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GTBT: The Mongol Invasions

*Note: This Good Thing, Bad Thing column was written in a months-long delirium while recovering from spousal poisoning and/or revolutionary sedition. Please do not reproach me overmuch if you notice any errors in spelling, grammar, or the like. The historical accuracy remains, of course, unimpeachable.

Now, maybe it's me, but whenever I walk into a store these days, I always get some uppity clerk or customer telling me, "Sir... Sir... You need to wear a mask, sir!" And boy, do I ever feel like punching them in the goddamn face.

I swear to God, if I hear one more useless know-it-all give me the third degree about the CHINESE VIRUS - oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I meant COOOOOOVID-19 - I'm going to shit my pants just to spite them. These jokers all look the same too. Shrill pink-haired harpies and self-important wiener-boys. The kind of people who enjoy ethnic food and ride their bikes to work. Makes me sick.

For Christ's sake, what the hell happened? When exactly did this nation of explorers and builders and inventors become a whiny bunch of fretful pansies? Sure, the KUNG-FLU is a pandemic and everything. But it's also the most boring one imaginable. It ain't no bubonic plague, that's for damn sure. Hell, it ain't even polio, or mumps, or the measles, or the hundreds of other hideous diseases people used to deal with on a regular basis.

So the Corona pops into a major city and kills five thousand people. Boo hoo. Tell that to anyone with the ridiculously rotten luck to be born during the Black Death. Think about the poor dumb bastards who had to look out their window one morning and say to their loved ones, "Aw shit, it's the Mongols!" - which after months of exhaustive research, I can confidently assert is the most terrifying prospect of all time.

Saddle up, ladies. This shit ain't going to be pretty. It sure ain't no "socially-distanced" walk in the park, if you follow me. Let me tell you about what a real unstoppable killing machine looks like. No, dear reader, it's not the BOOMER REMOVER. Today it's the Mongol Horde.

Allow me to set the stage. It is the waning days of the 12th Century. Soon, a hitherto unknown people from the backwaters of Asia will burst into the historical record with such ferocious grandeur people will all but lose their minds. I only wish a few of our excellent newspapermen were around back then to chronicle the mayhem: Mostly Peaceful Horde Sacks Kaifang. Population Slaughtered In Largely Civil Demonstration.

The carnival of horrors unleashed by the triumphant Mongols staggers credulity. Despite their best attempts, the recent "peaceful protests" could not manage one tenth of one percent of the desecration wrought by these ruthless horsemen. In little more than a generation, the Mongol khans would topple a dynasty in China, wipe several empires off the map, eviscerate the Islamic world, and penetrate the walls of Christendom.

How and why did they accomplish all this? Though so-called "actual history professors" will debate these questions, the truth may prove to be rather simple. Perhaps the How answers the Why. Perhaps they conquered because they could, because as it turns out, there was something extraordinary about the Mongols. Something uniquely lethal.

Certainly the world had seen their like before. A succession of nomadic peoples had previously decamped Central Asia in search of swag and tribute. But none had the staying power the Mongols had. None were capable of building a lasting empire. The Mongols did, and (dare I say it) went about their brutal conquests with a flair and panache that somewhat cloaks their otherwise despicable crimes against humanity.

What made the Mongols so special? What exactly went into their secret sauce? How did a band of backward nomads carve-up mighty empires like they were hams baked by anyone besides my useless wife? Well, I would argue the answer begins and ends with the figure most associated with the Mongol people. Let me tell you about a man so great his name literally means "great man".

Let me tell you about Genghis Kahn.

John Wayne, in a completely accurate portrayal.

What makes a man a man? Is it winning wars and siring children? The answer, of course, is yes. And by that metric, Genghis Khan is no doubt the manliest MAN ever to walk the face of the earth. This goddamn stallion is responsible for 1% of the global population. Let me repeat that. 1% of all people alive today (70 million souls) are descended from Genghis Khan.

That's an impregnation every hour, on the hour, if you're counting. It's exhausting merely to contemplate. I mean, at most, I was lucky to catch the missus in the mood maybe twice a year. Otherwise she was basically Fort Knox with a mild odor problem. Genghis Kahn, by contrast, had whole camps of concubines following him around wherever he went. Dude hit home-runs like it was nobody's business. Off-the-charts slugging percentage. These are historical facts.

Born Temijun Borjigin around 1162, little would suggest this impoverished son of a minor chieftain would one day rise to establish the largest empire the world had ever seen. He spent his youth kidnapping wives, or being kidnapped himself, or escaping his kidnappers, or rescuing kidnapped wives, since there wasn't very much else to do in a place that looked like this:

You know, your standard Mongol education. By age twenty-one, Temijun had at least three wives, who knows how many children, and a host of other problems, but meaningful purpose wasn't one of them. His youthful adventures in a land of tribal intrigue and frequent betrayal had left a lasting impression. Most of all, his heart ached at the unfulfilled potential of the Mongol people. He sensed that they were destined for a higher calling, a divine mission, as he described it. To unite the entire world under one banner and put an end to internecine conflict once and for all.

