Wars in Tibet - "War Nerd" from "the Exile"

I was led to this site (that domain name seems to be unstable, try also exileonline.com) following some comments on the economist article "Britain's suzerain remedy". Since honest (i.e. without intentional biase) discussion on Tib-et is a rarity, i will post it here. Even though I might disagree with some of the comments there, I will let you do your own research and decide.

After you finished this I would also recommend many of the other essays by this Gary Brecher, not just enjoyably cynical, but also generally insightful. e.g.

By Gary Brecher

FRESNO, CA -- Writing a column on the military history of Tibet seemed like a good idea in the good old days, a week ago, before I started actually trying to research it. I’ve never, ever had a harder time finding decent info on a topic. One reason is sheer shame; the Brits, for instance, don’t want anybody to know they invaded Tibet in 1904 and slaughtered a whole bunch of Tibetans for no reason except they were bored.

But some of the stuff on Tibetan military history is just so damn weird it made me feel like that scene in Ghostbusters where Rick Moranis gets possessed by some ancient demon and starts ranting: “During the rectification of the Vuldronaii the Traveller came as a very large and moving Torb. Then of course in the third reconciliation of the last of the Meketrex supplicants they chose a new form for him, that of a Sloar. Many Shubs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Sloar that day I can tell you.”

I always liked that last bit, “…I can tell you.” Gives that human touch, especially from a five-foot-nothing little dweeb like Moranis. But let me tell you, that story about the Torb and the Shubs was light reading compared to what I’ve been digging through to research medieval Tibetan military history. Here’s an example from Karl-Heinz Everding’s lively little article, “The Mongol States and their Struggle for Dominance over Tibet in the 13th century”:

“…The troops of approximately ten myriarchies of Central Tibet (Tib. dbus gtsang) marched toward the [Stod Hor—the Mongol army, I think—GB]. They met on the dpal mo dpal thang. [Oh, that thang!—GB Sorry, couldn’t resist.] The ten myriarchies of Tibetan troops defeated the many hundreds of thousands of Stod Hor troops. As proof of having killed many thousand Hor, they cut off only the right ears [of the dead] and put them into many donkey loads (Tib. ‘drel khal). Having made Gad du Rin chen and the Dgon pa dbon prisoner and having taking [sic] them along, the ears started stinking. After they had exposed them to the sun on a cool plain, the stone enclosure where the [smell] disappeared, is today known as ‘stone enclosure of the ears’ (Tib. Rna ba’i lhas).”

And that’s one of the lighter bits. If life has been too easy and fun for you lately, you’re welcome to read the whole article in a volume with the catchy, original title of “Tibet: Past and Present.”

It’s a funny thing about writing columns on war: some pretty insignificant conflicts have tons of stuff written about them, and others, big and important wars, get no press at all. Like when I had to write about the Algerian civil wars, there was nothing any good about them anywhere.

Sometimes it’s a language problem, like with Algeria, where anything that might be any use was in French or Arabic. That was part of the problem reading up on Tibet, because I don’t read Chinese and there’s no translation program for Chinese that seems to work. (If anybody knows of one, let me know.) But there’s a much bigger problem: Tibetans are steppe people, inland Asian people, which makes them alien to us Western sea-oriented cultures, just like Mongols are alien to us. I found that out back when I was a huge fan of the Mongols—well, I still am, but I’m content to worship the Khans from afar now; back then I wanted to learn everything about them. So I checked out a book called “The Secret History of the Mongols,” supposedly written by a tame scribe taking dictation from the Khans’ family genealogist himself.

That book defeated me as one-sidedly as the British defeated the Tibetans in their 1904. That’s right, by the way, the Brits invaded Tibet just a hundred-odd years ago, though nobody seems to remember. I’ll get to that later. My point here is that after I read the “Secret History of the Mongols” I knew less than I did before. Or maybe I just knew once and for all that much as I admire the Mongol warriors, I’ll never really understand how they thought.

The Tibetans are even harder to figure out, because on top of that Central Asian weirdness is all this Richard-Gere do-gooder nonsense about the peace-loving Tibetans assaulted by the ruthless Red Chinese. Both parts of that story are wrong, wrong, wrong. The Tibetans were never peaceful people at all. They were one of the most warlike peoples in Central Asia and even conquered the Chinese capital, Chang’An, in their heyday. And the Red Chinese—who could be brutal when the situation called for it, sure—were actually very decent when they took over Tibet in 1950. They felt bad about it at the time, a weird mixture of professional military embarrassment and sheer pity, taking the PLA, battle-hardened from twenty years of fighting the Kuomintang and the Imperial Japanese, into battle against the “Tibetan Army,” such as it was.

