Book Review: Mongols, Huns & Vikings

Mongols, Huns & Vikings, by Hugh Kennedy

One might not immediately see the contemporary relevance of exploring the history of the Huns, Arabs & Turks, Mongols, and Vikings, of which only the non-Muslim groups are included in the book’s title, likely because of contemporary hostility between the Muslims and the West.  However, the author makes a pretty strong historical case for the declining viability of nomad powers through a judicious use of a case study approach that shows both how nomads managed to gain victories against more settled nations over and over again and, for the most part, failed to consolidate their gains for any considerable length of time–the notable exceptions of course being the Arabs, Turks, and Vikings, who all managed to develop a strong religious identity and settle areas and acculturate other areas under their rule, something the Huns and Mongols were distinctly unable to do because of the personal and transient nature of their empires and their failures to provide any sort of cultural tie to keep their areas together once departing from the areas they knew best and were able to move around in most effectively.

In roughly 200 pages or so the author discusses in six chapters the Huns, Arabs, Turks, Mongols in Asia & Europe, and Vikings in the context of the Nomad paradox [1].  The paradox is that generally it is economic and demographic strength that leads to success in geopolitical competition but that over time various nomadic empires were able to rise up and defeat their more settled neighbors despite being poor and not particularly advanced from a cultural or technological perspective.  Beginning with the Huns in their European, and not their Chinese guise–the author chooses not to discuss the White Huns that invaded India or the Hsing-Nu that the Chinese battled with for centuries in Central Asia–nor does the author spend much time talking about the Scythians of ancient history, which demonstrate the nomad paradox in an earlier time, the author shows attention to both specific contexts as well as larger overall patterns.  Among the more interesting parallels is the need for leadership to unite together disparate and disunited nomads and then harness their energies that were previously spent in internecine conflict into exterior expansion in order to develop empires.  The author then closes, after having given an account that includes archeology and lovely and informative maps, with a conclusion that the age of nomads ended when they no longer had a safe base and when technology reached the point that nomads no longer had advantages of mobility as well as firepower due to their prowess as archers.

Despite the fact that the author does not believe that a nomadic empire like those discussed in his book will rise again given present conditions, it is clear that there are at least some parallels that the author discusses that are of contemporary relevance.  For one, settled nations can be at a disadvantage in war when their opponents have much lower logistical demands, have a higher degree of commitment and participation in military conflict, and when those enemies have a secure base free from conquest to return to and draw strength from.  In fact, the nomad paradox that the author discusses is not that different from the classic anti-guerrilla problem that so troubles contemporary military planners and strategists in the United States and other nations.  Likewise, the author’s downplaying of the Arabs and Turks in the title of the book is likely a move meant to avoid having the book receive harsh judgment from those who fear the contemporary danger of Muslim terrorists acting in like fashion to their predecessors.  Indeed, this book gives the strongest possible encouragement to keep contemporary threats, like that of radical Muslim, from getting to be too serious through the encouragement and promotion of dividing those states and peoples that are potentially threatening rather than allowing them to be easily united together against the settled and civilized peoples of the world.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, International Relations, Middle East, Military History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Book Review: Mongols, Huns & Vikings

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