Chris Peers, Genghis Khan and the Mongol War Machine (Goodrich)

Chris Peers

Genghis Khan and the Mongol War Machine

(Pen & Sword Military, 2015) 194pp.  $39.99

Ghengis Khan

Genghis Khan is a figure who is so well known that he hardly needs an introduction.  In like manner, the military exploits of the Mongols are the stuff of legend.  In Genghis Khan and the Mongol War Machine, Chris Peers undertakes a new and fresh study of Genghis Khan, the man and the commander, which he quite correctly asserts must be placed and understood in the context of the Mongol society of the time.  Furthermore, he examines Mongol military capabilities in great detail and includes a concise account of Genghis’ campaigns and conquests on his way to building the Mongol empire, also including information on its splintering and eventual decline under his successors.

Peers clearly states the aim of his book as trying to explain how Genghis achieved all that he did.  He asks “Was he a true empire builder, or just the world’s most successful bandit?” (xvii)  He likewise follows this question with several more.  “Was he a genius who single-handedly altered the course of world history, or did he ride to success on the back of forces stronger than any human will?  How did the Mongols conquer most of the known world?” (xvii)  His aim is to undertake a complete reassessment of Genghis the man and the army that followed him.  His research on these topics is both thorough and concise, but perhaps not always totally conclusive.

Peers begins his study of necessity with an evaluation of the source material that exists regarding Genghis and his times.  As is often the case with the study of medieval history, there are questions concerning the dating and accuracy of the source materials that exist.  Peers relies heavily on Urgunge Onon’s English translation of the Secret History of the Mongols, particularly for the early life of the man himself.  Other sources come from outside Mongolia, including the Persian writers Ata Malik Juvaini and Rashid ud-Din, although not all of this work is available in translation.  Another source is the Tabaqat-i Nasiri of Juzjani, who served in the Khwarizmian army and saw combat action against the Mongols.  Still other sources are Chinese, some being official court records and others different accounts.  A few sources are European, including papal envoys sent to the Great Khans, and even the journal of Marco Polo, who served at the court of Kubilia Khan in China.  On several occasions, Peers mentions a limited availability of sources in translation or more generally.  It is not clear whether he means that he himself lacks linguistic familiarity with Chinese, or whether the records have been made available at all by the Chinese, or even whether such records exist at all and, if so, how many survive.  One can only speculate upon how much difference such sources might make to the narrative.

The bulk of the work is dedicated to explaining what can be learned through the sources, and cross-referenced with other scholarly works and later evidence, of the rise of Genghis and the Mongols.  The first chapter, for instance, describes the world in which Genghis was born and raised.  Sometimes forgotten are the conditions of Mongolia itself, and Peers brings the reader up to speed on the aspects of a seemingly barren land full of grasslands and horses and sometimes scant resources.  The area is long-inhabited and has often faced incursions from other nomadic peoples or from larger states, most notably China.  The second chapter tells the story of Temujin (as Genghis Khan was then known) and his rise to prominence among the peoples of the Steppe–of whom there seem to have been a very great many of diverse tribes, origins, and customs.  The third chapter describes in detail the army of the Khan and how it may have worked, from organization and size to the appearance and life of the individual soldiers.  Attention is given to the equipment of the Mongols and their adversaries, but special attention is given to their bows and their skill as archers, along with the Mongol ponies and the Mongols’ skill at riding them.  It is in this element that Peers seems exceptionally comfortable.  In describing Mongol tactics, he writes “Once battle was joined, Mongol tactics would be tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy.  If he exposed his flanks he could be surrounded.  If he stood in a strong defensive position he could be observed and harassed by cavalry patrols until shortage of supplies forced him to move, when the main army would attack.” (71)  His analytical style of prose is very succinct, and Peers applies it in many places throughout the book.

