Comparing the Missouri Mormon War with Contemporary Conflicts

UPDATE 11 January 2010: Kenny and Jake Ballentine, two brothers who make films together, have just announced the upcoming release of a new movie ‘Trouble in Zion’, a documentary on the Missouri Mormon War. Several years ago, Kenny Ballentine read the essay attached to the below posting and talked with me about it while making the film. Click here to find out more about their movie.

The 1838 Missouri Mormon War (see LeSueur’s great book) resulted in at least 22 fatalities, millions of dollars worth of property destruction and the displacement of 15,000 people. Fought in a context of fierce rhetoric, sectarian and paramilitary violence, weak governmental authority and a privatization of military force, it actually bears significant resemblance to what some security scholars (e.g. my former PhD supervisor Mary Kaldor) have called the “New Wars.” These contemporary conflicts in places like the Former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Columbia, Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan are characterized by the targeting of civilians; powerful non-state actors; prolonged, seemingly intractable, hostilities; connections to organized crime; and exclusivistic ethnic, religious and sectarian ideologies.

In a previous posting, I have compared Joseph Smith to the religio-military commanders who sometimes arise in such conflicts, but I thought it would be worth thinking more broadly about the political and economic context. I have attached here an essay I wrote in graduate school comparing the Missouri Mormon War and the “New Wars.” In it, I explored the similarities between them, but also looked at how globalization — “intensification of global interconnectedness” — has transformed organized violence. On one hand, if the Mormons and Missourians had had access to global illicit finance, profligate arms traffickers, sophisticated weaponry and/or high-tech communications systems, the war could have been much worse. On the other hand, if the war had been covered by a global media, attracted the intervention of peace negotiators or led to sanctions against Missourian or Mormon leaders, maybe the situation could have been contained.

To read the essay, click here. I would be interested in people’s comments.

-Matthew Bolton


8 comments on “Comparing the Missouri Mormon War with Contemporary Conflicts

  1. James E Elliott says:

    The Missouri war and today’s small scale wars have much in common. To refresh my memory I reread Rough Stone Rolling (p345-346). The Missouri Legislature reduced the size of Caldwell county and designated it for Mormons, never dreaming that it might not be enough for them. Joseph was ecstatic and brought a revelation saying it would “bud and blossom and bring forth in abundance.” Didn’t God know that Rigdon would make an agressive speech that would enrage the Missourians. Didn’t God know that by 1939 there would be few Mormons left in Missouri? If so, He didn’t tell Joseph. Joseph was busy identifying a Nephite alter and tower and the place where Adam dwelt after the expulsion.

  2. dhowlett says:

    Hi Matt,
    This is an interesting essay. The historian in me squirms when one tries to compare something from the early nineteenth century to today, but I do think you are onto something here. Typologies (in this case, a typology for a “new war”) get us somewhere and then inevitably fall apart. Most historians probably would ask why you don’t compare the Missouri Mormon War of 1838 to something closer in time and culture–like antebellum American violence against Catholics in the 1840s, or even the war of resistance led by Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (the “Shawnee Prophet”) in the early 1810s. (In the latter example, you have a clear warrior-prophet combination with the two brothers.) However, typologies like the one you construct highlight something missed by confining oneself to the immediate environment of pre-Civil War America. Walter Benjamin uses the notion of “constellations” to talk about this–how something in history from one era may more closely resemble something from a very different era. (This is somewhere in his posthumously published “Thesis and Philosophy of History”; I read it too long ago, though. I don’t remember much.)

    Thanks for your post!

    • Matthew Bolton says:

      When you say that “The historian in me squirms when one tries to compare something from the early nineteenth century to today” what do you mean? Do you not think it is useful to compare events, artifacts or people from one period of history with another to consider how things have persisted/changed? For instance, is it not a worthwhile exercise to compare a piece of medieval art with one from the Renaissance and consider how it is similar (focus on religious subjects means persistence of Catholic church) with how it is different (vanishing point perspective and attention to human form expresses the rise of science and humanism)? If it OK with art, why not with other socio-cultural phenomena, including war? The point of the essay is to show that there are some elements of the ‘New Wars’ that appear in much earlier conflicts, like the Missouri-Mormon War, but that globalization has had some definite impacts on the way human societies use violence.

      • dhowlett says:

        I do think what you are doing is very valid in this essay. What are you are attempting could be thought of as a genealogical analysis–tracing the origins of a practice and showing how it changes over time. If a historian had written your essay, due to displinary biases, he/she would probably have played up the ruptures, differences, and changes between 1838 and the new wars of today rather than played up the similarities. Historians seem more interested in articulating change as opposed to continuities. I think, as a rule, that political scientists, like sociologists, tend to look for law-like regularities through cultures, phenomena, etc. The emphasis here is much more on continuity rather than ruptures. However, I admit that since the 1980s, most disciplines (including the social sciences) have been fairly self-conscious about historicizing their tools and less into positing law-like regularities that apply everywhere. What you are doing seems to me like a chapter out of a book that traces the origins and development of the “new wars” over time. For that purpose, your project is valid. However, my point was just that folks who are invested in other projects would say, “What are you doing? Why are you not looking at the 1838 Mormon War through the lens of the project that I am invested in–namely antebellum American religious violence? Isn’t that a better point of comparison?” And the answer is obviously, yes, it is for her/his project, but, no, not for yours. Hmmm…did I talk out of both sides of my mouth enough? :)

  3. Matthew Bolton says:

    That’s a fair point, David. My broader intellectual project has been to understand the impact of globalization on political systems in conflict zones, and so that is what I am ‘digging for’ (using your archaeology metaphor) in this essay. Someone with an interest in understanding the American West would have probably written something different.

  4. James E Elliott says:

    But no one seems to be concerned about the point I made. Caldwell Co. did not bud and bloom as Joseph said it would. It was a disaster.

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