The military history of Tibet divides pretty clearly into two parts: the glory days of the 7th-9th century, when Tibet actually challenged China for dominance in south-central Asia, and the sad, slow decline ever since, where the slogan would be: “Tibet, where old meets new and loses.” The Chinese takeover in 1950 was just the latest in a series of one-sided defeats for Tibet.

The invasion was organized by one of Mao’s best generals, a short little dude with a knack for one-liners and a can-do attitude. You may have heard of him: Deng Hsiao-Peng. The guy who brought down the Gang of Four, coined the anti-Cultural Revolution line, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice”? Yeah, him. He had one of his classic lines about how organizing the attack on poor ol’ Tibet made him feel: “….like a tiger trying to catch a fly.” They love those animal sayings, the Chinese. Don’t like actual animals much, but they love to make them into proverbs—or soup, depending on whether it’s quip-time or lunchtime.

Deng only requested 80,000 troops for the invasion—not much for the PLA and its alleged addiction to human-wave tactics. The plan was always to do an Invasion Lite, with lots of talk about the ancient friendship of Tibet and China—which was also a lie, of course.

Against the Chinese the Tibetans had not so much an army as a mobile family campground—the Tibetan soldiers took their whole families with them on maneuvers. The governor of Tibet’s eastern province called the Lamas back in Lhasa to say, “Umm, I’ve got Chinese massing on the border, Your Holiness Sir!” He was told that it was very impertinent of him to bother the Holy Administrators because they were on their annual picnic. I’m sorry but it’s hard to feel much sympathy with a country like that.

When the Chinese crossed the border, the Tibetans fought as well as they could, which was pretty damn badly. Their army was mostly cavalry, a lot of it still armed with swords. There were about 200 artillery pieces and about that many machine guns to defend the whole country. The Chinese veteran soldiers, who’d marched thousands of miles and fought every kind of enemy, couldn’t believe it when they saw Tibetans charging them with swords raised. They didn’t so much defeat the Tibetans as restrain them, the way you would an escaped lunatic. “Whoa, take it easy there fella, c’mon, put down the sword before somebody gets hurt….” They could have wiped out the entire Tibetan force like the British did in similar circumstances in 1904, but whatever else you can say about the ChiComs, they were a lot harder on their own people than on foreigners, and they just flat-out pitied the Tibetans. They got the captured Tibetan soldiers together and lectured them on socialism—they were big believers in motivational seminars, those Maoists, talk your ear off—then gave the Tibetans money and noodles and a pat on the back and told them to go home and not play with swords any more.

If there were any Tibetan war nerds around in 1950, which is kind of hard to imagine, then it must have been a hard day for them. But they should have seen it coming, because the Brits had invaded Tibet just a half-century before—and they weren’t nearly as nice to the Tibetans. I keep telling you guys, you’ve got the completely wrong idea about the Brits. You’ve been watching too many of those BBC comedies where everybody’s cute and harmless. The Brits, up to the mid-20th-century, were stone killers, the most ruthless conquerors of the past thousand years.

They invaded Tibet in 1904 basically because they were bored. I’m serious. They owned everything on the planet worth having, so they were always having to invent new “menaces” to get funding for more invasions, grabbing the places they hadn’t considered worth taking in their earlier waves of conquest. So in the late 1800s they started talking up the Russian “threat” to swarm over the Himalayas and take away India. That was such utter crap that even the Brits talking up the threat must have had a laugh about it over their port, back at the officers’ club. Russia was weak, so weak that the Japanese crushed it on land and sea in 1905. The British knew Russia was in no position to threaten India. What they wanted was an easy conquest that would produce lots of medals, honors, stuff to wear on their chests in the London social season so they could snag an heiress and never have to work. So they invaded Tibet.

The guy who ran that invasion, Francis Younghusband, was quite a piece of work himself. One of those India-born Brits, who were generally fiercer and crazier even than the homegrown English. And he had that other feature that makes for a really ruthless conqueror: he was, like his biographers say, “deeply religious.” If you hear that about a guy who’s about to invade your country, go down to the basement, hoard lots of water and canned goods, and try to make yourself invisible for the next few years, because it’s not going to be pretty.

