An Open Letter About Barbarian Hordes


Dear Dan Carlin,

You are ruining my life. I have responsibilities. I have a job, and a side job, and another side job. I should be doing more writing. I should be sleeping more and I should definitely be organizing my house more. But no, you are swallowing up all my free time with your damned history podcasts. When I really should be driving at warp speed to work so I can prep for my next class, these days I instead strap my phone to my head, play your infernal, distressingly informative series on WW1, and walk the four miles to work. I hope you know what you’re doing to me, jerk.

So incapacitated with the vile contagion of history podcasts, I’ve had little recourse but to consider one of your seeming obsessions – barbarians. I started out with Genghis and the Mongols, later listened to stories about Attila and the Huns and later still sacrificed an entire evening to the Germanic barbarians who finally finished off the Western Roman Empire.

As far as I can tell, one factor uniting these barbarians is badassness far exceeding what you’d expect for their levels of technological development. This led me to wonder about the source of said strength. From what I can gather, it comes down to the following factors:

1. They are physically and mentally tougher than civilized people. When a barbarian general asks his people to starve for a week, they object much less than, say, the suburbanites of Atlanta would.

2. Their lives are cheap and they know this. The Mongols expected to die in battle. The Germanic tribes invented a special heaven for those killed in war. Thus, when it comes time to fight, tribal societies are incredibly durable.

3. They have very little sunk cost. There is no such thing as conquering the barbarian capital. If you attack them, they will simply scatter because there are no farms, factories or cities worth defending in any case.

4. They are communal in outlook. These people exist primarily for the sakes of their communities and, as such, are more willing to endure individual indignities in support of what are often much stronger, much more authoritarian leadership structures. No Mongol picketed Genghis Khan’s headquarters tent over the China policy, no Visigoth questioned Alaric’s seige tactics. While the Germanic peoples were notoriously contemptuous of discipline in their most barbaric forms, they were also intensely devoted to the group – particularly their women-folk.

5. They tend to come from seriously unforgiving environments. This means that, very often, they survive through constant warfare. If you want to get good at something, practice and, well, barbarians usually have a lot of practice at war.

Unfortunately, this badassness does not exist in a vacuum. When you’re a barbarian and you traditionally live by raiding, civilizations make really tempting targets. Why bother with the barbarian clan next door’s three goats when you can raid a city and take three thousand goats? It is thus we find the history of peaceful civilization-barbarian relations to be very short indeed. What’s worse, because they’re badass and almost always fighting civilizations, barbarians are perhaps the most destructive type of human imaginable.

However, this is not to say they do not have weaknesses. They cannot retain the barbarian virtues while building up large resource pools, for example. A barbarian society with literacy, architecture and science is simply no longer a barbarian society. Further, where a city destroyed by, say, Rome, will very often be rebuilt by Rome, there’s no such hope with barbarians. They are, in a sense, the nihilistic forces of human history – scourges on the backs of the over-fed, death to the sedentary. So, how are civilizations to deal with those tougher, more mobile, socially resilient barbarians and they’re last generation technology?

Before your insidious podcasts took all my free time, I had been turning to Machiavelli and Sun Tzu for my wasted weekends. (This is not to say I got tired of either gentleman, I simply ran out of material to read. I’m getting dangerously close to hitting the same wall with you, Mr. Carlin.) From their texts and my general proclivity to keep librarians busy, I’ve come up with two successful paths and one semi-successful path for dealing with barbarian threats. Warning to the squeamish, the first of these paths is pretty nasty.

Successful path one: The wholesale murder of the men. Destroy the society so thoroughly it cannot help but start completely anew. As Machiavelli would say, concentrate the massacres into one short-lived ball of hell so that you are not constantly offending people. Completely crush the barbarian society so that all those who could conceivably take revenge against you are dead. Women, traditionally, are not considered serious threats and thus do not have to be murdered. Besides, they make tempting targets for rape and enslavement.

This, in fact, offers a second opportunity. By raping/marrying/raping-then-marrying the barbarian women and enslaving the children, the barbarian people will surely, after a time, be more tied into the conquering civilization than were their ancestors. Even if they hate the conquering civilization, the barbarian slaves will still need it for food, shelter and protection by the beginning of the next generation.

