Microbiographia | Issue 27

Microbiographia | Issue 27

Subutai - Mongolian Military Genius

At its peak in the 13th century, the Mongol Empire covered 16% of the Earthís total land area. Thatís more than twice the size of the USA, or around 90 times the size of New Zealand. It is the largest empire in human history. Subutai was a Mongolian general, serving first under Genghis Khan and then his son, Ogedai. During his long career he directed at least sixty campaigns, conquered 32 nations, and overran more territory than any commander in history. Sun Tzu eat your heart out.

Subutai was of common birth, and little is know about his early years. At 17, his father took him to serve the Great Khan. Thanks to the meritocratic structure of the Mongolian military, he was able to attain the rank of general within a decade. One assumes this rapid rise was due to Subutaiís flair for military strategy, a hypothesis that is borne out by subsequent evidence.

The role of commander in the Mongolian army differed somewhat from western ideals. Instead of giving the lads a rousing speech and then leading the charge (Aragorn style), Mongolian generals prided themselves on tactical brilliance and the ability to control diverse squadrons of men. At this, Subutai was something of a prodigy. He would set himself up on a high point overlooking the battlefield, then direct his troops Ė often miles apart - using flags. This enabled him to engineer ingenious and versatile battle-maneuvers Ė he could adapt on the fly to any changes in weather or enemy strategy.

Subutai was also known for his ability to incorporate new or under-utilised techniques into his battle plans. He pioneered the use of artillery outside of siege warfare, and relied much more on spies than many earlier commanders. Often Subutai would have been gaining intelligence on a given people a year or more before he made his move. This knack for adapting his army proved invaluable in the Mongolian campaigns. The armies lived off the land, so were able to travel with remarkable speed. This meant new peoples were constantly being conquered. Subutai was able to utilies the unique skills and technologies of these people, turning his armies into multi-faceted engines of swift and complex destruction.

Such was his mastery of war, that in 1241 Subutai found himself on the edge of the Holy Roman Empire. Seeing no reason to stop, he began plans for a large-scale invasion of what is now Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain and France. It was only a quirk of circumstance Ė the death of Ogedai Khan Ė that prevented the invasion from going ahead. Who knows how history would read if not for that.
This article first appeared in Issue 27, 2012.
Posted 5:59pm Sunday 7th October 2012 by Toby Newberry.