Remembering When Power Was Unconstrained


As I witness from the far-off vantage point of India this week the collapse of American authority and gravitas around the world because of the debt ceiling debacle still in play in Washington, I ran across a clip about the one-hundred year rise to global power and ferocity of the Mongol tribes at a great blog called Delancey PlaceDP promises to send you an eclectic clip once a day.  I can attest to its eclecticism and have been a long-time fan.

I don’t know why I find the contrast between the foolishness in DC and the efficacy and terror of Genghis Khan and his successors so interesting at the moment — but I guess I feel that at some level, while I know the paralysis in Congress today is bad, unconstrained power can be much worse.  I imagine many may feel this a foolish comparison — and I get that and may even agree (tomorrow).

But I thought it worth reminding folks of what power once looked like in the world.  Read the entire clip at Delancey Place, but what follows here is a shorter piece, all drawn from an essay by Cecelia Holland in the volume, What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been edited by Robert Cowley:

Part of Genghis Khan’s strategy was calculated massacre: if a city resisted his armies, once it fell to him — and they always fell — he had all the inhabitants slaughtered. The chroniclers’ reports of the numbers of dead are staggering; 1,600,000 at Harat in 1220. Rumor reached the Mongol prince Tuli that some had survived there by hiding among the piled corpses, and when he took Nishapur, some time later, he ordered the heads cut off all the bodies. At Nishapur, according to contemporaries, 1,747,000 died.

The figures are ghastly, unbelievable. What they convey is the contemporary sense of utter destruction. Even when a city surrendered, it was looted and destroyed. After Bukhara yielded, the people were ordered out of the city so that it could be sacked, the young men and women and children were carried off into slavery, the site was leveled ‘like a plain.’ …

Institutional evolution and deals between the governed and those governing changed this picture.  So too did smarter defenses against next generation hordes.  But ultimately it was societal deal-making that brought this kind of totalitarian violence and wholesale massacres to an end.  So, while I hear jokes in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore that Indians can’t believe that the United States has actually tied itself in a worse knot than the Indian government normally does, I’m reminded today that even very flawed institutions have made important, constructive contributions to human welfare.


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