Bad History: Mongols good, US bad?

Jack Weatherford’s piece reprinted in the latest edition of (the increasingly inaptly named) Japan Focus argues that the US occupation of Iraq is a failure, while the Mongol occupation of Persia was a success, and that — and here’s where I have start to have problems — it must mean that the US can and should learn something from the differences. It’s kind of odd, actually, to see a Japan Focus piece which argues that the US should have been killing more people, more efficiently — “the Mongols perfected the list of who to kill in a conquered land,” says Weatherford — to produce a “better” result.

Let’s face it: if the US had followed a Mongol policy, as described by Weatherford — proxy armies, mass population displacement, “selective” massacres, blanket execution of leadership, etc. — Japan Focus and every other left or “progressive” venue would be seething with justified righteous rage. Moreover, a good deal of what Weatherford describes as the redeeming qualities of Mongol rule — secular government, low taxation, redistribution of government assets, harsh enforcement of law-n-order — are entirely in line with what the US has been trying to accomplish.

Ultimately, the difference seems to come down to the Mongols ability to monopolize force, not to some kind of superiority in their post-occupation planning, and the modern revolution in small arms and explosives and transportation has made that considerably less tenable. Additionally, the Mongols were not trying to be leaders on a world stage in which moral capital mattered; they were conquerers who cultivated an aura of death, and there were no neighbors with competing interests fomenting instability in their borders. It’s true that the US has used some restraint in responding to insurgent provocations, but then the US is not trying to create a colony with a figurehead scholar-governor, nor is it content to leave in place the kind of government which existed before, with its secret police, limited religious freedoms, etc.

It has been argued, I’ve argued it myself, that the US should have gone in with considerably greater forces than they did, in order to have a better chance at social stability and political reconstruction. But that’s hardly an endorsement of the slash-and-burn methods of 750 years ago.


  1. I’m surprised you think it was easier for the Mongols to monopolize force than it has been for the US in Iraq. I’m very ignorant of military affairs, but you’d think even given access to small arms and RPGs, with no armour, sat intel or air cover surely you have a much bigger force gap than, say, local infantry levies against Mongolian cavalry?

  2. It is a little frightening that Weatherford is proposing the Mongols as an example for emulation in policy. IMHO Straight Comparison might reveal some universals, e.g. “proxy armies, mass population displacement, ‘selective’ massacres, blanket execution of leadership…”

    The Mongol displacement of the government of Pagan in Upper Burma from 1270 to 1300 and the succeeding chaos, known as the “Ava Period” of Burmese history (c. 1364-1527) bears a closer resemblance to what actually happened in Iraq. About 50 years ago there was some work done on the relevant entries in the Yuan Shi:

    Luce, Gordon Hannington. (1958) “The Early Syam in Burma’s History.” Journal of the Siam Society 46 (1958): 123-214.

    Luce, Gordon Hannington. (1959) “The Early Syam in Burma’s History: A Supplement.” Journal of the Siam Society 47.1 (1959): 59-101.

  3. Jim: There is indeed a huge differential in force projection capacity between Iraqi insurgents and US forces, but their ability to use force is pretty obvious, whereas Mongols thoroughly disarmed the populations they occupied, which they could do because premodern weapons and pre-industrial production made it less likely that large quantities of effective weapons would be available to an insurgency.

    It’s worth noting that, as Mongol rule broke down, rebellions in places like China did manage to find weapons and use them, but that doesn’t come for better than a century in most places.

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