than a thousand of the Lamanites were slain; while, on the other hand, there was not a single soul of the Nephites which was slain” (Alma 49:17, 21, 23)

The Nephites are also able to outlast a siege by the Gadianton robbers by centralizing all their people and storing sufficient supplies so that the robbers cannot starve them out. Sun Tzu: “If the enemy is taking his ease, he can harass him; if well supplied with food, he can starve him out; if quietly encamped, he can force him to move. Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend; march swiftly to places where you are not expected” (VI:4-5)

  • “But behold, this was an advantage to the Nephites; for it was impossible for the robbers to lay siege sufficiently long to have any effect upon the Nephites, because of their much provision which they had laid up in store…And the Nephites were continually marching out by day and by night, and falling upon their armies, and cutting them off by thousands…And it came to pass that Zemnariha did give command unto his people that they should withdraw themselves from the siege, and march into the furthermost parts of the land northward. And now, Gidgiddoni being aware of their design, and knowing of their weakness because of the want of food…therefore he did send out his armies in the night-time, and did cut off the way of their retreat” (3 Nephi 4:18, 21, 23-24)



Sun Tzu:

  • “He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks” (III:17(3))
  • “The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger…The consummate leader cultivates the moral law, and strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success” (I:5-6)/(IV:16)
  • “Therefore, on dispersive ground, I would inspire my men with unity of purpose” (XI:46)

Both the Lamanites and the Nephites seek to inspire their soldiers to fight for their ideals. The Lamanites were inspired by hatred and a desire to rule over the Nephites, while the Nephites sought to preserve their freedom. The Book of Mormon states that the ideals unifying the Nephites were superior to those of the Lamanites:

  • “Now in this case the Lamanites did fight exceedingly…And they were inspired by the Zoramites and the Amalekites…and thus the Lamanites did smite in their fierce anger” (Alma 43:43-44)
  • “Nevertheless, the Nephites were inspired by a better cause, for they were not fighting for monarchy nor power but they were fighting for their homes and their liberties, their wives and their children…And they were doing that which they felt was the duty which they owed to their God” (Alma 43:45-46)
  • “when the men of Moroni saw the fierceness and the anger of the Lamanites, they were about to shrink and flee from them. And Moroni, perceiving their intent, sent forth and inspired their hearts with these thoughts—yea, the thoughts of their lands, their liberty, yea, their freedom from bondage” (Alma 43:48)
  • “And when Moroni had said these words, he went forth among the people, waving the rent part of his garment in the air, that all might see the writing which he had written upon the rent part, and crying with a loud voice, saying: Behold, whosoever will maintain this title upon the land, let them come forth in the strength of the Lord, and enter into a covenant that they will maintain their rights, and their religion, that the Lord God may bless them” (Alma 46:18-19)
  • “And it came to pass that I did speak unto my people, and did urge them with great energy, that they would stand boldly before the Lamanites and fight for their wives, and their children, and their houses, and their homes. And my words did arouse them somewhat to vigor, insomuch that they…did stand with boldness against them” (Mormon 2:23-24)

It is difficult to succeed when your people are not unified in purpose.

  • “And it came to pass that when Amalickiah saw that the people of Moroni were more numerous than the Amalickiahites—and he also saw that his people were doubtful concerning the justice of the cause in which they had undertaken—therefore, fearing that he should not gain the point, he took those of his people who would and departed into the land of Nephi” (Alma 46:29)
  • “And it came to pass that when the proclamation had gone forth among them they were exceedingly afraid; yea, they feared to displease the king, and they also feared to go to battle against the Nephites lest they should lose their lives. And it came to pass that they would not, or the more part of them would not, obey the commandments of the king” (Alma 47:2)



Sun Tzu:

  • “Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight. If they will face death, there is nothing they may not achieve. Officers and men alike will put forth their uttermost strength. Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the sense of fear. If there is no place of refuge, they will stand firm. If they are in the heart of a hostile country, they will show a stubborn front. If there is no help for it, they will fight hard” (XI:23-24)

When the Lamanites are in a desperate situation and there is no hope for escape, they fight harder and slay many Nephites:

