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When One is Not Enough

April 27, 2013

This has been a month where cutting through all the news to find just one story has been tough.  From the Boston bombings, to the fertilizer plant in Texas and Margaret Thatcher’s passing, the list goes on and on.  I don’t know about you all, but I am ready for May.  I have nothing new to add to Boston, I think my (and potentially yours as well) Facebook feed hit all the “What if the brothers had used guns instead of bombs?” articles as well as the “Why was Boston terrorism while Sandy Hook was not?” ones.  And the thing is, we can talk and write about it all until we are blue in the face, but so long as Congress is filled with paper tiger cowards who will worship at the altar of the War on Terror but can’t find the spine to vote for universal background checks, then this is the dialogue we will have.  Over and over and over.

On my walks with the pup-meister these last two weeks I’ve been listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast on the Mongol invasions of Asia and into Europe (a massive 5 parter with the awesome title of Wrath of the Khans.  No not that one).  Genghis Khan and  his sons and grandsons ran rampant throughout the 13th Century and wound up killing millions upon millions (seriously – estimates of victims of the Mongolian invasions range from 10 to 50 million deaths) of individuals in their drive to conquer all the territory they could reach.

Don’t quite remember it that way?  Don’t think they really got ahold of a lot land?  Check out this map.

Map of Mongol Territory

That’s a lot of conquered land folks.

From 1237 through 1242 the Mongols ran through the armies of Poland, Georgia, and Hungry like a knife through butter.  The rest of Europe was spared first because Genghis Khan’s attention turned back towards the east and he called his generals back from the west and later, due to the death of Genghis’s successor. The Mongols never made it back to terrorize lands further into Europe.  That did not mean, however, that from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea there was not a heaping dose of hurt dished out by the Mongols.

But there is one story from the many (seriously, the set of 5 podcasts is like 9 hours) when Dan discusses the story of an ancestor of Genghis Khan teaching her sons the value of sticking together by handing out one arrow and asking them to break them.  Which they did, easily.  But then she put 5 arrows together and asked them to break them, which they couldn’t.  This (potentially apocryphal) story explains a lot about why the Mongols were successful.  As a steppe horse culture that did not rely on supply chains, they could travel faster and further than any foot soldiers while their discipline allowed their much smaller numbers to (literally) ride circles around opponents.  Read about what they did to the Polish army – turns out that an animal-herding people can make good use of those skills in battle.

Last night I was reading Too Big To Fail (because I enjoy light reading ok?  And I’m taking a break from the biography of Mary, Queen of Scots).  Sorkin retells a story of motivation by Lewis Glucksman of Lehman Brothers. After the sale of Lehman to American Express in 1984, he would summon his top traders to his office to try to keep up spirits (Joseph Gregory, who would become Lehman’s CEO, said being under AmEx’s control was like a “ten-year prison sentence”) and a sense of identity.  One day Glucksman greeted his inner circle in his office with a handful of number 2 pencils.  He handed them out individually and asked folks to break them, which they did.  He then handed one person a bundle of pencils and asked him to break them, which he could not.  “Stay together, and you will continue to do great things” was the message.

As I read that passage, I remembered the Mongols.  Beyond the obvious symbolic difference of arrows versus pencils, the use of the same message to a group of people who would later wind up causing massive destruction on a global scale was startling.  The manner of harm changed: one caused millions of human deaths, and the other trillions of dollars of  loss.  But destruction they both were.

We are on repeat.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mom permalink
    April 27, 2013 11:40 pm

    I enjoyed the read but I don’t feel like you fully developed your thought process. We are on repeat? You describe 2 situations where a small group of men wrecked havoc financially or in human mortality. What is next? Please elaborate. Mom

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