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Genghis Khan and the strategy of war

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I saw "Mongol", the first in a planned trilogy based on the life of Genghis Khan. Despite occasionally disconnected cuts, the movie is stunningly beautiful, filmed in Mongolia and Russia.

Here's a link to the NYTimes review:

After watching the movie, I felt certain that many of the incidents in Temudgen's early life must have been invented by the filmmakers, so I got PAUL RATCHNEVSKY's "Genghis Khan His Life and Legacy" out of the library, and read it. It's all true! (Or, at least, all legendarily true.)

Ratchnevsky (a German Sinologist whose book was translated from German) offers little insight into how, exactly, the Mongols conquered their world, despite being unorganized, technologically backward nomads. Instead, he debunks the notion that Genghis was a brilliant military tactician and strategist. His genius was political -- uniting the warring Mongol factions, and organizing what had been self-interested raiders into a disciplined army.

I don't know about that, BDS. :lol:

There were 3 strategies that are attributed to Genghis Khan's immortality:

  1. Blitzkrieg strategy
  2. Controlled chaos
  3. Divide n conquer

Blitzkrieg strategy

In 1218 muhammad ii, the shah of Khwarizm received ambassadors from the Mongol Empire. They brought fantastic gifts and an offer of a treaty between the two people that would re-open the lucrative Silk Road that connected China and Europe. Now, this shah had a large empire that included modern Iran and most of Afghanistan. Since increased trade would add to his riches and the Mongol ambassadors made it clear that the shah was the greater partner, he signed the treaty.

But a couple of months later, when a Mongol caravan arrived in Otrar, a city in the northeastern corner of the shah's empire, with the intentions of buying luxury items for the Mongol court, the governor of Otrar suspected the men of being spies and had them killed and seized their goods. Genghis Khan responded by sending an ambassador, escorted by two soldiers to the shah and demanded an apology. The demand in itself implied both empires were on equal footing and that ticked off the shah. He had the ambassador decapitated and returned the head to Genghis Khan - the equivalent of declaration of war.

The shah had a well trained Turkish calvary in his army, over 400,000, and twice their enemy's size. He intended to defeat the Mongols and take over their empire. They assumed the Mongols would attack Transoxiana, the easternmost part of the shah's empire. This region was bordered by 500 mile long Syr Dar'ya River in the east, and the Kizil Kum Desert in the north, and the Amu Dar'ya River in the west, and in its interior was the two greatest cities of the empire - Samarkand and Bukhara. So, the shah had a long cordon of soldiers established along the Syr Dar'ya river because the Mongols had to cross that to enter the empire.

They couldn't come from the north because the desert was considered impassable and the south route would have been too silly of a detour. The majority of the army was kept in the interior of Transoxiana, so the shah could reinforce wherever needed. This was considered to be an impregnable defensive position and the numbers were decidedly on the shah's side.

In the summer of 1219, reports of Mongols approaching the southern end of the Syr Dar'ya trickled in. That prompted the shah to send a large force under the command of his son Jalal ad-Din with the purpose to annihilate the enemy. But after a fierce battle, the Mongols retreated, and Jalal ad-Din reported that the Mongols weren't as tough as they were reputed to be. Their men looked frail and the horses were emaciated, and they seemed incapable of sustaining a long battle. The shah was convinced that the Mongols were overmatched and sent more troops to the southern end of the cordon.

Some months later, a new Mongol batallion showed up in the north, out of nowhere, and attacked the city of Otrar and captured its governor - the guy who started the whole thing - and had him killed by pouring molten silver into his eyes and ears.

The shah was stunned at this quick turn of events, and flabbergasted at how they reached Otrar and decided to send more troops to the north. He thought these barbarians may move quickly but they cannot stand up to his army with far superior numbers.

But the Mongol army swept south from Otrar and ran parallel to the Syr Dar'ya and split into two. One began to attack key cities along the river and the other disappeared to the south. the first army swept through the hills and lowlands near the river. The shah moved a good part of his army to the river and left some reserves in Samarkand. The first mongol army was relatively small (20,000) but these mobile units hit one position after another without warning.

Reports poured in from the front line about these strange warriors from the east - this army was entirely calvary. each Mongol not only rode a rose, but also had several more riderless horses trail him, all mares, and once his horse tired, he would mount a fresh one. These horses were light and fast. The Mongols weren't burdened with supply wagons for they carried their own food and drank the mares' milk and blood. Once the horses became weak they were killed for food. Their markmanship was fantastic - either facing forward or in retreat, they fired arrows with extreme skill and accuracy and that made their attacks deadlier than anything the shah's army ever saw. Their divisions could communicate over great distances with torches and flags, and their maneuvers were coordinated but impossible to anticipate.