The Mughal Emperor Babur followed this path. Historical sources make note of enormous pyramids built from the stacked heads of thousands of decapitated Afghan tribesmen. Babur’s diplomacy could be summarized as “surrender without a fight and without conditions or everyone dies.” The Mughal emporer’s men, as was customary, raped the tribal barbarian women en masse. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Babur was also the last outsider to impose large scale central authority on the tribal AfPak area. Now, whether it’s worth the immense human suffering cost, I guess I’d have to really feel threatened by the barbarians to say yes. Then again, barbarians haven’t killed any of my family members or raided any of my cities.

Machiavelli says to either crush or coddle a defeated army and seeing how I accept his advice, I would submit that the wrong way to use the Babur strategy is to go with half-measures. You kill some of the men, rape some of the women, humiliate the rest and then leave them intact as a social group. The vanquished barbarian group in this hypothetical, in addition to remaining just as dangerous as before, now really wants to pull your intestines out through your ears. This is exactly the reason the Abu Ghraib scandal was so dangerous for the US war effort in Iraq. Cripple or coddle, never humiliate.

Successful path two: Invite them in. Tell the barbarians they can join your legions and earn citizenship. So long as you are legitimately letting the barbarians civilize themselves, this works almost as well as killing all the men and raping all the women. However, it is critical that you legitimately let them in. Case in point number one. The Romans from the middle Republic into the middle Empire were well known for taking in the Gauls, the Tuscans, proto-Russians, English barbarians, Libyans and a hundred other ethnicities, offering them the chance for inclusion in the empire and then kicking the living crap out of anyone who didn’t play along. The people thus included were moved all around and mixed into dozens of different military units. This prevented the continuation of their original ethnic traditions and created a highly, highly cosmopolitan society. This path resulted in a huge empire that lasted 2,000 years if you include Byzantium.

The wrong way to use this strategy is best exemplified through the late Western Roman Empire. In the early 5th century, the declining empire invited in the Visigoths and then, once they were inside, denied them inclusion. Roman officials swindled, mistreated and abused the Visigoths like nobody’s business. One of the examples I heard on your podcast explained how some officials traded dog meat to the starving Visigoths at the rate of one Visigoth slave child for one dead dog. Unsurprisingly, the Visigoths responded to this treatment not by melting into the empire but by sacking Rome. Done wrong, this strategy is basically importing an insurrection. Ask Alaric.

Semi-successful path: Build fortifications and keep the barbarians locked securely behind a series of very thick doors. As the Chinese will tell you, this works great so long as the people living in those fortifications like you better than the barbarians. When they don’t like you, prepare for the Kublai Khan treatment. There are, of course, ways to control the people living near the wall. But that has tradeoffs, too. The huge drawback to this is that if your walls are far enough away from your cities to provide a buffer zone, the people on those walls are probably going to spend more time in contact with the barbarians than you’d prefer. If the walls are close enough for you to keep a close eye on the wall guardians, then any breech in the defenses will result in barbarian hordes dropping right into your city. Even worse, the entire city’s population might decide they like the barbarians more than you, in which case you’ll have a combination invasion and rebellion.

When I take these lessons into the modern era, it seems obvious that we are not that different than the Chinese, Romans or Mughal Empire. What seems equally obvious is that groups like the Taliban, FARC, Boko Haram, the LRA and ISIS are doing pretty good Mongol, Visigoth and Hun impressions. We still have the traditional civilization advantages – technology, resources, population base. They still have the traditional barbarian advantages – toughness, willingness to sacrifice, mobility.

So, what to do? Do we go full Babur on them? Do we drop bombs on whatever cities ISIS rebels are hiding in until all the men of that group are dead, come in later and jail all their surviving women? On the other hand, should we do what the early Roman Empire did and co-opt their population base? “Hey, all you families living in FARC territory, we’ll give you a green card if you serve ten years in our military. You too, Taliban. Betray your nation, move in next to a Wal-Mart and we’ll let you become citizens of the EU in a decade or so.” Or perhaps there’s another way, opened to us by technology. Maybe we should try turbo-charging our cultural imperialism efforts. I ask because the current policy of limited bombings and Guantanamo Bay seems an awful lot like those half measures Machiavelli was so worried about.




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