How the Mongols rose from obscurity to create the largest Eurasian land empire in history has long puzzled historians. This book’s superbly conceived, excellently executed, comprehensive and accessible analysis will go a long way toward answering that question.
The “Prologue” effectively introduces Chinggis Khan by narrating the events which led him to inform the population of the conquered city of Bukhara, “I am the punishment of God,” a pithy adumbration of Mongol ideology. This is followed by a narrative chapter on the creation of the Mongol Empire. Five succinct thematic chapters deal with recruitment and organisation; training and equipment; logistics, supply, and medical care (an often overlooked topic); espionage, tactics and strategy; and leadership (which includes capsule biographies of five Mongol generals). Two composite chapters then contain a survey of the Mongols’ opponents and capsule analyses of episodes of Mongol warfare: the Khwarezmian campaign, battles against the Naiman in 1204-05 and the Rus’ and Qipchaqs in 1223, and the sieges of Baghdad in 1258 and of the Jin capital of Caizhou in 1234-35. The final chapter, “The Legacy of the Mongols,” examines the Mongol influence on later warfare in Eastern Europe, on the German blitzkrieg, and the Soviet concept of “deep battle.”
T. May emphasises that the Mongols were not just a rampaging horde living off the land, but a disciplined force waging war based on planning and coordination. The Mongols retained traditional steppe military weaponry and tactics but refined them by adding strict discipline, which did not, however, preclude concern for the welfare of men and horses alike. The predetermined schedules that Mongol field armies had to meet were essential to resupply horses and find pastures. Thus, although T. May does not make the comparison, at least by reputation Chinggis more resembled Napoleon than George Patton. The Mongols did not require superior numbers to win because they relied on “mobility, firepower and subterfuge” (71). The Mongols possessed great depth of leadership and commanders were permitted individual initiative in how they fulfilled their assignments. Thus the Mongol armies could “march divided but fight united” (83). Finally, the Mongols adapted to each enemy’s strengths and advantages, demonstrating the flexibility that made continued conquest possible.
Only the Mamluks never succumbed to the Mongol advance. T. May qualifies John Masson Smith, Jr.’s conclusion that the Mamluks were superior warriors man-for-man by pointing out that the Mongol armies were not élite units, did not require comparable skill at swordsmanship since they avoided hand-to-hand combat, and were hampered by the ecology of Syria which did not permit the Ilkhanate, even if it had not faced more pressing concerns with the Juchid and Chaghatayid successor states, to dispatch as many men or horses to Syria as required for victory. I would add that the Mamluks never had to face either Chinggis or his “Four Hounds” in battle. The only other professional soldier who could compare with the Mongol mounted archer was the Japanese samurai. T. May refutes numerous myths about the Mongols. Far from haunch-eating barbarians, the Mongol diet was primarily dairy. Massacres of cities were psychological warfare, not barbaric cruelty, and sometimes happened despite the wishes of Mongol commanders. Chinggis ordered the relentless pursuit of defeated rulers not from sadism but from experience; defeated nomad rulers who escaped had often come back to haunt him during his rise to power in Mongolia.
There are some disappointing omissions. While mentioning that in training Mamluks often rose in the saddle to shoot, T. May does not emphasise that Mongols always rode and shot standing on their stirrups, despite his photograph showing this technique. T. May does not discuss the nökor (plural nökud), personal, that is non-clan-related, servitors of Chinggis, his nökör (retinue); the terms are absent from the Glossary. Specialists would have preferred discussion of the disagreements between Buell and Ostrowski on the tamma (élite frontier units), probably not suitable for a general audience. Much of this analysis is familiar to specialists, but T. May always adds insights and conclusions of his own. Two will suffice here. The theory sounds nice, but there is a lack of evidence that silk garments impeded the penetration of arrows. Carpini did not appreciate that Mongol rules on the use of river water for cleanliness derived from an appreciation of the importance of maintaining water purity for the health of troops and herds alike.
T. May’s pithy prose and catchy phrases greatly enhance the pleasure of reading this book. The five maps; genealogical table of rulers of the Mongol Empire; numerous sketch drawings of battles; charts of the keshik (Imperial bodyguard), Mongol army on the march, caracole (attack in cavalry waves), and envelopment tactics; eight pages of black-and-white photographs of the Mongolian steppes, military re-enactments, armour, helmets, boots, manuscript illustrations, correspondence, castles in the Middle East, and a view of Kiev; “Pronunciation and transliteration guide”; the absolutely essential Glossary; “List of abbreviations used in the notes” (book end-notes); “Select bibliography” (which, though selective, runs 30 pages!); Index; and Acknowledgments immeasurably enhance the book. Another strength of The Mongol Art of War is its comparative approach, rooting Mongol military practice within the context of the military history of the steppe before and after the Mongol era. Synthesising the vast amount scholarship and data on the Mongol military from the Pacific to the Mediterranean is difficult to accomplish with perfect accuracy. The most egregious typographical error is misnaming the Kalka River on which the Rus’ and Qipchaqs were defeated by Jebe and Sübedai as the Khalka River (17 et seq.), despite (62) naming the Khalka inter alia among rivers in Mongolia and (126) showing the Kalka River in sketch maps of Phases 1 and 3 of the battle. General readers are sure to be confused by two Khalka Rivers; specialists will be amused. Specialists in Russian history would also take issue with T. May’s definition of rural peasant smerdy as comprising urban militias, and his description of Peter the Great as beginning the Russian shift to European-style fighting when this transition began no later than the mid sixteenth century and was completed under Peter the Great.
There are also matters which require further discussion. The conclusions on the continuity of nomadic social structure in David Sneath’s The Headless State: Aristocratic Orders, Kinship Society and Misrepresentations of Nomadic Inner Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2007), which appeared too late for T. May to take into account, will take time to assimilate in scholarship. T. May therefore adheres to the traditional view that Chinggis did not just turn tribes into units but erased old kinship ties among the Mongol, Tatar, Kereit, and Naiman, but he does not clarify his own data that allied tribes or those not included in Chinggis’ heavenly mandate were left unchanged. Also in need of clarification is the assertion that Jamuqa was “the only opponent that Chinggis Khan did not defeat” in battle (88). Both Jamuqa’s victories and final defeat, often in coalition armies, are detailed in his narrative and T. May means that Jamuqa was the only opponent who clearly defeated Chinggis in battle.
All of which goes to say that T. May has raised many serious, substantial, and stimulating issues about the Mongol military. His evaluation of the relevance of Chinggis’ generalship to modern warfare concludes the book in fine fashion: “It would not be surprising for a modern-day military commander, when confronted by a tactical or strategic dilemma, to consider the question: What would Chinggis do (146)?” Such an officer could do no better than to consult The Mongol Art of War to answer that question. As a combination of synthesis and original scholarship on the Mongols for professor and student alike, T. May’s book deserves to be ranked with David O. Morgan’s The Mongols (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), the highest possible praise.