The constant harrassment exhausted the shah's forces. Now, the 2nd army that had disappeared to the south, reappeared northwest into Transoxiana at a great speed. The shah sent the remaining forces of his army (50,000) to fight this 2nd army. At this point the shah wasn't worried cuz his men had already proved to be superior in direct combat, back in the summer of 1219 under his son's command.

This time the Mongols unleashed strange weapons: arrows dipped in burning tar that created smoke screens where their insanely quick horsemen advanced and opened breaches in the lines of the shah's army where the heavily armed calvary would advance. Chariots went back and forth behind the Mongol lines to bring constant supplies, and the Mongols filled the skies with arrows. They wore shirts with heavy silk and if arrows that pierced the shirt, they rarely reached the skin and could be extracted by pulling the shirt, and this was done at great speed. The shah's forces were annihilated.

He had one option left: retreat to the west and re-trench, rebuild his army. As the shah began preparations, shocking reports came from Bukhara, west of Samarkand: Genghis Khan was already outside of the gates of the city. They appeared from nowhere! The Shah couldn't believe they crossed the desert from the north. Bukhara fell shortly and within days, Samarkand too fell. Soldiers deserted and generals panicked. The shah fled with a small circle of soldiers but the Mongols relentlessly pursued him. Several months later, on an island in the Caspian Sea, the former ruler of the richest empire in the east, abandoned and homeless, finally died of hunger.

In other words, when Genghis Khan became the leader of the Mongol nation, he had inherited the fastest army on the planet, but their swiftness did not truly translate into military superiority. They did perfect the art of fighting on horseback, but they remained undisciplined to take any advantage or coordinate a large scale attack. The Khan's genius was to transform the chaotic speed into something organized, disciplined and strategic that is essentially the ancient Chinese strategy of "slow slow, quick quick."

In the first step, "slow" was the meticulous planning before the campaign. For their attack from the south the Mongols found a guide who knew a chain of oases across the Kizil Kum Desert. He was captured and later he led the Khan's army across this forbidding territory. The 2nd step, was to get the enemy to lower its guard, lull it into complacency. THe mongols lost the first battle on purpose, so the shah's arrogance would grow. The first quick was to fix the enemy's attention to a frontal attack (their raids along the river). The last quick was a doubly swift blow from a completely unexpected direction (the sudden appearance before the gates of Bukhara is possibly the greatest military surprise in history). The Khan was a master of psychological warfare because he understood that people are most terrified by the unknown and the unpredictable. The quickness of his attacks made them twice as effective and sowed confusion and panic.

Controlled chaos

The mongol hordes led by Genghis Khan in the 1st half of the 13th century was the closest precursor to napoleon's coprs. Genghis was a master of mobility in warfare and taught a philosophy of mongol superiority.

His segmented forces disperse n concentrate in complicated patterns. The armies that faced them were flabbergasted at how chaotic they seemed, too bewildering to figure out yet the mongol forces maneuvered with amazing coordination. The soldiers knew what to do and when without being told. The only explanations the victims could come up with was that they were possessed by the devil. :twisted:

Their coordination was the result of their rigorous training. Every winter Genghis Khan ran the Great Hunt, a 3 month long operation that had the entire army scattered along an 80 mile line in the steppes of central asia (now mongolia). A flag hundreds of miles away was the hunt's endpoint. The line would advance, driving all the animals in its path.

The choreographed maneuver would involve a curving of the end line into a circle, and trap the animals within. The endpoint was the center of the circle. Once the circle shrank, the animals were killed, bur the most dangerous of them all, the tigers were the last. The hunt was the exercise of the mongols ability to communicate thru signals at a distance and coordinate their movements with precision, know what to do in different circumstances and act without waiting for orders.

Even being brave became an exercise, in which individual soldiers had to take on a tiger. The hunt and play combined into a technique that taught Genghis' philosophy, building cohesion n trust among the soldiers and sharpen the army's discipline.

Divide n conquer

Genghis Khan was a master at turning terror of losing support and facing death alone into strategy. He used the mobility of the mongol calvary to cut off his enemy's communications, isolate parts of their army to make them feel alone, unprotected. This consciously worked to instill terror. Napoleon and guerrilla forces of mao tse tung also used the divide n isolate strategy.

