Imagine Montana, population 900,000, conquering the Western Hemisphere, population 800 million. In little more than one generation: slaughtering its armies, assimilating its air forces and navies, killing almost every government and corporate official; conscripting a tenth of the entire population in every country to provide logistical support; deliberately sparing, but nonetheless abducting, every high-profile scientist, engineer, entrepreneur, doctor, and clergyman, and rotating them amongst Helena, Albany, Austin, Mexico City, and Brasilia. Building infrastructure from Point Barrow and Labrador to Recife and Tierra del Fuego, then mounting a two-pronged invasion of Africa, overrunning Nigeria and South Africa in six weeks, poised to sweep north and east to the Mediterranean and Red Seas within months — and then abruptly withdrawing.
In the thirteenth century, events on that scale occurred in Eurasia, and Jack Weatherford explains how in Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World …
If a military’s job is to move, shoot, and communicate, then the Montanan, er, Mongolian armies were actually only slightly better at shooting than their opponents; bow manufacture was the individual responsibility of each horseman, and quality varied. But in their ability to move and communicate, they might as well have been driving Humvees and using radios. Also, unlike Western armies, they followed orders, not least because their primary objective was not world conquest so much as it was defeat of their enemies with minimal casualties among their own men.
With a few simple but fervently held and rigorously practiced organizational and fighting techniques, the Mongols smashed army after army and city after city, incidentally creating a profoundly uncorrupt, meritocratic, and egalitarian polity even while accumulating enormous amounts of plunder. Temujin’s deliberate breaking of the clan system and reassignment of the entire population into decimalized units, astonishingly similar to the reforms carried out by Cleisthenes in Athens over seventeen centuries earlier, shifted the loyalties of hundreds of thousands of tribespeople to himself and the nation, transforming a hyperfragmented nomadic people into the most effective fighting force the world had ever seen.
The organizational problem the Mongols did not solve was that of developing a reliable process for selecting and legitimizing executive leadership. The khuriltai, a kind of immense caucus, was vulnerable to rivalries and could easily fail to achieve quorum, resulting in unclear succession, uneasy regencies, and infighting, usually among the widows and wives of the khans. The largest land empire in history had largely dissassembled itself even before the crowning blow of the plague in the mid-14th-century.
What I regard as the single most fascinating counterfactual in human history is what failed to occur in 1242 AD. Batu Khan’s armies, having already conquered Russia and the Ukraine, continued westward. In the battles of Chmielnik, Wahlstatt, and Mohi, at insignificant cost to themselves (which campaign included successful passage through the Carpathian Mountains), they wiped out the largest armies in Central Europe in just over a month in the early spring of 1241. Whereupon — having overrun Poland, eastern Germany, and Hungary as rapidly as the Nazi blitzkrieg would advance seven centuries later, and scouted at least as far west as Vienna — they returned to the east, to attend a khuriltai to elect a successor to Ogodei Khan, who had drunk himself to death four thousand miles away in Karakorum.
What if Ogodei had sobered up? — or moderated, even slightly, and lived even one more year? This very idea is elucidated The Death that Saved Europe: The Mongols Turn Back, an essay by novelist Cecilia Holland (most relevant novel: Until the Sun Falls) that appears in What If? — in which a “startlingly modern” army with an ideology more than a little reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge reaches the Atlantic.
She assumes that they would have utterly destroyed Western civilization, thereby retarding political and technological development by several centuries. It is a nightmare image of Europe as a twitching corpse, decapitated at the pinnacle of the High Middle Ages. Weatherford’s account, however, intriguingly suggests that the Mongols not only had startlingly modern military processes, but startlingly modern priorities as well. They prized artisans, engineers, merchants, miners, the literate or numerate, and anyone who spoke more than one language, but regarded the nobility as worthless parasites. (Exactly the opposite was true of the European nobility of the period, who despised the idea of working for a living and were particularly contemptuous of the budding middle class.)
So while the nascent University of Paris might well have been burnt to the ground (along with the rest of the city), its scholars would likely have ended up in Sarai on the Volga, or in Karakorum itself, collected there with thousands of others from every country from Korea to Portugal. And even if Rome had been leveled and the haughty Pope Innocent IV killed, most of the clergy (and European rabbis and Grenadan imams) would have been collected as well. Key elements of the textile industry in the Low Countries would have been transplanted to the Ukraine or Central Asia.
Nor would Europe have been entirely occupied in any case; England, and especially Sicily, would have become the new nuclei of exclusively-Western culture. The Mongols had no navy and didn’t quite seem to know what to do with one, as their awkward attempts at invading Japan under Khubilai later proved.
Of course, various authors, Weatherford included, suggest that the Mongols would not have proceeded west of the Great Hungarian Plain even if Ogodei had lived (or his immediate successor, Guyuk, been able to muster support for continuing the drive into Europe). But the distances involved were modest relative to those already traversed — the distance from Vienna to Gibraltar is only one-third the distance from Ulan Bator to Vienna — and no insuperable geographical barriers were present. And besides, the Mongols had already conquered northern China and would eventually penetrate as far as Vietnam, territory very unlike the steppe.
Not that the conquered populations would have rejoiced. The Mongols had no use for infantry soldiers and routinely executed those they captured, while ruthlessly absorbing captured cavalry. They spared one captured nobleman in (I believe) Hungary but liquidated all others. They demanded, and at all events obtained, one-tenth of the population of every city to carry loads, fill moats (with their own bodies if necessary), etc, in the capture of the next city. All transportable valuables were systematically inventoried and removed to the East for careful distribution among ethnic (or honorary) Mongols, both commoners and nobility — in other words, irrecoverably scattered. The book skips lightly over the fate of young women in fallen cities, but dreadful abuses must be assumed (genetic evidence referenced here). And had the putative conquest occurred under Guyuk Khan, it might have approached the genocidal scenario of Cecelia Holland’s essay; Guyuk was notoriously unpleasant and not averse to torture (generally abhorred by Mongols).
Weatherford’s emphasis on the alien-yet-progressive, familiar to readers of his earlier Indian Givers and Native Roots, is very much on display here, bordering on promulgation of the myth of the noble savage. And yet one of the most compelling scenes in the book relates how at the beginning of his rise to power, a small group of friends swore loyalty to Temujin — a group almost evenly divided amongst animists, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims. There are plenty of societies on Earth today where this would seem miraculous (or deeply threatening); eight centuries ago it was unimaginable. (Indeed, I note that the collaboration occurring on ChicagoBoyz, among whom there appear to be representatives of a variety of beliefs and/or the lack thereof, would have been distinctly unusual even in the West only two or three generations ago.)
Our time would seem to offer no opportunity for explosive conquest. But as J. Storrs Hall writes in Nanofuture, the development of nanotechnology is like a five-mile race in which for the first mile you swim, the second mile you run, for the third mile you get a bicycle, in the fourth mile you get a car, and in the fifth mile you get an airplane. Whoever gets that airplane first is going to be as far ahead of the rest of the world as the Mongols were, tactically, in the thirteenth century. What will they do with such a lead?
So read the book and reflect on what might have been and what might yet be, perhaps while listening to some Borodin, or throat singing — or Zappa. ;^)
— punctuated with the occasional KHANNNNN!