The news recently has brought up the idea that, despite the large number of Mormons that support the Iraq War, the members and LDS Church itself are skipping out on serving in the military. The implication is that Mormon are cowards, or worse. With so many of the recent commentaries on war and the military, the subject starts with Vietnam and ignores all other wars. To be fair, the history of Mormons and the military is a complicated subject that can’t, like so many other things, be examined in a sound bite. There are religious and cultural reasons for the diverse approach to military involvement.
Much of the attention on Mormonism these days comes from the media, hyped by Mitt Romney’s entrance into the presidential race. The subject of Mormons and the military is no different. The focus started with Mitt Romney who is often portrayed as a Vietnam draft dodger. This would be a simple political attack if it weren’t for the way Mormons have been used to create this image. He, like so many Mormons before and after him, passed on the draft for religious reasons. He served a mission in France and later drew a high number when he returned. Others have picked up on this and pointed to the whole idea of missions replacing military services as a way to get out of harms way.
It hasn’t ended with him, but has continued unabashedly by attacking his mission serving sons who they believe at least one of them should have gone to Iraq. Yes, that is the focal point like so many other discussions these days. The contention is that if you support Iraq than you or your children should join the military. That is, to the critics, the only recognized way to support the Iraq war. Despite the rather badly worded way Romney explained it, apparently by saying his children are supporting the war by participating in his presidential run, he has expanded support to include serving your country at home or another capacity abroad. Many, including some Conservatives, have rejected this idea believing that if you support the war you fight and you do something else if you don’t.
It appears that to a large degree Mormons reject the idea that you have to serve in the military to support war efforts. As one person put it:
I would like to make a few observations about Mitt Romney’s sons: (1)- They are married and have kids of their own. Should they just leave their families and go join the military? Is taking care of their wives and kids an important obligation? I think most of them if not all were married before this big deal with Iraq ever started. (2)- Each of Romney’s sons have served a mission for their Church ( two years).
I’m sure that Mitt Romney and his sons support our troops 100%. Let’s not be too quick to judge
In other words, to live a good life and serve in other less dangerous capacities is equal to serving in the military in times of war. Without going into philosophical discussions of how right or wrong that might be, it is interesting to see where that has come from. It isn’t a spur of the moment defense. There is precedence for such an attitude because of the ambiguous nature of Mormon beliefs about war.
The basic template is the Book of Mormon. It is an interesting exploration of both the necessity and the horrors of participating in war. The editor is said to be the military hero Mormon, where the book gets its name, who was trained as a young boy to battle the Lamanites out to destroy his people. It is natural that such a person would focus so much on the wars and contentions of history. However, there is an undercurrent that can be hard to miss if reading carefully that war is not a glorious heroic struggle. It can make heroes, but only at a high cost of human lives and even civilization. Usually the end result of war is destruction as the major theme throughout the Book of Mormon shows.
The greatest military hero is Moroni, who rent his coat and wrote on it, “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children.” He fought against both Lamanite and unrighteous Nephite in defense of freedoms. What made him famous according to a reading of the Book of Mormon was not any particular battles, but his belief in pacifism in the face of war. He continually sought to end the conflict by ending a battle early and asking his enemies to go home. They rejected the offer every time and he fought them until they gave up. In the end he went off back to his land and retired in peace.
The idea that a Mission is equal to service in the military can also be found in the Book of Mormon when a small group decided peace was better achieved by missionary service than fighting:
1 Now it came to pass that after the sons of Mosiah had done all these things, they took a small number with them and returned to their father, the king, and desired of him that he would grant unto them that they might, with these whom they had selected, go up to the land of Nephi that they might preach the things which they had heard, and that they might impart the word of God to their brethren, the Lamanites—
2. That perhaps they might bring them to the knowledge of the Lord their God, and convince them of the iniquity of their fathers; and that perhaps they might cure them of their hatred towards the Nephites, that they might also be brought to rejoice in the Lord their God, that they might become friendly to one another, and that there should be no more contentions in all the land which the Lord their God had given them.
It is this example that more than anything explains the Mormon attitude that a mission is equal to military service when it comes to defending the country. To get to know others and preach the gospel is considered, regardless what those not of the faith believe, a better military strategy than the outright destruction of life and property.
The history of Mormon involvement in the military outside of Scripture is equally as varied in approach. Support since the founding of the LDS Church has been mixed. Joseph Smith created “The Nauvoo Legion,” a para-military organization similar to many of the time. It was perhaps larger than any the United States had during the 1840s. It was primarily to protect the Latter-day Saints, to the fear of outsiders, instead of any national interest. On the way to Utah after having been forced out of the United States, there was a futile show of patriotic support by answering the call of enlistment during the War with Mexico. The famous Mormon Battalion was formed to march to California. The group never saw actual combat, but was still praised:
The 339 survivors who at last struggled into San Diego that lovely midwinter day in January 1847 each bore a wild but strangely holy countenance. They had made it. They had come through for their country and for Zion. On the morning after their arrival, Colonel Cooke wrote: “The Lieutenant-Colonel commanding congratulates the Battalion on their safe arrival on the shore of the Pacific Ocean and the conclusion of their march of over two thousand miles. History may be searched in vain for an equal march of infantry.”6
World War I and II were perhaps the Mormon highlight of traditional ideals for serving the country in times of war. Even during these conflicts there were some leaders of the LDS Church who were skeptical of getting involved. Many Mormons returned from missions and were sent into combat. The most memorable stories of these conflicts are actually the complete opposite of the Son’s of Mosiah example. Those who were at first teaching people in the “enemy territory” were now fighting them. In other words, yet another example of the Mormon ideal that participating in battle does not make for a better support of war efforts.
It is during the Korean and Vietnam War era that missions and military service were in open conflict. The LDS Church wanted to increase its missionary service in order to follow the religious mandate to preach the Gospel to all the world. The United States government had other plans and often interfered in the number of missionaries that could be sent. It was the Vietnam War that caused a compromise where a certain number of men had to go to Vietnam from each Ward (Congregation), leaving a select few to go on missions. In some ways, the compromise has its continued relevance to more recent conflicts. On the other hand, there has always been an uneasy alliance between Mormon attitudes about serving in the military and religious devotion. Feelings about War can be highly patriotic and supportive, but at the same time it doesn’t always equate with serving in the military during those same conflicts. It is not something easy to explain, and can be seen by those not familiar with Mormon religion and history as hypocrisy. However, it is not a defensive attitude trying to stay safe at home. It is a worldview that others reject or don’t understand. Even Mormons probably are not aware of it because the ingrained cultural ideals go so far back. There is no positive term for a hometown warrior or peace soldier.