Military history



Why the Weak Beat the Strong

THE SUCCESS OF various raiders in attacking states from ancient Rome to medieval China gives rise to what one historian has called the “nomad paradox.” “In the history of warfare it has generally been the case that military superiority lies with the wealthiest states and those with the most developed administrations,” Hugh Kennedy notes. Yet nomads going back to the days of Akkad managed to bring down far richer and more advanced empires, even though “they did not have states and administrative apparatus, they were often dirt poor and entirely unversed in the arts of civilized living.”

Kennedy explains this paradox by citing all the military advantages enjoyed by nomads, many of which we have already noted. First, they were more mobile than their enemies and better able to thrive in harsh terrain without need of supply trains. Second, in nomadic societies every adult male was a warrior, thus allowing the nomads to mobilize a higher portion of the population than in sedentary societies. Third, many of the nomads, such as the Huns, Xiongnu, and Mongols, excelled in a distinctive technique of fighting—mounted archery—that was alien to their enemies. Fourth, in nomadic societies “leadership was based on skill and wisdom in warfare and hunting.” By contrast, many settled societies appointed army commanders based more on political considerations than on military merit. We might add a fifth and final advantage: having no cities, crops, or other fixed targets to defend, nomads had little cause to worry about enemy attacks, making them hard to deter. Thus it should be no surprise that on numerous occasions nomads bested their agrarian adversaries.95

But impressive as the nomads’ military success was, it was hardly unique. The nomads’ victories become less mysterious and more explicable if they are seen as part of the long continuum of guerrilla warfare. After all, even in the last two centuries, when states were far more powerful than in the ancient or medieval periods, guerrillas were able to humble superpowers. Think of the Vietnamese defeating France and the United States or the Afghans defeating Great Britain and the Soviet Union. The factors that made these modern guerrillas so formidable were not exactly the same as those of the ancient nomads, but there was considerable overlap. Both groups relied on superior mobility, cunning leadership, the ability to mobilize a large portion of society, and mastery of a style of a war different from that of their enemies. Thus the “nomad paradox” is really the guerrilla paradox: how the weak can defeat the strong. The answer lies largely in the use of hit-and-run tactics emphasizing mobility and surprise, which makes it difficult for the stronger state to bring its full weight to bear.

There is a further paradox to contemplate: even the most successful raiders were prone to switch to conventional tactics once they had gained the ability to do so. We have already noted the example of the Mongols, who turned into a semiregular army under Genghis Khan. The Arabs underwent a similar transformation. They fought in traditional Bedouin style while spreading Islam across the Middle East in the century after Muhammad’s death, in AD 632. The result of their conquests was the creation of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, two of the greatest states of the medieval world, which were defended by conventional forces composed of expert foreign soldiers such as the Mamluks in Egypt, mainly slaves or former slaves. The Turks, too, arose out of the raiding culture of the steppes but built a formidable conventional army, with their highly disciplined slave-soldiers, the janissaries, replacing the tribal levies known as ghazis. The new Ottoman army conquered Constantinople in a famous siege in 1453 and went on within less than a century to advance to the gates of Vienna.96

Why would groups so adept at guerrilla tactics resort to positional warfare? In the first place professional armed forces, with infantry, artillery, armorers, sappers, and other experts, gave them the ability to fight on ground not suitable for cavalry and, most important of all, to batter down city walls. Nomadic archers could not have taken Constantinople; this feat required a battery of sixty-nine cannons, including two monstrous guns that were twenty-seven feet long and fired stone balls weighing more than half a ton. Nor were fast-moving tribal levies of much use in defending, administering, and policing newly conquered states. This, too, required a professional standing army.

A further factor dictated the transformation of nomads into regulars: the style of fighting practiced by the mounted archers was so difficult and demanding that it required constant practice from childhood to maintain proficiency. Just try twisting around in the saddle while riding at full gallop to fire an arrow behind you—the famous “Parthian shot.” Once they were living among more sedentary peoples, notes one historian, “nomads easily lost their superior individual talents and unit cohesion.”97 This was a trade-off most former nomads, or at least their children and grandchildren, were happy to make because a more settled life was so much safer and easier than their previous existence. In the end, no one chooses to fight as a guerrilla, a lifestyle that has always come with great hardships, if there is any alternative.

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