The Mongols’ cultural ways were so different that by comparison, Arabs and Europeans look like they’re part of one single culture. In a way, they were; they were all part of the Mediterranean continuum. They had been influencing each other for many centuries. They’d even taken some influence from the Chinese at a distance. But the Mongols, separated by the Gobi Desert, had not done cultural exchanges with any of them. They did everything backwards from the West because it just seemed the right way to do things.
For example, Jack Weatherford (Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, 2004) points out that to everyone else, chasing an enemy meant you were winning and hiding behind a stout wall meant you were safe. To the Mongols, walls enclosed the animals they were hunting, so anything enclosed in a circular wall was ready to be picked off at will. And they had never had a fixed place to defend or come home to (just temporary camps). So all fighting was done in motion, and the direction didn’t matter. They won by killing the enemy while moving, no matter who was chasing or being chased. So the decisions they made during a battle left their enemies bewildered.
For the rest of the world, moving an army was a big deal. The army needed provisions that entailed a secondary force going along with them, just to house and feed them. This doubled their pack animal need and cut their speed way down. We saw that Richard the Lion-Heart solved the problem by keeping the provisions afloat so that his men could march as fast as possible while the food kept up with them at sea. But that was a unique solution not applicable in most cases.
The Mongols, however, didn’t eat grain. To them, eating grain meant you were an animal. They were hunters who lived on meat and milk. It turns out that if your diet is entirely protein, you don’t have to eat as often. They could eat dried meat from a saddlebag and not be hungry during a long ride or battle, where their foes who ate carbohydrate-based foods were fainting. So they didn’t need provision trains or any wagons at all. They wore a thick coat that doubled as a sleeping bag. They carried some tents, but in a pinch they easily slept on the ground as they were. No need for fires if you’re only eating dried meat and can skip food for a day.
The Mongol hordes had no foot soldiers, so they all moved at the speed of cavalry. Every other army, including all of the Crusader and Muslim armies we’ve discussed, had more soldiers on foot than on horseback. They all moved at a walking pace. But the Mongols could trot and canter for miles, moving far faster than adversaries calculated that anyone could move.
The Mongols had a taboo about touching blood, so they much preferred to kill at a distance by arrows. Also because they were always moving, their primary fighting was firing on horseback, as the Plains Indians later did. (The two cultures have a lot of parallels.) The civilized world assumed that fighting meant you would come into close contact, so they taught their boys hand-to-hand combat. The Mongols preferred to have most of the enemy dead before they got close. In the same spirit, the Mongols did not talk about dying for the Khan, any more than flight attendants talk about crashing. The idea was not to die! They wanted to win with no casualties, if possible.
One way to win cheaply was to use trickery. Mongols had no sense of chivalry holding them back from lying, using disguises, or any other ruse they could think of. To understand this, it helps to remember that every city they encountered was a novel situation, not something they had seen before. Like aliens in sci-fi, they saw everything with fresh eyes and invented a new method. There was no sense of “it’s just not done that way.”
When Mongol warriors did fall in battle, nobody worried about burial. It was steppe tradition to allow the Sky Father to look down on the bodies and dispose of them naturally, probably with vultures. Here again was another task that weighed down other armies, but not theirs. Mongols just walked away from a battlefield, leaving everything as it fell. In fact, when the Mongols began to see their enemies stripping and burying bodies, they were alarmed. As possible, they sent their dead back to the steppes where they’d be given a decent non-burial!
The Mongols preferred to fight in the winter, when the Gobi Desert was not as hot and draining. Frozen rivers could be crossed easily. Their horses scratched the snow for grass either way, and they could eat meat in any weather. So without the seasonal rhythm of planting and harvest shared by everyone else, they could catch their targets off guard.
Genghis Khan was a very intelligent man who admired the technology of every culture he saw. As soon as he was in control of the Northern Chinese cities, he ordered craftsmen into his service. Many were sent to Mongolia, where eventually they began to build a store-house city, Karakorum. Craftsmen were set up in workshops to start doing their technology miracles for the Khan. The Khan paid special attention to war machinery.
When the hordes had absorbed what Chinese and Uyghur culture had to offer, they began to bring squads of engineers along on expeditions. These men could build every kind of siege weapon on site. They didn’t have to bring anything with them. On arriving at a city, the Mongols enslaved everyone in nearby villages and set them to cutting trees. Their Chinese engineers quickly built every sort of catapult or tower needed for the situation at hand. The Chinese also had primitive gunpowder in rocket form, and the Mongols happily borrowed this, too. One great thing about siege machines was that the Khan could pretend to abandon them, to draw the enemy (who thought chasing meant winning!) into the open.
The Mongols used displaced refugees as human shields, herding them ahead to create riots and confusion. They might herd refugees into moats to fill up with bodies. They used survivors as messengers, letting them go out with florid stories to scare other cities. They conscripted them as labor, and rewarded those who joined them. In fact, they had a tradition that if you fed their horses, you were a servant to be protected. When a Mongol accepted the hay or water you brought, it meant he had hired you and you had submitted. In this way, they absorbed as many people who would join them, and made material use of those who would not.
Finally, the rest of the world had come to an understanding that their ruling classes could respect each other. Saladin had sent ice to Richard when he was sick, for example. But the Mongols singled out the ruling class of each city to publicly blame and execute. They invoked whatever latent revolutionary energy was in the working poor. Because they made it crystal clear that submission was rewarded and resistance punished, their conquered cities usually remained submissive. The Mongols wanted tribute and treasure, but they did not want to take away anyone’s farmland. They didn’t want anyone to change religion or name. It wasn’t that hard to become Mongol vassals, if you were just ordinary people without a stake in the ruling class.