Discipline and Flexibility

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

It may not be possible to isolate one, single variable that can account for the epochal success of the Mongol military machine, but T. Greer takes a stab at it:

In contrast to both the kingdoms the Mongols destroyed and every other nomadic confederation that preceded or followed his empire, Chinggis Khan possessed the complete loyalty of his troops and his generals. The men under his command were absolutely, and to their enemies, terrifyingly, united. Chinggis Khan could wage simultaneous wars on opposite sides of the known world, erode the internal cohesion of every kingdom his envoys visited, and paralyze enemy defenses with a flood of independently commanded units only because of the fearsome unity and loyalty of his forces.

At the height of its power the Khwarezm Dynasty controlled everything between the Aral Sea and the Persian Gulf. The Khwarezm era was the golden age of Central Asia — when historians talk about the contributions of Islamic civilization to science, mathematics, poetry, philosophy, and art, they are almost always talking about men who were from this region or lived there before the Mongols took over. It was the sorry task of the the Persian historian Ata-Malik Juvayni to record the story of this civilization’s total destruction at Mongol hands and explain to posterity how a pagan warlord had over-whelmed the abode of Islam.


I do not think Juvayni fully realized how powerful his explanation for the Mongol Empire’s expansion was. It is probable that he developed it while reflecting on the ill fate of the house of Khwarezm, where his grand-father served as a court minister. The Mongols erupted onto the scene during the reign of Muhammad II of Khwarezm (r. 1200-1220), the last real Shah of Khwarezmia. The Shah’s court was divided from the moment the Mongol invasion began, and a particularly sore divide arose between Muhammad and his son Jalal ad-Din about how to organize the empire’s defenses. Many in the court argued that the Shah should mobilize the entire armed forces of the empire — who would have outnumbered the Mongol forces at least 3:1 — and confront the Mongols in a decisive battle. The Shah shied away from such an approach, aware that he did not have the tactical genius needed to command such a force and afraid of giving so much power to any subordinate of his who did. Instead the army was divided amongst Khwarezmia’s many cities; with its size thus diluted it was easy for the Mongols to sweep in and destroy each detachment one by one. Even after this process was well under way and the outlines of the Mongol strategy were clear to the Shah his court was too divided to commit themselves to a clear counter strategy. These divisions extended out into the hinterlands of the empire. The court watched with horror as first nomadic tribes, then cities, then entire regions of the Khwarazmia were isolated from the court and then declared for the Mongols. In less than two years the entire empire had disintegrated.

While none of the Mongol’s other foes imploded so spectacularly, sowing dissension and division within the ranks of their enemies was an essential element of all Mongol campaigns. Whether they were fighting Hungarian monarchs on Pannonian plains or Song Dynasty navies on the Yangtze, the Mongols were masters at turning their enemies against each other. The same could not be said about the Mongol’s rivals. No one ever managed to turn a Mongol. For the first three generation of the empire there were no secession crises, no infighting, and few traitors. Powerful commanders deferred to their leaders, even when, as Juvainyi hints, doing so meant to demotion or punishment. This is really quite extraordinary when you consider the kind of positions these commanders were placed in. Consider the case of Muqali, one of the greatest but least known of the Mongol generals. While Chinggis was off fighting the Khawarezm Empire and other enemies in the West, Muqali was placed in charge of the war effort in Northern China. For six years he controlled all of Mongolia, Manchuria, and the North China plain and for six years he fought the Jin Empire without losing a single battle. He was a powerful and popular commander. But neither he nor his sons ever challenged the great Khan’s authority. There is no evidence that Chhingis ever feared that they would.


The leadership class was deeply committed to the Mongol cause. Perhaps just as significantly, so were the front line troops. Though they came from different tribes, spoke different languages, and in many cases worshiped different gods, the Mongol campaign forces displayed a level of unity and discipline none of their contemporaries could match. The loyalty these troops displayed was significant for an empire created entirely out of whole cloth just a few decades earlier. The unity and obedience they displayed in their maneuvers was hardly less astounding. Contemporary observers marveled at the ease with which Mongol commanders were able to order their men and discipline those who broke these orders.

This gave the Mongol forces a flexibility most of their opponents lacked. Because units adhered to similar standards, responded immediately to orders from above, and were led by men whose loyalty was never under question, Mongol khans were free to create a decentralized command structure that allowed individual tumen latitude for independent action.


