Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy
Genghis Khan (1162–1227) took a collection of dysfunctional Mongolian tribes and created a nation of language, literacy, and law set up to continue conquering after his death. Alexander the great never achieved anything like that success.
Frank McLynn stresses throughout this work that his subject was an organizational genius who adapted new ideas into grand systems. This first Khanate’s horse soldiers traveled faster than German tanks and Patton's armies in World War II to conquer territory from China to Eastern Europe in the greatest empire to his time and arguably beyond.
The Mongolian peoples were superstitious not intellectual, horse bound warriors on a great plain of some one million square miles. Across the globe, peoples defended themselves behind well-crafted walls. Success then meant acquiring engineering skills more than winning battles on open ground.
Innovation came to the Genghis Khan and the Mongol peoples from system. Their harsh environment required careful supervision of all resources and the constant movement of people and animals, particularly the horses, yak, and sheep.
McLynn writes that there were “military ‘spin offs’ from pastoralism” including spare time for men to wage war while their women and children moved the herds and not having permanently fixed property to defend. Having no land, these people also had no class system or real division of labor, only bloody clan-family rivalries.
Tribal politics required careful decision-making. It cost young Temujin (the later Genghis Khan) his father, his freedom for a time and nearly his life. He and his family were so destitute that as a teenager he killed his older half-brother over a stolen fish.
Temujin began his empire with young renegades “a haven for all who had broken away from the rigidities of the old kinship based clan structure.” Initially as a military commander and Khan, he showed only a talent for survival in the face of defeats. He did learn, however, and brought 32 tribes and some two million people together by careful planning and the use of executions, slaughter, and victory.
For his army and the people in general, however, the new Khan imposed tough regulations including a code of laws. For three years, he then organized and planed for his conquest of China. His use of espionage and force give an image of invincibility, imagination, logistics, maps, and terrorism that should be courses at military academies and staff colleges.
That so many biographies have appeared on this epic figure in history is amazing considering the scale and scope of such an undertaking. McLynn writes that these books, including his own, make arguments knowing “that a definitive biography of Genghis Khan is impossible” for it would take “several lifetimes to master” all of the languages needed to understand all of the ways that cultures and histories were affected.
The author does bring the skill of a seasoned scholar to produce a readable, credible work, usefully illustrated with maps and pictures. His book covers alcoholism, armor, law, sheep, tribal politics, weapons, women, and so much more, all as much or more about the Mongols than their leader.
Even as he describes the horrors of the destruction of Baghdad in 1257, one of a long list of cities that paid a price for not surrendering, he writes of Mongol technical sophistication. The scale of the deaths in the sacking of cities like Peking was horrific, even when compared to those of World War II. Mongol campaigns depopulated so much territory as to have a positive effect on the environment.
The slaughtered could number in the hundreds of thousands for a single campaign and the raped in equally staggering numbers. As the author writes, “Genghis and the Mongols were responsible for millions and millions of deaths.”
McLynn makes no condemnation or excuses for the atrocities, and he does not have to. These kinds of horrors were worldwide. Even Genghis’ contemporary Richard the Lionheart was not above it. That it became so enormous in the Mongol invasions was only due to scale of size.