The Mongols had Some Great Ideas

Posted by Andrew on May 30, 2017 in history

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I read a fascinating book the other day called Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Everyone has probably heard the stories of brutality and bloodlust associated with this iconic historical figure. He had an incredible impact on the world; so much that he is one of the handful of people in human history about whom almost everyone knows.

My amateur knowledge on the subject is also complimented by Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. The stories that he tells are so detailed and captivating that it is by far my favourite way to learn about history. His series called Wrath of the Khans tells an incredibly engrossing and educational narrative.

The picture of Genghis Khan painted by conventional opinion seems accurate, to a certain extent. As far as anyone knows about history, it’s almost undeniable that the Mongols were unimaginably violent. They would sometimes apparently murder every single person in areas they invaded, including women and children. They killed so many people that others following in their wake would come across giant hills of bodies. Some were so large that there are stories of them being mistaken for mountains off in the distance. The most mind-boggling thing that I’ve heard about the Khans in terms of their murderous intent is this: they slaughtered so many people that they altered the global carbon footprint! I’m not sure how that’s even possible, and I don’t know much about climate science. But since people produce carbon when we breathe, and it’s what we’re made of, then the less people there are, the smaller carbon footprint there is. I have no idea about the math to do with this hypothesis. But if you extrapolate that, approximately a fucking ton of people would have to be killed for the carbon footprint to be significantly altered across the entire world.

However, even villains have good ideas. Genghis Khan probably wasn’t a representation of unadulterated evil, and I bet that neither was someone like Hitler. It’s not as if the bad guys are so successful by just being bad, and they make progress in spite of their character. Eva Braun, who was Hitler’s girlfriend, probably thought he was a great guy. By the same token, Genghis Khan likely had people he cared about, and not everything he did centered around destruction and death. I don’t think you can conquer most of the known world based on those motivations alone.

Genghis Khan seems to have made many pragmatic and even altruistic decisions. Sometimes, when conquering new territories, he would apparently look for people who were the best at their vocation, and incorporate them into his army. This is an excellent idea because sparing their lives gave him the best intellectuals and tradesman. Why not have the smartest philosophers and best blacksmiths from everywhere working for you, instead of killing them? Many more people would have pointlessly lost their lives if the Mongols hadn’t done this.

There are also stories of the Khans encouraging progressive ideals. I don’t know much about the details of this, but they were purportedly some of the first people to legislate rights for peasants and average people, and for women. Yes, the bloodthirsty mongols are said to have been proponents of women’s and civil rights. I’m not sure how far these privileges went, and they almost certainly wouldn’t be considered impressive by today’s standards. However, it seems like they were much better than the alternative. Women and people in minorities, including those the Mongols invaded, may have had advisory positions, or some other form of power. They also had their basic needs met, like food and clothing. This doesn’t appear to have happened often with victims of invading armies. Maybe the Mongols knew that giving conquered people the bare necessities increases the chances of their loyalty.

Genghis Khan also used impressive military tactics. The heavy use of cavalry, which apparently was not common at the time, gave them significant advantages. This is particularly true since the Mongols are painted as expert horsemen. They had such strong bonds with their horses that when riding them, they likely became extensions of their own bodies. This is similar to how it could feel that way when you’re used to fighting with a sword. It’s like it becomes a part of you, according to experts in these areas. The Khans were so good at using horses that they sometimes would lure an army into chasing a group of them on horseback, only to lead them into an ambush. This would work particularly well if the enemy had little to no cavalry.

As most people who have heard of the Mongols probably know, they also are seen as master archers. Genghis Khan’s soldiers could apparently fire several arrows per second, even though they used bows that require a significant amount of strength. I’ve also heard that they hooked circular devices that look like rings to their fingers, which helped them hold other arrows in their firing hand without releasing them. The Mongols also likely combined their adept archery and horsemanship to allow them a unique advantage. Through all the practice and discipline that must have been required, they developed the ability to fire arrows while riding on horseback. But the details of how they did this is what sets them apart from other armies. When a horse is galloping, it can throw off the accuracy of your shot. So the Khans trained themselves to fire arrows at the moments when all four hooves of their horses were in the air! I know little about archery, and much less about horses, but this skill is so amazing because that window is obviously very short; probably less than a second. This is particularly true when a horse is moving faster.

The Mongols are by far some of the most iconic characters in history. Genghis is the most well-known, but many of his descendants, like Kublai, had huge impacts on their lasting empire. It’s hard to know who, in history, had the greatest impact on humanity, and which aspects are the most interesting. But the Mongols are some of the top contenders, in my opinion. They are exceptions to a lot of general rules in history, such as that you can’t successfully attack Russia in the winter. As far as I know, the Khans are the only people who accomplished that. They also were vagabonds for a long time when they were controlled by Genghis. They would live in tents, and often survive on rats and other rodents. Their discipline was one of their greatest strengths. Apparently, Genghis Khan also fucked so many women that 1 in 200 people are direct descendants! A large part of this is likely due to the fact that Asia has a high population, and I think that a lot of his territory was there at the time. So since Asia has a higher population than other parts of the world, it makes sense that a large percentage of people in general fall into this category. But still, 1 in 200 is a hell of a lot of people.

Whether you think the Mongols were one dimensional bad guys or not, they had an unfathomable effect on history. Their accomplishments were astonishing in scope, and many have not been replicated. It seems like they also had a lot of great ideas, some of which were progressive. These concepts aided in their unparalleled progress in global conquest. Pretty much no bad guys are all bad, and no good guys are all good. The brilliant tactics seem to often not be given equal consideration because they came from “murdering psychopaths.” But contrary to popular belief, the Mongols are in some ways, the epitome of progress and human rights.

Originally published at on May 30, 2017.