He began with nothing. Not even an army. Merely a motley band of friends and close relatives. And yet, in a series of petty wars, Temijun slowly fought his way to mastery of the Mongol plains. Right away, his unique qualities were in evidence.

Instead of the standard boil-your-captives-alive approach, Temijun regularly spared the best and brightest of his vanquished. He sought out the most capable of his enemies and persuaded them to join his forces. It was no mean feat keeping so many prideful (and often vengeful) Mongols in line, but somehow Temijun made it all work. He had that special touch.

This highly meritocratic approach would become a trademark of sorts - one of the ingredients in that secret sauce I mentioned. In time, the Mongol Horde would absorb siege engineers from China, scribes and bureaucrats from Persia, as well as talented warriors from neighboring non-Mongol nomads - including Subutai, perhaps the most brilliant military commander in history - all of which increased the range and capability of the Mongol armies far beyond the rampaging barbarians who preceded them.

By 1186, Temijun, having brought the Mongol tribes into a single alliance, was elected "Genghis Khan" - meaning greatest king - the ruler of all who dwelt in felt tents. From that moment, the Mongol horsemen, so far unnoticed by history, exploded like a nuclear bomb. Or in their own words:

"We will make you Khan; you shall ride at our head, against our foes. We will throw ourselves like lightning on your enemies. We will bring you their finest women and girls, their rich tents like palaces."

-- The Secret History of the Mongols

The world was basically fucked. And for two key reasons: culture and geography. Let me explain a few things to you youngsters who can't even find a gas station without the goddamn "google" blaring directions at you. Let me tell you about the Steppe.

To be more precise, the Eurasian Steppe, of which Mongolia lies at the extreme eastern end. It is a sea of yawning grassland - treeless, riverless, mountainless, - stretching unbroken from the Balkan Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, a range of some 5,000 miles. It was through the steppe that the Silk Road of antiquity brought Chinese goods into the hands of Persian and later Arab traders. It was here also that the mathematical concept of zero emerged from India and entered into Western understanding.

And it was here, who knows how many years ago, that some ballsy son-of-a-bitch first jumped onto the back of a horse and took it for a joy-ride. Hundreds of panties dropped that day - let me tell you - and ever since, the mounted barbarian tribesmen constituted an existential threat to the settled agricultural societies at their margins.

Ancient Mesopotamia was bedeviled by the Scythians, ancient China by the Xiongnu. Mighty Rome fell prostrate before the ravages of the Huns. In a later era, the Turks would run roughshod over everybody, until they themselves would be trampled underfoot... by the Mongols.

But no matter their language or origin, geographical constraints stamped each of the steppe peoples with a common imprint. Unlike life in an urban society, in which a surplus of food allows for a specialization of labor, the life of a pastoral nomad demanded competence across a wide range of skills. Every man or woman was expected to ride, hunt, slaughter their own food, fabricate their own necessities, and so on.

It was a tough, cruel, unforgiving life. Children that didn’t pack the necessary gear were often abandoned – a policy I would like to see renewed in our public schools, frankly – and those who survived made for the greatest warriors the world has ever seen.

Take, for example, the steppe warrior's signature weapon: the recurve (or composite) bow. This little puppy was the most deadly thing before the arrival of modern firearms. As powerful as a longbow, its smaller size allowed it to be used from horseback, giving the steppe horsemen an incontestable advantage.

While most armies of the period would form dense formations and slowly lumber towards the enemy, the steppe horse-archers would run-and-gun, shooting fat wads of long, hard arrows into thick, swollen ranks - "wet and gushy", as the recent expression goes. Then came the "pull-out game", feigning retreat only to turn on their would-be pursuers, now exhausted and helpless.

In many ways, the Mongols were the final evolution of the steppe nomad, the apex of a way of life that had existed for thousands and thousands of years. Your average Mongol spent 17 hours in the saddle a day, dismounting only to shit, sleep, and screw. They wore the same clothes day after day until they rotted off of them. Their stench was reported to be "obscene".

Mongol horses themselves were short, stocky, rugged beasts capable of bearing a rider long distances. Typically the Mongols rode mares, since they were more maneuverable in battle, required less forage, and provided milk when the food supply ran low. Mares also had the advantage of keeping a young man "warm" in the middle of the night, if you catch my drift. Yes, yes, you heard me right. They also invented "death metal" or whatever the hell this is.

Such was the unholy instrument Genghis Khan had in his hands by the year 1206. He began by hurling his armies against the Jurchen, another steppe people who were themselves attempting to conquer China at the time. The Mongols - outnumbered, mind you - swiftly put them out of their misery.

