Jamie Smallbone – Year 12 Student
Mongol – the name is synonymous with bloodshed, pillaging and conquest. Was Genghis Khan simply a merciless butcher or a man we should admire as one of the most successful ever exponents of a particular moral framework?
Genghis Khan is commonly portrayed in our modern western society as a barbaric, savage mass killer acting without any form of moral constraint. As I worked through the life of a man who rose from an outcast of his own tribe to the Mongol leader, and from there to ruler of a vast Eurasian empire, I found that the true image is a far more complex one than this assumption. Eventually, I concluded moral judgment could not be passed upon him, due in part to a dearth of detail about his life, but, more importantly, because of the lack of contextual information needed to fairly judge such a prominent historical character.
Was Genghis Khan simply a merciless butcher or a man we should admire as one of the most successful ever exponents of a particular moral framework?
Of course, his savagery cannot be subtracted from his image; this is evidenced via the example of the fratricide Khan committed aged 14 when he shot his elder brother Behter for not sharing the spoils of a hunt with his starving family. However, such ruthlessness so young raises the question of how much this is the insidious effect of his environment – a question I will return to later.
This ruthless psyche, ingrained within Khan from an early age, laid out a drastically successful formula for gaining influence, and facilitated Khan’s rise to power as ruler of the united Mongol tribes in 1206. He operated using a ‘surrender or die’ policy that terrified opposition – tales of destruction would have travelled vast distances incentivising surrender in order to avoid complete annihilation – and this psychological warfare enabled the Mongol Empire to swell to a colossal 13.5 million km^2. Those who didn’t comply were dealt with clinically, a fate bestowed upon the 1.2 million citizens of the Khwarezmid Empire who were slaughtered as part of his campaign.
Moreover, in an act of wanton destruction, Khan destroyed the Qanat irrigation systems in Iran and Iraq which had made much of the nation’s habitable and supported advancing civilisations. This had profound economic effects on the nation in question: the ensuing famines possibly killed even more natives than the initial conquests, and hindered the development of the region in a way that is still felt today. Critically, this is arguably a self-destructive act – an intact civilization would have provided more tax and troops to the Mongols – and would appear to be destruction out of mere spite or cruelty; or, perhaps even worse, destruction merely for the sake of destroying. This action also reflected Khan’s lack of consideration for culture or advancement, his failure to seek to move his empire forwards and his total lack of interest in improving the quality of life of those he had subjugated. Essentially, Khan as a ruler was as bereft of redeeming moral features as he was as a conqueror.
Mass murder and rape are malicious crimes that have been recognized as morally abominable for millennia and Khan thus subverted the moral norms of his day as much as ours.
It is irrefutable that Khan was one of history’s most prolific killers and sexual abusers. Yet, beyond this lies an incredibly talented military commander who held the largest contiguous empire in history – something which is an impressive and unchallengeable feat. Khan was, however, cruel by his own contemporary standards – he waged war with a brutality that was noteworthy throughout Eurasia, and was effective at granting a psychological edge, precisely because of how unusually violent it was. Khan’s military strategy was in large part based upon going beyond what was expected in warfare by his contemporaries – thus he cannot be excused by saying he lived in a time with different moral norms. Essentially, by 12th century standards he was as cruel as he is by the standards of the 21st century: mass murder and rape are malicious crimes that have been recognised as morally abominable for millennia and Khan thus subverted the moral norms of his day as much as ours.
This would appear to indicate historical figures should be judged upon whichever of their contemporary morals line up with modern morals (and this is certainly an excellent general rule that may allow for the beginnings of a judgment of Khan). The extent of Khan’s depravity and the apparent loyalty and respect he enjoyed from fellow Mongols would lead us to suggest that he may have little idea how wrong he was; thus, I would suggest that without greater knowledge of Mongolian moral norms, it is simply impossible to judge him by either 12th or 21st century norms. I attempted to find a primary source to illustrate said norms, but I was unable to find one due to there being a dearth of sources from this area and time period in translation. This is illustrative of a further problem with passing judgment: this is history centered upon reputation and is necessarily a broad brush judgment – we lack the specific information about his life to truly make a fair judgment about the individual.
Khan the genius or Khan the monster?
Moreover, the lack of wider Mongolian sources provides a further reason why I simply feel judgment can’t be passed fairly – we are innately unable to know whether he acted in accordance with the norms that persisted long after him or whether he actually normalised and created this violent culture through his own actions. We know that the Mongols continued to wage war in a similar manner after his death – did Khan show them the way (and thus cause mass killings and atrocities even after he was dead) through his own brutal yet stunningly effective leadership, or was he simply a superior exponent of a manner of warfare which already existed and which Khan learnt rather than created? This question is central to a moral judgment: those that adhere to societal norms and are simply good at it are to be praised (or at least not condemned to any greater degree than their peers merely for the “crime” of competence); those that go beyond accepted moral boundaries cannot fail to be aware of the fact that they are trading what is right for what is successful, and to engage in Khan’s massacres on such a basis would clearly be ethically monstrous. As such, there is a dichotomy of possibilities: Khan the genius or Khan the monster? To judge Khan entails the acceptance of one and the rejection of the other – if we accept historians lack the contextual information to see whether Khan did indeed subvert the norms of his society, as I have illustrated, then we accept that differentiation can’t occur and thus a moral judgment can’t be passed. As such, the answer to my question is that we do not and cannot know whether Khan was indeed the savage butcher history portrays him as.
Considering all of this, it is unlikely that many historical figures can be fairly morally judged because to do so we must know the moral framework within which they were raised. One can only act in accordance with that they believe to be right, and so, without knowing what an individual believed (and whether this entailed a pushing of societal norms or a mere acceptance of a flawed framework his society operated within: to condemn for a failure to attempt to reject the beliefs of his context would lead to the outright condemnation of almost all humans who have ever lived) and the exact nature of their actions to a great degree of precision, judgment can’t be passed, certainly not by modern moral standards of which the individual was entirely ignorant through no personal fault. Given that fulfilling all these requirements is essentially impossible in almost all cases, if not absolutely all, I would suggest that historians should strive to understand history in terms of what happened and why without seeking to impose an artificial judgment of right and wrong upon the figures and actions they study.
4. Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection by John Man
5. The Secret History of the Mongols (author unknown, dates back to the 13th century)
Jamie Smallbone (12AY) 738526