American political analyst Dan Carlin once posed the question “What would be the most controversial book you could ever write in the 21st century?” He rightly pointed out that one book would trump all other attempts in terms of sparking massive amounts of infamy and hate – a book on the positive impact on Adolf Hitler’s reign.
It’s hard to imagine someone with enough bravery (or arguably foolishness) to write such a book. With little regard to the 6 million Jews that his reign systematically exterminated, the war crimes that the Nazi party unflinchingly carried out, and atrocities to human life of his barbaric third Reich. But what if someone already has? What if it was about someone who has killed far more people and destroyed far more lives? Someone who raped, pillaged and murdered his way from Asia to Europe? Someone who, because of his direct actions, killed over 40 million people? Well a lot of people already have written books on this person and are continuing to. Increasing amounts of people are writing about the wonderful effects of the conquests of the great historical whirlwind known as Genghis Khan.
To be fair, what people write about the great Genghis Khan aren’t complete untruths or are misconstrued at all. During his reign, he founded a truly globalized society in the middle of Eurasia. With booming foreign trade, religious tolerance, national law and order, a civil service based on meritocracy, a modern means of communication, and an all around sense of economic prosperity, peace and security. What people seem to minimize, or worse neglect, is the incredibly atrocious cost of founding such an empire. Let me give you a small sample of how he did things.
Usually when Genghis Khan defeats a city, he marches the entire population of that city beside a stationary wagon. Anybody above the height of the wagon wheel is immediately executed. However in special circumstances, or when Khan felt like it, he would ensure that every single person would be put to the sword, no exceptions. One instance, in the city of Nishapur in Persia, men, women, children, even dogs and cats were murdered. Then when the generals saw that some inhabitants would still be breathing, the Mongolians were instructed to cut off everyone’s head and stack them up in a pyramid. They were tasked to literally salt the earth to prevent any crops from growing in that city forever. This was standard operating procedure for the Mongols.And what was the total death count for this little venture? Roughly 1.7 million.
Carnegie Institution’s Department for Global Energy even said the great Khan slaughtered so many people that global warming was actually halted for a while. Seven hundred million tons of carbon was scrubbed from the atmosphere because millions of people were not breathing in the world anymore. And modern estimates conclude that his reign saw the death of 11 percent of the world population in the 13th century – that’s over forty million people. And all people seem to remember of him is that he was a good military leader.
It’s distressing how the plunder of wealth and culture, the massacre of innocents, and the downright socio-political takeover across two continents, are just being brushed off as the “cost” of conquest, just a little housekeeping to pave the way for seemingly prosperous times. What’s even more distressing is that something about this sounds a little too familiar in recent days. This historical blurring that usually takes centuries – as in the case of Genghis Khan — has already started in the case of the Marcoses, and it’s only half a century later.
More and more, I keep finding myself having to constantly remind some of my colleagues that history isn’t a fruit bowl where you pick the ones you like and leave the ones you don’t. When you look at events in the past, be it Genghis’ imperial Mongolia or Marcos’ Martial Law, you look at it from all sides, through different lenses, and with the good and the bad taken hand-in-hand. Because it seems that the farther and farther away we get from historical events, the more we tend to become a dispassionate observer. We become disconnected from the emotions, from the moral and sociological questions of those days. When a figure like a Genghis Khan or a Hitler, or a Marcos becomes but a faint dot in our historical rear-view mirror, some lines tend to blur. The cost of what it took to get from one point in history to another can at times take a backseat to whatever relevant “good” we chose to focus on. In fact, the good that these people did, if any at all, should be absolutely un-divorceable, and inseparable from the death, the cost, and the destruction at their hands. This is something that should permeate our consciousness and that of our children, and even our children’s children. This is something that should stand the test of time, something that we should never forget.