  • “Now in this case the Lamanites did fight exceedingly; yea, never had the Lamanites been known to fight with such exceedingly great strength and courage…and they did pierce many of their breastplates, and they did smite off many of their arms; and thus the Lamanites did smite in their fierce anger” (Alma 43:43-44)



Sun Tzu:

  • “Our own flags should be substituted for those of the enemy, and the chariots mingled and used in conjunction with ours. The captured soldiers should be kindly treated and kept. This is called, using the conquered foe to augment one’s own strength” (II:17-18)

The Nephites used their prisoners to build their fortifications and thus augment their own strength:

  • “And it came to pass that they did set guards over the prisoners of the Lamanites, and did compel them to go forth and bury their dead…And it came to pass that after the Lamanites had finished burying their dead and also the dead of the Nephites, they were marched back into the land Bountiful; and Teancum, by the orders of Moroni, caused that they should commence laboring in digging a ditch round about the land” (Alma 53:1, 3)
  • “And it came to pass that he did cause the Lamanites, whom he had taken prisoners, that they should commence a labor in strengthening the fortifications round about the city of Gid” (Alma 55:25)



Sun Tzu:

  • “Thus the highest form of generalship is to baulk the enemy’s plans, the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces” (III:3)

Two examples of this in the Book of Mormon are Moroni trying to prevent Amalickiah and his people from joining the Lamanites, and Moroni preventing Morianton from gaining greater forces in the land northward.

  • “[Amalickiah] took those of his people who would and departed into the land of Nephi. Now Moroni thought it was not expedient that the Lamanites should have any more strength; therefore he thought to cut off the people of Amalickiah…and it came to pass that he took his army and marched out with his tents into the wilderness, to cut off the course of Amalickiah in the wilderness” (Alma 46:29, 31)
  • “Therefore, Morianton put it into their hearts that they should flee to the land which was northward…Now behold, the people who were in the land Bountiful, or rather Moroni, feared that they would hearken to the words of Morianton and unite with his people, and thus he would obtain possession of those parts of the land…Therefore Moroni sent an army, with their camp, to head the people of Morianton, to stop their flight into the land northward” (Alma 50:29, 32-33)



Sun Tzu:

  • It is a military axiom not to advance uphill against the enemy, nor to oppose him when he comes downhill” (VII:33)
  • “Camp in high places, facing the sun. Do not climb heights in order to fight. So much for mountain warfare” (IX:2)
  • “In dry, level country, take up an easily accessible position with rising ground to your right and on your rear, so that the danger may be in front, and safety lie behind…All armies prefer high ground to low, and sunny places to dark…When you come to a hill or a bank, occupy the sunny side, with the slope on your right rear” (IX:9, 11, 13)

Armies in the Book of Mormon frequently camp on hills. The Nephites are warned against attacking the Gadianton robbers in their mountain strongholds:

  • “he went forward to the place which was called Onidah, for thither had all the Lamanites fled…And it came to pass that they had gathered themselves together upon the top of the mount which was called Antipas, in preparation to battle. Now it was not Amalickiah’s intention to give them battle…And behold, it came to pass that he caused his army to pitch their tents in the valley which was near the mount Antipas” (Alma 47:5, 7-9)
  • “Now the people said unto Gidgiddoni: Pray unto the Lord, and let us go up upon the mountains and into the wilderness, that we may fall upon the robbers and destroy them in their own lands. But Gidgiddoni saith unto them: The Lord forbid; for if we should go up against them the Lord would deliver us into their hands; therefore we will prepare ourselves in the center of our lands, and we will gather all our armies together, and we will not go against them, but we will wait till they shall come against us” (3 Nephi 3:20-21)
  • “And I, Mormon, wrote an epistle unto the king of the Lamanites, and desired of him that he would grant unto us that we might gather together our people…by a hill which was called Cumorah, and there we could give them battle…and we did pitch our tents around about the hill Cumorah…and here we had hope to gain advantage over the Lamanites” (Mormon 6:2, 4)
  • “And they pitched their tents in the valley of Corihor…wherefore, Coriantumr did gather his armies together upon the hill Comnor, and did sound a trumpet unto the armies of Shiz to invite them forth to battle. And it came to pass that they came forth, but were driven again; and they came the second time, and they were driven again the second time. And it came to pass that they came again the third time” (Ether 14:28-29, 31).