At first, the ruling Song Dynasty didn't know what to make of these strange newcomers. They warily tried to fob the Mongols off with a little tribute, but Genghis had his eyes on the big fish all along. Soon his armies were pouring southward into the Chinese heartland, and the Song, you might say, were singing quite a different "tune".

Now, I don't know if you youngsters realize this or not, but China is, in fact, really, really big. Conquering it would go on a few more decades, so in the meantime, Genghis sent half his forces westward under the command of Subutai. They ran smack into the Khwarazmians, a Persian conglomerate with a silly name, and frankly just in the way. So, this happened:

Sayonara, Khwarazmians. Next on the chopping block were the Christian kingdoms of Kiev (1240) and Hungary (1241). Then the Arabs got their asses spanked at the fall of Baghdad (1258), an event which brought an end to the Islamic Golden Age, and suffice it to say, all the Christians who actually accomplished its most impressive achievements (but nobody tells you that).

In 1276, China was finally pacified, and thus, the Mongol Invasions came to a close. The Chinese capital was moved from the south to the newer northern city of Dadu, where it remains to this day. You may know it as Beijing (or Peking, if you have any balls) and that was that.

Only a handful of the times were the Mongols ever checked. The Mamluks of Egypt managed it at Ain Jalut (1260), the Vietnamese blocked their advances on numerous occasions, and the Mongols failed to invade Japan (1274) when a sudden typhoon smashed their entire fleet. This was the origin of the legendary Kamikaze, or "divine wind", which the Japanese attempted to replicate in '44 - with laughable results.

Genghis Khan died in 1227, leaving the greater part of his heavenly project to his descendants. After the death of his grandson, Kublai Khan, in 1294, the Mongol Empire, which at its height spanned over 9 million square miles, fractured into four lesser entities: the Yuan Dynasty (China), the Ilkhanate (Middle East), the Chagatai Khanate (Central Asia), and the Golden Horde (Siberia).

Each of these coalitions would remain a potent military and political force in the years to come, but never again would so great a share of the world acknowledge a single ruler. In a sense then, the raison d'etre for the Mongol Conquests, the great vision of Genghis Khan, failed to materialize. But one question remains.

Good thing, bad thing?

Put it to you this way: The Mongols gave precisely zero fucks. They raped, tortured, and killed millions upon millions of people. The exact figure cannot be known with certainty, and it remains a point of active debate, but a reasonable sum of 40 million - approximately 11% of the world's population at the time - died as a result of the Mongol Invasions.

Mongol terror was real and something Genghis and his successors actively cultivated. When sacking a city, especially in the early days, the Mongols would slaughter (by hand) every living thing they found and put the city to the torch. It simply ceased to be. The work of so many families and so many generations. All of it. Gone.

Unfortunately, this tactic was extremely effective. Unfortunately, as brave as some individuals can be, societies as a whole often are not. If there is a sliver of a hope that escape can be purchased - even if it means selling your sons into slavery and your daughters into whoredom - many will choose to bear the indignity. It is just common sense, they might tell you. Common sense, they call it.

In practice, this meant a city of many thousands would often surrender to a handful of Mongol scouts. Even so, the Mongols systematically killed the surrendered men and boys, sparing the women and girls for a life of humiliation, rape, and slavery.

Now, this isn't a very happy note to leave you on, but at the end of the day this isn't a very happy story. Two things can be true at once. Genghis Khan was a remarkable man. The Mongols were an exceptional people. They were also responsible for the brutal rape and murder of millions. The "divine mission" perceived by Genghis was a ghastly nightmare for those forced to endure it. If that is the price of "progress", if that is the price of increased trade, or political unity, or whatever other social good commenced by the Mongol Empire, then it was a terrible bargain.

I hope all you youngsters keep that in mind when your moronic teachers spout some drivel about "changing the world". That's all I hear at commencements and graduations these days. And as an honest educator, it makes me want to pull a page out of the Mongol book, burn down the goddamn school, and piss on the ashes.

Genghis Khan dreamed of changing the world, but what really did he change? Under his rule, the world grew more violent, not less so. The Mongol people erupted with destructive brilliance for a century, then flamed out into mediocrity. The Yuan Dynasty gave way to the Ming Dynasty. The other khanates disintegrated. The world moved on. The modern nation of Mongolia is hardly any better than it was the day Genghis Khan was born: a land of nomadic poverty, made all the worse by a turn to Communism at the start of the twentieth century.

In 2008, Mongolia erected a statue to Khan. It certainly is elaborate and impressive. There sits the irresistible khan atop a proud charger, his gaze boldly fixed towards the horizon. And yet, the mighty man stares across a barren waste in the midst of an unimportant country - and seldom is he visited.

Anyway, that's all for this week (month).

Do your reading,

James O'Flannery


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