Playing the Steppe Warfare Game

Monday, September 15th, 2014

The only way to dismantle a nomadic empire is to play the steppe warfare game as well as they do:

That meant changing both the strategic aims and tactical principles Chinese armies usually relied on in extended campaigns. Sunzi’s judgment that “one who excels in employing the military subjugates other people’s armies without engaging in battle, captures people’s fortified cities without attacking them, and destroys other people’s states without prolonged fighting. He must fight under Heaven with the paramount aim of ‘preservation’” was sensible in the context it was written — a world of agrarian warfare in an interstate system of two dozen petty kingdoms that lacked the means to sustain extended operations — but it was suicidal on the steppe. “Preservation” cannot be the paramount aim of an army operating on the steppe. A nomad that gets away is a nomad that will fight you on a later day. Conversely, nomadic peoples had very little in terms of lands, cities, or possessions worth plundering or preserving. A nomadic empire’s greatest wealth was its people. Warfare between nomadic confederations were ultimately wars over people, where one side would do everything in its power to slaughter as much as the enemy as they could and capture, forcibly resettle, and incorporate into their own military anybody left over.

The Han followed the same basic strategy. The aim of generals like Wei Qing and Huo Qubing was to kill every single man, woman and child they came across and by doing so instill such terror in their enemies that tribes would surrender en masse upon their arrival. By trapping the Xiongnu into one bloody slug match after another the Han forced them into a grinding war of attrition that favored the side with the larger population reserves. The Xiongnu were unprepared for such carnage in their own lands; within the first decade of the conflict the Han’s sudden attacks forced the Xiongnu to retreat from their homeland in the Ordos to the steppes of northern Mongolia. Then came a sustained — and successful — effort to apply the same sort of pressure on the Xiongnu’s allies and vassals in Turkestan and Fergana. By sacking oasis towns and massacring tribes to the east, the Han were able to terrorize the peoples of Turkestan into switching their allegiance to China or declare their independence from the Xiongnu.

The Xiongnu were left isolated north of the Orkhorn. Under constant military pressure and cut off from the goods they had always extorted from agrarian peoples in China and Turkestan, the Xiongnu political elite began to fracture. A series of succession crises and weak leaders ensued; by 58 BC the Xiongnu’s domain had fallen into open civil war. It was one of the aspiring claimants to the title of Chanyu that this conflict produced who traveled to Chang’an, accepted the Han’s suzerainty, and ended eighty years of war between the Han and the Xiongnu.

How did the Chinese transform an enemy whose realm stretched thousands of miles across Inner Asia into a mere tributary vassal? They did it through eighty years of flame and blood and terror. Any narrative of Han-Xiongnu relations that passes over these sixty years of grueling warfare is a dishonest depiction of the times.

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