Sun Tzu:

  • “Peace proposals unaccompanied by a sworn covenant indicate a plot” (IX:26)

In the Book of Mormon, Zerahemnah agrees to give up his weapons but will not swear an oath to leave the Nephites alone. Moroni does not accept his conditions:

  • “Behold, here are our weapons of war; we will deliver them up unto you, but we will not suffer ourselves to take an oath unto you, which we know that we shall break…And now when Zerahemnah had made an end of speaking these words, Moroni returned the sword and the weapons of war, which he had received, unto Zerahemnah, saying: Behold, we will end the conflict…therefore as the Lord liveth, ye shall not depart except ye depart with an oath that ye will not return again against us to war” (Alma 44:8, 10-11)



Sun Tzu:

  • Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death” (X:25)

Helaman frequently refers to his band of young Ammonite soldiers as “his sons” and they refer to him as their “father”:

  • “And I did join my two thousand sons, (for they are worthy to be called sons) to the army of Antipus, in which strength Antipus did rejoice exceedingly” (Alma 56:10)
  • “Therefore what say ye, my sons, will ye go against them to battle?…For as I had ever called them my sons (for they were all of them very young) even so they said unto me: Father, behold our God is with us, and he will not suffer that we should fall…Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death” (Alma 56:44, 46-47)



Sun Tzu:

  • Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances…He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain” (VI:28, 33)

The Book of Mormon chronicles the progression of Nephite and Lamanite warfare over the centuries. One of the first advances in warfare was the Nephites making armor for themselves to take advantage of the Lamanite’s nakedness. The Lamanites then make their own armor to match the Nephites. In response, the Nephites build forts to once again give them the advantage. Once the Lamanites begin obtaining their own fortifications, the Nephites decoy the Lamanites out of their strongholds. The Lamanites become increasingly more difficult to deceive, so the Nephites wait until the Lamanites are drunk and they arm the Nephite prisoners within and surround the Lamanites. These are just a few examples of the Nephites and Lamanites varying their tactics:

  • “We do not believe that it is God that has delivered us into your hands; but we believe that it is your cunning that has preserved you from our swords. Behold, it is your breastplates and your shields that have preserved you…behold, their naked skins and their bare heads were exposed to the sharp swords of the Nephites” (Alma 44:9, 18)
  • “His chief captains durst not attack the Nephites at the city of Ammonihah, for Moroni had altered the management of affairs among the Nephites, insomuch that the Lamanites were disappointed in their places of retreat and they could not come upon them” (Alma 49:11)
  • “Many times did the Lamanites attempt to encircle them about by night, but in these attempts they did lose many prisoners. And many times did they attempt to administer of their wine to the Nephites, that they might destroy them with poison or with drunkenness. But behold, the Nephites were not slow to remember the Lord their God…They could not be taken in their snares” (Alma 55:29-30)
  • “there was no way that we could lead them out of the city by our small bands. For behold, they remembered that which we had hitherto done; therefore we could not decoy them away from their strongholds” (Alma 58:1)



Sun Tzu:

  • “Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge…Surviving spies, finally, are those who bring back news from the enemy’s camp…Spies are a most important element in war, because on them depends an army’s ability to move” (XIII:4, 13, 27)

The Nephites frequently use spies to predict the enemy’s position and respond accordingly:

  • “But I had sent my spies out round about the land of Shemlon, that I might discover their preparations, that I might guard against them” (Mosiah 10:7)
  • “And Alma sent spies to follow the remnant of the Amlicites, that he might know of their plans and their plots” (Alma 2:21)
  • “the Lamanites were marching round about in the wilderness, that they might come over into the land of Manti, that they might commence an attack upon the weaker part of the people” (Alma 43:24)
  • “we kept spies out round about, to watch the movements of the Lamanites, that they might not pass us by night nor by day to make an attack upon our other cities” (Alma 56:22)
  • “And Moroni placed spies round about, that he might know when the camp of the Lamanites should come…therefore, he found by his spies which course the Lamanites were to take” (Alma 43:28, 30)