Source: 33 Strategies of War by Greene

Edited by Campanella

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I read the book very quickly (in a couple of hours) so I'll have to go back and look at it again. Also, the woman I went to the movie with checked it out of the library -- so I'll have to get my hands on it first. Ratchnevsky doesn't dispute that Temudgen used those tactics -- instead he disputes that they were as innovative as some other scholars claim. When I said he "debunks" the notion that Genghis was a military genius, I should perhaps have said he "disagrees" with it, since I don't have an opinion on whether he SUCCESSFULLY debunked anything.

I know he discusses the campaign with Iran, so when I get chance to see the book again, I'll report back on his opinion of that campaign in a little more detail.

Ratchnevsky talks at length about the innovative organizational prinicples of the Genghis's army, based on a sort of "segmentary opposition" principle, and on multiples of ten (military units of 10/100/1000/10000). He suggests that these principle (basically political instead of tactical) were the key reason to the Mongol's military success. I read an excellent New Yorker article on the Mongol invasion of Bahgdad (a generation after Genghis) a couple of years ago. the article was stimulated when Osama Bin Laden claimed the American invaders of Baghdad were "worse than Hulagu". Here's a link:

The biography I read seemed more scholarly - but this New Yorker article is a fun, fun read. I heartily recommend it to any bloodthirsty readers at the GL.

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A couple of things, BDS: tactics is not to be confused with strategy. Tactics deal with the immediate problem by supplying short term solutions, whereas strategy deals with the bigger picture, and are concerned with long term plans. Bill Clinton is/was a master tactician, whereas FDR and Abraham Lincoln were master strategists.

To dismiss Genghis Khan as a tactician is to ignore his grasp of strategy, as explained above. He understood Sun Tzu's point about speed:

War is such that the supreme consideration is speed. This is to take advantage of what is beyond the reach of the enemy, to go by way of routes where he least expects you, and to attack where he has made no preparations.

The German army replicated Genghis Khan's slow-slow quick-quick strategy and pulled off the quickest and most devastating victory in military history in their invasion of France and the Low Countries in 1940. They succeeded because the Allies defense were static and rigid, much like the shah's defense against the Mongols.

The less a thing is foreseen, the more... fright does it cause. This is nowhere seen better than in war, where every surprise strikes terror even to those who are much the stronger. - Xenophon

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I finally had a chance to look at Ratchnevsky's book again (although I don't have it with me). Here are some of his points:

1) In terms of tactics, Genghis Khan lost several battles to other Mongol groups early in his career. Ratchnevsky suggests that this means his tactics were (at that time) no better than those of his enemies.

2) Ratchnevsky has a (slightly) different explanation for Genghis's victories over Kwarizm. First, he lists the Turkish cavalry's numbers as considerably less than 400,000 (I think I remmember 50,000, but I'm not sure). Second, the Shah's armies were not divided because of poor planning (acc. R.), but because the Shah was more concerned with building his dynasty than with building his nation. He never led his troops himself -- and he didn't want to grant too much power to any one general. The result was that the armies' forces were never concentrated.

Samarkand was the key Mongol victory -- a sortie by the Turkish cavalry (with elephants) was defeated using the standard Mongol tactic of feigning retreat and then outflanking the pursuers. However, the city only fell when the Muslim clerics betrayed the Shah and sent envoys to Genghis Khan surrendering the city in return for their personal safety. There were 50,000 clerics -- which suggests that tens of thousands had been enrolled in clerical roles at the last moment to save their lives. 30,000 Turkish soldiers were massacred, largely by being betrayed by their supposed allies. Shah Kwarizm himself was roundly hated by many of his vassals, and acc. R., his empire imploded when the Mongols invaded, largely because it was such a loose and diverse confederation.

3) Genghis' campaigns in China succeeded for much the same reason. Different ethnic and political groups sided with the Mongols.

4) R.'s tone certainly suggests that he is disagreeing with standard historical analysis, which empahsizes the Mongol tactical and strategic innovations. R. claims that the Mongols had used the same tactics for centuries and that the strategies were relatively standard. However, he claims Genghis was brilliant politically -- forming alliances with subcultures and political factions, allowing freeedom of religion (especially important in his wars with the Muslims), and using a combination of terror toward his enemies and generosity toward his supporters to achieve his astounding victories.

I'm no expert -- so I don't have a strong opinion on whether R. is right, or the more standard analysis (suggested by Campanella) is more accurate.

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I just started reading, "Genghis Khan: Making of the Modern World" by Jack Weatherford. Like the Ratchnevsky book, it

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