- The Mongol Art of War: Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Military System
The Mongols' place in history is closely linked with the name of Chinggis Khan and with their military conquests. There is a sizeable literature of varying quality on both Chinggis and on the empire he founded, but the saturation point is far away so one must welcome Professor May's attempt to provide a comprehensive description of the highly successful military machinery that allowed a people small in numbers to conquer a sizeable portion of Asia and of eastern Europe.
The material presented by the author is divided into nine sections dealing respectively with: (1) the rise and expansion of the Mongol Empire, 1185– 1265; (2) recruitment and organization of the Mongol Army; (3) training and equipping the Mongol warrior; (4) care of the army: logistics, supply, and medical care; (5) espionage, tactics, and strategy; (6) leadership; (7) opponents of the Mongols; (8) at war with the Mongols; and (9) legacy of the Mongols.
This seems a good enough framework to present the material culled from the available sources but the author seems to make no distinction between traditional steppe warfare—which allowed the Mongol advance as far as Russia—and campaigns against the Chinese Song or Jin dynasties fought mostly by non-Mongol troops, in traditional Chinese ways. May's descriptions jump from one military theater to the other and follow no clear chronology. He often fails to ask some important questions the material would warrant. For instance why does he not wonder why the Mongols waged war? Or what prompted the Mongols to embark on their long campaigns? To be sure, as the poet Margaret Atwood put it: "Wars happen because the ones who start them think they can win." Yet the historian should look for more specific reasons. In the case of the Mongol conquest there must have been well-defined aims for such operations to begin. Pure territorial expansion was certainly not one of them. Occasionally, we know the reason that prompted a Mongol attack. Thus, the Mongol ultimatum sent in 1238 to King Béla IV of Hungary, unknown to May, reproaches the king with the disappearance of Mongol envoys sent to him and with providing asylum to the Cumans fleeing from the Mongols. Other campaigns were motivated by other factors, personal vengeance, booty or, as Amitai-Preiss once remarked, "to keep the Mongol tribesmen busy." May rarely delves into the motives of the various military campaigns.
The author likes to pepper his text with references to western military practices, from Byzantine to French under Henry IV, and there is even one to the military quality of a U.S. Navy SEAL. For lack of relevant knowledge, I cannot judge all of May's remarks concerning the legacy of Mongol warfare to western military thinkers. Yet, contrary to his view, I think that the idea of the Blitzkrieg of World War II is basically different from the Mongol concept of warfare. What characterized the long-range Mongol campaigns was slow advance that could take years preceding the final onslaught. [End Page 1223]
The text could have profited from a thorough editing or, better still, from more careful writing. We find for example: "they not could be considered" (p. 45), "each Mongol took several remounts . . . to avoid exhausting their horses" (p. 54), "Baghdad entered Mongol hands" (p. 133), "Jin commanders who the other hand reached" (p. 136), "The Kalmyks . . . served an important role" (p. 141), etc., etc.—the Mongol "ü"is pronounced as "ü" in German or "u" in French and not as "oo"as in "goose".
This may be a book worth reading, but a final word on "the Mongol art of war" it is not.