Sun Tzu:

  • “When envoys are sent with compliments in their mouths, it is a sign that the enemy wishes for a truce” (IX:38)

Giddianhi asks Lachoneus to surrender his forces while complimenting him for his bravery and determination:

  • “I write this epistle unto you, and do give unto you exceedingly great praise because of your firmness, and also the firmness of your people…yea, ye do stand well…yield yourselves up unto us, and unite with us and become acquainted with our secret works” (3 Nephi 3:2, 3, 7)



Sun Tzu:

  • The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable” (VIII:12)
  • “He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them” (IX:41)

The Nephites succeed when they are prepared for war:

  • “And it came to pass that we again began to establish the kingdom and we again began to possess the land in peace. And I caused that there should be weapons of war made of every kind, that thereby I might have weapons for my people against the time the Lamanites should come up again to war against my people” (Mosiah 10:1)
  • “while Amalickiah had thus been obtaining power by fraud and deceit, Moroni, on the other hand…had been strengthening the armies of the Nephites, and erecting small forts, or places of resort” (Alma 48:7-8)

The Nephites fail when they do not prepare their armies and underestimate their enemies:

  • “And now behold, the forces of the king were small, having been reduced, and there began to be a division among the remainder of the people…And the king commanded the people that they should flee before the Lamanites, and he himself did go before them…And it came to pass that the Lamanites did pursue them, and did overtake them, and began to slay them” (Mosiah 19:2, 9-10).
  • “the Lamanites had come in upon the wilderness side, into the borders of the land, even into the city of Ammonihah…And now it came to pass, before the Nephites could raise a sufficient army to drive them out of the land, they had destroyed the people who were in the city of Ammonihah…yea, every living soul of the Ammonihahites was destroyed, and also their great city, which they said God could not destroy, because of its greatness” (Alma 16:2-3, 9)
  • they had not kept sufficient guards in the land of Zarahemla; for they had supposed that the Lamanites durst not come into the heart of their lands to attack that great city Zarahemla. But it came to pass that Coriantumr did march forth…with such exceedingly great speed that there was no time for the Nephites to gather together their armies” (Helaman 1:18-19)
  • “And now, because of this great victory they were lifted up in the pride of their hearts; they did boast in their own strength, saying that their fifty could stand against thousands of the Lamanites… And it came to pass that the Lamanites did pursue them, and did overtake them, and began to slay them” (Mosiah 11:19/Mosiah 19:10)
  • “And now, because of this great thing which my people, the Nephites, had done, they began to boast in their own strength, and began to swear before the heavens that they would avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren…And it was because the armies of the Nephites went up unto the Lamanites that they began to be smitten; for were it not for that, the Lamanites could have had no power over them” (Mormon 3:9/Mormon 4:4)



Sun Tzu:

  • “With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy” (X:8)

The Nephites were constantly trying to secure the narrow pass that leads to the land northward so that they were never surrounded by the Lamanites:

  • “And he also sent orders unto him that he should fortify the land Bountiful, and secure the narrow pass which led into the land northward, lest the Lamanites should obtain that point and should have power to harass them on every side” (Alma 52:9)
  • “thus the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward. And it came to pass that the Nephites had inhabited the land Bountiful, even from the east unto the west sea, and thus the Nephites in their wisdom, with their guards and their armies, had hemmed in the Lamanites on the south, that thereby they should have no more possession on the north” (Alma 22:32-33)



Sun Tzu:

  • “The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness” (I:9)

Moroni is described as an ideal commander because he personifies similar virtues. This is in contrast to the fraud and deceit of Amalickiah:

  • “while Amalickiah had thus been obtaining power by fraud and deceit, Moroni, on the other hand, had been preparing the minds of the people to be faithful unto the Lord their God…And Moroni was a strong and a mighty man; he was a man of a perfect understanding; yea, a man that did not delight in bloodshed; a man whose soul did joy in the liberty and the freedom of his country…a man who did labor exceedingly for the welfare and safety of is people…and he had sworn with an oath to defend his people, his rights, and his country, and his religion, even to the loss of his blood” (Alma 48:7, 11-13)