His next several chapters describe his wars in the East, and then in the West, ending with the eventual conquest of north China.  Highlights in the east include the war against the Chin, the battle of Huan-erh-tsui and the capture of Chung-tu.  In the west, much effort is put forth in the conquest of the Khwarizmians, beginning after 1219.  There are several notable battles and massacres, before Genghis moves further west and begins conquering European peoples, first defeating a Ukrainian force of great size at the Kalka River and then a Mongol force moved towards and defeated the Volga Bulgars under the sons of Genghis. After a lengthy time, all of China fell as well, which then caused a sort of merging between the two cultures.  A Mongol dynasty of emperors was established and some of the Chinese resources could be brought to bear in the Mongol armies.

In the final two chapters, Peers delves into some of the questions posed in his introduction.  Did the Mongols have a real empire? And what should be the final verdict on Genghis himself?  In answering the first question, Peers qualifies an answer by writing “Any attempt to evaluate Genghis’ legacy encounters the difficulty that we cannot be sure what he was trying to achieve.” (153)  This is certainly true of any individual who has not left written records to this effect.    The evidence for this is indirect, but as Peers points out, it would seem that Genghis had “vision of extraordinary scope” (154) even though direct evidence is somewhat lacking.  It is possible such vision did not exist in the beginning, but that Genghis had developed it later in life.  Evidence exists from the time of his grandsons which seems to suggest as much.  The debate has existed concerning Genghis’ status as a genuine empire builder versus his perception as a robber baron on a grand scale.  The evidence as presented by Peers seems to suggest that perhaps elements of both were in play, since the term ’empire’ suggests more standardization than was actually present.  He does nonetheless argue for the eventual goal of a long-lasting state organization based on the keeping of written records, which is hardly what we might expect of a simple bandit.  In any case, Peers does a fine job of tracing the demise of the empire as a single unit under the successors of Genghis, breaking as it does into several parts and never again regaining a position of singular rule under one hegemonic individual.

A related question to the question of Empire building is the question of battle casualties and human cruelty inflicted by the Mongols upon others.  Much of the reputation of Genghis and the Mongols in the west over the last century or so has been that of extremely violent men who were vicious killers, bent on genocide of conquered people and, apparently, doing this in some sense because of a racist contempt for non-Mongols.  While Peers does not deny that a lot of people were killed, he is able to prove that much of the killing took place in the violent conquest of the Khwarizimian Empire and that in no case was anything approaching genocide reached or even desired by the Mongols.  In fact, he convincingly proves that–just as is often the case with medieval records–the few numbers as they are given in the sources are little more than guesses and that the number of killings claimed cannot be accurate.  As for racist motivation, there is little evidence either way, but Peers calls such claims “hypocritical” in light of many things written by outsiders concerning the Mongols themselves.  As one example, he gives the words of Friar Jordan of Giano, who described the Mongols as “inhuman and of the nature of beasts, rather to be called monsters than men, thirsting after and drinking blood, and tearing and devouring the flesh of dogs and human beings” (169-170).  Such views naturally figure strongly into western thought concerning the Mongols.

As for Genghis himself, Peers takes a well-thought out middle position with which this reviewer strongly agrees.  It is necessary not to view Genghis too strongly one way or the other, since the sources are both patchy at best and somewhat biased.  Genghis emerges from these sources as a man of certain qualities and shortcomings.  To quote Peers, he was not the “demi-god portrayed by some of his modern admirers, but neither was he the monster of the traditional western view.” (178)

Peers’ work is well-written and easy to read, with a minimal numbers of editorial errors or even typos.  It contains 23 plates to aid in illustration, a timeline of the career of Genghis Khan, his family line, and best of all, a “Who’s Who” section on 13th century Mongolia, which is helpful for specialists and non-specialists alike as a quick reference guide.  There is also one modern map showing the area, a good list of notes on his sources, and a decent bibliography that does include many primary sources in translation.  All in all, the book was a fine read and is a useful source for Mongolian history and medieval studies in general.  Both specialists and non-specialists should find things in this book to their liking and much useful information.

Russ Goodrich, PhD
William Woods University

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