Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Mongol Art of War   posted by Razib @ 10/01/2008 01:23:00 AM

If Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World grated on you because of the transparent lack of scholarly objectivity, I recommend Timothy May's The Mongol Art of War. May usually attempts to present "both sides" in any given scholarly debate, but he also tells you which side is the majority and which the minority. And there's good quantitative data, like the fact that Mongol light cavalry had a range of up to 300 meters in terms of their bows. The Mongol Art of War makes it pretty obvious that courage is sometimes overrated as an ingredient of conquest, the Mongols rarely engaged in pitched battles because they weren't exceptional hand-to-hand fighters. Rather, when battling an enemy on open field they simply barraged their opponents with missile fire until attrition wore them down. Their reputedly high accuracy from long distances meant that they could stay out of danger while simultaneously inflicting casualties on the opposition. Not to be trite but it sounds like a precursor to "shock & awe" via air power medieval style.

It seems understandable that chivalry might emerge in societies where martial elites have incentives to formalize & codify and so minimize the risks inherent in the art of war, which is after all their primary profession. In contrast, the Mongol war machine which emerged in the early 13th century was notable for its relatively exceptional social egalitarianism. The Mongol army did not consist of an elite professional war-band, but rather was drawn from vast swaths of the adult male tribal population of Mongolia (on the order of perhaps 1/2 of the adult males served in the mobile armies during the initial years). Like the Roman legions before 100 BCE this was a nation of soldiers on the march, not the soldiers of a nation. Genghis Khan's light cavalry simply leveraged the typical skills of a nomad on a horse with bow in hand. The rapid expansion from the Yellow to the Black seas was due less to the calculated glory seeking of status seeking aristocrats than the random-walk rapaciousness of nomads whose lives had been characterized by existence on the margins of subsistence supplemented by raiding of surplus producing sedentary farmers. To some extent the emergence of the Mongol Empire was a series of raids writ-large.

Addendum: One thing I found interesting was the suggestion that one of the major reasons that Mongol expansion into the Middle East ran out of steam was lack of pasture for their horses. Each Mongol warrior might have had 5-15 horses. In South China the Mongols under Kublai Khan had to reinvent themselves because light cavalry did not offer any comparative advantage in the local ecology. And later Mongol attempts to expand into Southeast and Maritime Asia generally failed more often than not. In many parts of Eurasia the Mongols were defeated, but like the Romans before them they kept coming and eventually overcame resistance. This makes me wonder about true historical significance of the Mamluk defeat of the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut, as in many accounts this is a great historical turning point. The implication is that if the Mongols had not been defeated in this battle they would have gone on to conquer all of North Africa. But as I alluded to above in Russia there were defeats but the Mongols bounced back. In contrast they were defeated several times by the Mamluks after Ain Jalut. This to me points to ecological constraints on the comparative advantage of the Mongol-way-of-war. Of course it is also quite plausible that empires have natural limits to their size contingent upon the scalability of communication lines as well as the diminishing returns on additional increments of territory.