The Mongol leader was utterly ruthless, says Quentin de la Bédoyère – but also possibly the greatest military commander we have ever known Genghis Khan by John Man, Bantam Books £20 For some days my mind has been living in medieval Mongolia. So much of the detail of Genghis Khan’s life is uncertain that John Man is forced to rely on educated guesses, and intelligent speculation supplemented by questionable records and oral tradition. But informing him throughout is Mongolia itself, so little changed over the centuries: few writers have Man’s capacity to transport the reader so convincingly into another time and place. How many would be prepared to swim through the “gruel of silt” which is the Yellow River, to establish whether it could be crossed without boats? He left me longing to confirm with my own eyes the pictures he has put into my mind.
But this is a biography not a travel book, and Genghis Khan was a remarkable man. Named Temujin at birth around 1160, he was a member of one of the restless nomadic clans of Mongolia. He died, some say from castration by a mistress, the ruler of an empire twice as large as Rome, which ran from the Pacific to the Caspian. And, by 1300, his successors had doubled even that. If there had not been dynastic squabbles in the generations after his death it is quite possible that the whole of the known world would have come under Mongolian rule. No Renaissance, no Enlightenment, no McDonalds.
His first steps as a young man were to unite the Mongolian nomadic factions through alliances, double-dealing and skilful tactics. He suffered great reverses, and made friends who served him throughout his life. He was renamed Genghis (correctly pronounced Ching-gis, Man tells us), a name of uncertain origin.
The Mongolian fighting man was a swift mover on horseback, and he was armed with a bow that had a substantially greater punch than the English longbow, and appears to have been accurate to boot. The casual tribesmen, or the effete regulars, which his forces encountered had little chance. But commanding territory means holding borders, which in turn means taking more territory. Empires have a natural dynamic of expansion. They did then, and they do today.
The Mongolians knew about fighting on open ground, but they were foiled by cities until they had made it their business to master siege engines, gunpowder-loaded fragmentation bombs, and the other paraphernalia of medieval warfare. Soon they were unstoppable.
Genghis Khan was utterly ruthless. His basic tactic is still used; it is called shock and awe. Either you surrendered and submitted without a murmur, or you would be destroyed down to the last man, woman and child. The story of Merv, a large and beautiful city in Central Asia, is instructive. In a fortified city, with an army nearly twice the size, they had so little rea son to fear Genghis that they paraded some prisoners from a Mongol scouting party through their streets, and executed them. This was a mistake. Except for 400 artisans retained for their skills, the entire population was slaughtered – perhaps over a million people. And Merv today is no more than fragments of rubble in the sand. Had you chided Ghengis about his ruthlessness he would no doubt have argued that by frightening other cities into speedy surrender he was actually saving lives in the long run. It’s what the Americans, or the Inquisition, would call “tough love”.
His second outstanding characteristic was the uncompromising demand he made for personal loyal ty. It was not egotistical for he respected those who refused loyalty to him because they had obligations elsewhere. He shared this characteristic with other great generals: Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Patten, Montgomery spring immediately to mind. Tolstoy is clear that this spirit of loyal morale in an army can make up for gross deficiencies in number and even mistaken tactics. In Genghis’s case it had the important extra advantage that he could leave already conquered territory under the control of a loyal subordinate, while he moved on.
The third characteristic was his sense of mission. He came to see himself as the instru ment of the Eternal Heaven, destined to conquer, just as other nations were destined to defer to him. Again, it is not difficult to list empires, armies and religious groupings who have shared a similar view of sacred mission. And pursuit of sacred mission can not only excuse great wickedness, it can convert it into righteousness. Stalin was once described as Genghis Khan with a telephone; and indeed the chain of Mongolian light cavalry across Asia must have been the best long distance com munication system of the time.
It appears that he must also have had time for leisure pursuits. This can be deduced from the fact that today some eight per cent of the population of the territories he conquered have, as measured by male chromosome patterns, a common ancestor dating to about the time of Genghis Khan: that is one in two hundred of all men living today. I have no idea of the ethnic mix of readers of this newspaper, but it must be a good bet that some of you reading this are reading about your greatgrandaddy. Take consolation from the thought that your forebear was, and is, loved and revered by his people, that he outAlexandered Alexander, outNapoleoned Napoleon, and outEmpired the British. If conquest is the measurement he may have been the greatest military commander of all time. Occasionally people describe their political position as being somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan. They flatter themselves: there is no one to the right of Genghis Khan. But I am tempted to speculate that the occasional, no doubt attenuated, gene may just have found its way into Mrs T.