While Mormon will provide a religious moral to the “marking” of the Amlicites (see verses 8-9) it is quite probable that the more immediate and conscious reason for the marking of the Amlicites was that they be distinguished from the Nephites.
In this type of ancient war there would be no polite usage of uniforms to distinguish the sides of the battle. While the clothing and manner of the Lamanites could be expected to be different from the Nephites, the Amlicites were Nephites not long before this incident. They would be expected to be similar physically and to have a similar mode of clothing and weaponry.
In a war that virtually requires close combat, it is essential that combatants be able to know the difference between friend and foe. The Lamanites would be “marked” by their shorn heads, and the Amlicites had to find some way to identify themselves to their allies so they would not be included in what the Amlicites had hoped would be a slaughter of Nephites.
As has been noted earlier, the shorn heads of the Lamanites might indicate a desire to fight to the death rather than allow themselves to be captured. Mesoamerican scenes of capture use the grasping of the hair as a sign of capture. (Schele, Linda and Mary Ellen Miller. The Blood of Kings. George Braziller, Inc, 1986, p. 212) Thus if there is no hair, there is symbolically no capture.
The description of the military dress of the Lamanites is fascinating. There are two important descriptions of the “dress.” The first is that they were naked. The second is that they weren’t! They were naked except for the skins they wore and their armor (verse 5).
The description of the nakedness of the Lamanites in spite of the clothing described suggests that we are dealing with more than a simple description of Lamanite battle dress. While there is an element of description, there is also an element of formula. We first meet this formulaic description of the Lamanites in the cultural statement of Enos:
20 And I bear record that the people of Nephi did seek diligently to restore the Lamanites unto the true faith in God. But our labors were vain; their hatred was fixed, and they were led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness; feeding upon beasts of prey; dwelling in tents, and wandering about in the wilderness with a short skin girdle about their loins and their heads shaven; and their skill was in the bow, and in the cimeter, and the ax. And many of them did eat nothing save it was raw meat; and they were continually seeking to destroy us. (Enos 1:20)
As analyzed during the commentary on Enos, this catalog bears the mark of a “we are good/they are bad” cultural description. Even at that early time in Nephite history, the Lamanites had been categorized, and comparisons between Nephites and Lamanites would have the Lamanites appear in an unfavorable light. This was in spite of the times when the text clearly indicates a fairly important and sophisticated Lamanite culture. Indeed, in the coming sections of the Book of Mormon when the Lamanites are considered righteous, they appear to have remarkably jumped from barbarianism to full civilization.
The real answer, of course, lies in the common cultural phenomenon of belittling those who are not part of one’s own culture. While a modern and enlightened population might see this as less than Christian, it is nevertheless a known aspect of most all cultures.
Even in a modern United States where there is a great deal of cultural pluralism, the echoes of such xenophobic statements and ideas are not far from us, and frequently appear in cultural and racial clashes.
The Nephites were certainly not immune to this trait of humanity, and their perceptions of the inferiority of the Lamanites colored their descriptions of them. In the current case, the reality of Lamanite dress appears to mix with a pejorative description which creates a formula for the description of the Lamanites throughout the long history of the Book of Mormon.
The essential Nephite description of their enemy appears to require a description of their attire, with an emphasis on their nakedness, the shaved heads, a description of skin around the loins, perhaps a breastplate, and then a catalog of weaponry. While each of the elements do not need to be stated, they tend to appear together.
In Mosiah 10:8 we find:
8 And it came to pass that they came up upon the north of the land of Shilom, with their numerous hosts, men armed with bows, and with arrows, and with swords, and with cimeters, and with stones, and with slings; and they had their heads shaved that they were naked; and they were girded with a leathern girdle about their loins. (Mosiah 10:8)
The basic elements of the description are here. It begins with the catalog of weapons, then notes the shaved heads and the “leathern girdle.” Interestingly, the idea of nakedness does appear in this verse, but it almost appears to be related to the heads, as it is noted that “their heads [were] shaved that they were naked.” This is the only verse that ties the “nakedness” to the shaved pate. It would appear that this is either a unusual application of the formula, or perhaps a mistranslation.
A description of fighting in Alma assures us that there is a legitimate descriptive function to the “naked” descriptor:
18 But behold, their naked skins and their bare heads were exposed to the sharp swords of the Nephites; yea, behold they were pierced and smitten, yea, and did fall exceedingly fast before the swords of the Nephites; and they began to be swept down, even as the soldier of Moroni had prophesied. (Alma 44:18)
The lack of some covering over “their naked skins and their bare heads” made them susceptible to the blows of Nephite weapons. This should be seen in contrast to a Nephite innovation of some other type of more comprehensive armoring. In Alma 43 we have the more explicit contrast between the Nephite coverings and the Lamanite nakedness:
19 And when the armies of the Lamanites saw that the people of Nephi, or that Moroni, had prepared his people with breastplates and with arm-shields, yea, and also shields to defend their heads, and also they were dressed with thick clothing—
20 Now the army of Zerahemnah was not prepared with any such thing; they had only their swords and their cimeters, their bows and their arrows, their stones and their slings; and they were naked, save it were a skin which was girded about their loins; yea, all were naked, save it were the Zoramites and the Amalekites;
21 But they were not armed with breastplates, nor shields—therefore, they were exceedingly afraid of the armies of the Nephites because of their armor, notwithstanding their number being so much greater than the Nephites. (Alma 43:19-21)
These verses provide a little more information about the comparative battle gear of the Lamanites and the Nephites. The Nephites have “thick clothing.” This provides some protection. It would appear that this might account for the difference between the clothing and the nakedness, as the Zoramites and Amalekites are specifically described as not naked.
The differences between Nephite and Lamanite dress are not absolute, but rather one of degrees. The Lamanites are “naked” even though they are wearing skins around their loins and breastplates. Their “nakedness” is not so much in the lack of covering, but in the cultural perception that theirs is an inappropriate lack of covering compared to the Nephites.
A simple example of the cultural definition of nakedness can be seen in native cultures in warm lands where women’s apparel dictates some type of skirt, but does not require a covering of the breasts.
These women are not “naked” in that they are appropriately covered for their culture. However, as seen from the perspective of a culture with different expectations, it would not be unusual for a description of such native women to include the word “naked.” This appears to be the way in which the Lamanite nakedness should be seen. They are naked compared to the Nephites, but they are clearly not completely nude.
Variation: The Printer’s manuscript is missing the word “the” before “skin.” It reads “…save it were skin which was girted about their loins…” The presence of the article “the” in the printed copies may be a “correction” by the typesetter.
In Mesoamerican battle dress, the wearing of an animal skin is well known, and it is possible that the original might reflect a slightly different meaning, pointing to the skin(s) worn, rather than a particular type (the skin) which might sound like simply leather. (see Book of Mormon Critical Text. FARMS 1987, 2:531 for data on the change).