  1. Candide III says:

    I have a biography of Genghis Khan by Yevgeny Kychanov (in Russian), called “The Life of Temuchin” (that being Genghis Khan’s real name — the latter is a title of honor). He uses extensively the primary histories, including Juvayni, as well as Mongols’ “innermost”, or “secret”, history which was made for the use of Genghis’s heirs and contains many unpleasant details about Genghis’s life which were glossed out in official histories, like his killing his blood brother. Kychanov states several times that Genghis was always more apprehensive of his own coethnics than of any outside enemy. He quotes Rashid-al-Din, a contemporary historian, to the effect that in 1209, setting out to attack the Jin empire, Genghis left two thousand men in Mongolia specifically to discourage any subversive activity. Even in 1224, when both Jin and Khwaresm were mostly lying in ruins, Western Xia still found fit to spend resources casting about for allies among the Mongol tribes, many of whom had been only recently subjugated and hated Genghis bitterly. As for Muqali, his loyalty to Genghis was personal; with Genghis gone, his sons and heirs soon clashed and carved up their father’s empire.

  2. T. Greer says:

    I have read the two volume Rachewitz translation of the Secret History, including the hundreds of pages of end notes he includes. In my mind it is the most important source for understanding how Chinggis Khan was able to create the ‘flexible but unified’ force that conquered the world.

    First though, I think a distinction must be made between what Temujin did as uniter of the steppe and what he was then able to do as Chinggis Khan, conqueror of the world. I did not go into this at length in the essay, but the most important difference between Chinggis’ empire and other nomadic polities is that it was not an alliance of tribes led by the extended lineage of the leading family. Most steppe leader’s strongest source of support was this extended lineage. But this was not the case with Temujin. Thomas Barfield speculates that this was because Temujin was betrayed as a young man by some of these family members, and I suppose that this guess is as good as any. What is clear, however, is that Temujin did not trust what should have been his naturally allies. He warred against some, killed others, and rarely gave any of them anything close to a position of power.

    This was not how he treated his sons, however. There was no fighting, no killing, no murders and no permanent demotions there. Even Jochi, whom the Secret History reports had a tense relationship with his father, was bestowed great commands and honors. (I suspect the SH exaggerates this anyways–the house of Tolui had strong reasons to discredit the oldest son of Chinggis Khan).

    Temujin was a fierce opponent of family politics. Opposing his family allowed him to create his empire. But once his empire was set up and he became Chinggis Khan he had never had to question the loyalty of the family he did promote, his sons.

    Even in 1224, when both Jin and Khwaresm were mostly lying in ruins, Western Xia still found fit to spend resources casting about for allies among the Mongol tribes, many of whom had been only recently subjugated and hated Genghis bitterly.

    This does not fit the evidence. (As an aside: Do you know what primary source he uses to make the claim? I’d be interested in tracking it down).

    The problem is that by 1224 there were no bitter Mongol tribes to bribe against the Khan. I’ve called Chinggis Khan a ‘social engineer’ and that he was–he utterly destroyed the tribes that existed before the unification. Here is the ten second version of how it worked: when he conquered a tribe he forcibly broke it apart, would divide up its families by putting them into new military units that were composed of people pulled from dozens of tribes. From that point forward this unit was, for all intents and purposes, their “tribe.” (As the centuries went on many of these units actually became tribes. That process is a fascinating story in and of itself). They were not allowed to leave these units and they had little contact with their old support networks. Leaders who opposed this process were killed (if they had not all been slaughtered during the process of conquest itself). The only tribes that escaped the total reorganization of steppe society were the few that had declared allegiance to Chinggis in the early days.

    As for Muqali, his loyalty to Genghis was personal; with Genghis gone, his sons and heirs soon clashed and carved up their father’s empire.

    Chinggis Khan’s sons did not fight each other. Two more Khans would rule the Mongol Empire before internal rivalries escalated to bloodshed. Things broke down more or less simultaneously in both the East and the West (between Kubilai Khan and Ariq Boke in the East, and Hulagu and Berke in the West) amongst the grandsons of the Chinggis. But by this time the Mongols had been ruling ‘civilized’ lands for forty years; men like Hulagu and Kubilai were children of urban fleshpots, not rugged steppes, and gained most of their power and support from the agricultural societies they controlled, not the system Chinggis had devised to control the steppe.

  3. Candide III says:

    No, I don’t know which source it was. The biography I have is not academic history, it doesn’t cite sources for every other word, but I suppose it is a source from Western Xia itself, which was Kychanov’s special study. You might be able to track it down by his academic works. For reference, this was under http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emperor_Xianzong_of_Western_Xia.

    Okay, it was grandsons (I did write “and heirs”). You may be right about the power and support bit, but that’s not the point — my point is that Genghis’s _loyalty_ system did not survive him very long. It sort of kept working, or rather was not strained much, while his sons were conquering more territory and had no great cause for rivalry, but once the empire hit the natural limits beyond which Mongol tactics and forces became less useful, like Russian and Polish forests, the Arabian desert and the sea, normal family politics was back. Even though the tribes may now have been “synthetic” and not the old Naymans, Tatars, Kereits etc.

  4. Candide III says:

    By the way, Kublai and Hulagu were hardly “children of urban fleshpots”, being born in 1215 and 1218. Rashid al-Din relates a story about Hulagu’s childhood which indicates that both of them grew up in the tents, not in the cities.

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