Friday, April 13, 2012

Book Review: Genghis Khan's Greatest General

Genghis Khan’s Greatest General: Subotai the Valiant
Oklahoma University Press, 2006.
By Richard Gabriel
19.95 paperback, ISBN: 978086137346

Richard Gabriel’s new book, Genghis Khan’s Greatest General: Subotai the Valiant, seeks to provide the first book length biography of this figure from military history, and argued that Subotai was one of the greatest generals in military history.(xi) Gabriel succeeded much more with the first goal than the second.

The book contained eight chapters. The first two chapters explained the background surrounding Subotai’s and the Mongol’s rise to a world power and their military organization and tactics. This contained many of the book’s most positive and negative points. It relied upon several primary sources such as The Secret History of the Mongols, and The Story of the Mongols Whom we call the Tartars. It is excellent to see the author use primary sources but as far this reader can tell,[1] these are the only two which he used. The first two chapters do present an approachable introductory history of the Mongol nation and a good military description of their organization and tactics. This recommended the book towards enthusiasts and undergraduates. The relatively brisk pace underscored this as well.

Chapters three through six described the campaigns of the Mongols in Northern China, Iran, the Caucasus, Russian steppe, and Eastern Europe. Gabriel’s campaign history only lightly covered China. It showed unfamiliarity with the primary and some recent secondary sources that illuminate this period. Sinologists, in particular, follow the history of the Southern Song Dynasty and not the short lived Jin Dynasty in the north. But Gabriel followed the latter as the “Chinese” dynasty in this period. Peter Lorge produced an excellent volume that explained the complicated political and military history of this period.[2] Until Subotai’s campaign in Eastern Europe the campaign narrative often lost site of the general. The lack of emphasis reflected the relative paucity of primary material; yet much of the author’s campaign history lacked inferences, analysis, or even mentions of Subotai and his actions but instead became a general history of Mongol campaigns.

His concluding chapters contained the legacy of the Mongols in military theory and a summary of lessons learned. These sections represented the most vivid example of the chicken nugget approach. This used modern Army nomenclature, Napoleonic terms, German words, and modern terms interchangeably throughout the book. Some people may enjoy the liberal sprinkling of terms from a variety of eras, I find it distracting. Many of the terms are not precisely interchangeable with the activities of Subotai or carried unneeded connotations or associations. So the chicken nugget method seemed analytically imprecise at best. The last section formed a concentrated list of examples of military strategy. None of them are explicated in a great deal. So the list remained intriguing but this reader wished the campaigned narratives would have highlighted and called attention to these lessons learned throughout the book instead of concentrating them at the end.

The book also faltered on a methodological point. Ancient historians to modern scholars to history websites debate the role of a “great general.”  So Gabriel’s attempts to prove that Subotai was a great general faltered without strict criteria defining “great.” It seemed Gabriel used “great” to mean battlefield victory and the logistical ability to move armies and conduct campaigns. Clausewitz defined it with a combination of physical strength, courage, and mental ability. Ancient historians dictated based on the extent of their conquests and cultural legacy. Modern enthusiasts based it largely upon popularity. With all these methods of grading it is difficult to say if Gabriel supported his thesis.

Taking away those exceptions, the book still contained many strengths. The narrative is short. After reading many long winded narratives this reader appreciated that a great deal. Considering how the student of Mongol history is left with few assessable texts this is also important. The secondary sources are solid and easily referenced at the end. The maps of the Mongol campaigns helped out a great deal. This is the only book length narrative on this important Mongol general and presented an easy to follow narrative of his campaigns. Despite the above flaws the book achieves its goal of in presenting Subotai to the general reader. The thesis statement is not completely supported due to the author’s failure to provide strict methodological controls, but still displayed the impressive victories of Subotai the valiant.

1. The author does not include an extensive bibliography but simply a “further reading” section.
2. Peter Lorge, War Politics and Society in Early Modern China: 900-1795 (New York: Routledge Press, 2005).

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