Younghusband marched into Tibet in December 1903 with a force of Sikhs and Gurkhas—pretty scary mix, like rottweiler plus pit bull. And the Gurkhas were definitely the pit bulls in that pair. Sikhs are very tough but not blood-crazy. The Gurkhas were not only devoted lovers of knife-work, especially on POWs, but ancient enemies of the Tibetans. It didn’t take much to push them to a massacre. The Tibetans knew the British were dangerous and tried not to resist at all. But as the British force pushed farther and farther into Tibet, the local commanders decided to resist. That was a mistake. This wasn’t Tony Blair’s cool Britannia they were dealing with. On March 31, 1904, Younghusband encountered a Tibetan militia force of about 2000 guarding a pass near Gyantse. He must have had a hard time keeping a straight face or wiping the drool from his lips, thinking about the medals he’d get for this one, because the Tibetans were armed either with spears and swords or at best with matchlock muskets. That’s right: the kind of 17th-century firearm that won’t fire unless you apply the smouldering wick to the firing pan. Younghusband decided to play with the poor fuckers he was facing. He said, “My friends, my friends, what’s all this hostility? Why dees paranoia? Here, I’ll tell MY soldiers to take the bullets out of their rifles, and you tell YOUR soldiers to put out the flame of their matchlocks.” The Tibetans, who had no idea that Younghusband’s troops had modern repeating rifles, put out their matchlocks. Younghusband then ordered his troops to open fire. 1300 Tibetans were killed, with almost no British casualties.

Younghusband thought it was a great triumph. But this was already late in the Imperial era and the people back home had had enough of this kind of triumph; in fact, it sort of made them sick. The whole thing was hushed up, and remains hushed up to this day—ask any Brit you know if they ever heard of their invasion of Tibet and I guarantee they’ll plead ignorance. It’s probably better that way, makes it easy to put one of those “Free Tibet” rising-sun stickers on your Land Rover without feeling like a hypocrite.

It’s much easier to be a do-gooder about Tibet if you’re totally ignorant of Central Asian history, like the days when Tibetan conquerors filled up whole carts with the ears of guys they’d killed. Even this idea that Tibet is the homeland of Buddhism, the most Buddhist place on the planet, is crap; Tibet got Buddhism very late, trying it on a couple of times before it took.

The glory days of Tibet were before Buddhism, which is probably not a coincidence. If I had to respect any religion it’d be the Buddhists because they’re quiet and they seem pretty well-behaved, but it’s not the kind of creed you’d want to conquer with. Before you got your army out the door, some annoying Zen type would be saying in that quiet serious voice they put on, “Is not the greatest conquest that of peace?” To which you’d have to say, “No, it’s a tossup between Alexander and the Mongols and would you please put your neck a little farther out the door? It’s at a bad angle for me from there.” And that wouldn’t set the tone for a happy war of conquest, the local monk getting his head blown off at the start.

The Tibetans in their conquering days—which means roughly in Charlemagne’s time—were followers of something called Bon, or Bun, which sounds either like the department store in Seattle or part of a hamburger, but apparently was some sort of mix of Taoist magic and Mongol shamanism. Sounds pretty fun. And it worked as a military religion, almost as good as Mithras or Anglicanism. The Tibetans had a fearsome reputation as warriors who were honored to die in battle, thought they were headed for their version of Valhalla, which would probably involve big vats of tea with yak-butter and maybe central heating if they were especially worthy.

The little I’ve been able to find out about medieval Tibetan armies came mostly from a great site I found where Chinese military buffs get together and talk about really cool stuff, like why the Tibetans had a reputation for particularly tough, impenetrable body armor.

According to these Chinese war nerds, who really seem to know their stuff, the Tibetans’ main weapon was something like the Persian/Byzantine cataphract or heavily armored cavalryman, and they used mail to cover the horse as well as the rider. According to their enemies, the Tang-dynasty Chinese warriors, the Tibetans were excellent with the sword and spear but weak on missile weapons, i.e. archery. One of the cool details I read on this China History Forum site and can’t help mentioning even though it’s kind of off-topic is how the Tang armies dealt with barbarian enemies who wore lacquered armor: they fired burning arrows into the breastplates! Whoa! “One clay-pot barbarian roasted in shellac, coming up! Rice or noodles with that?”

The Tibetan Empire these warriors protected stretched from the Silk Road to the Bay of Bengal. Tibetans ruling Bangladeshis—wish I could’ve seen that. Sitting there in the felt boots they never took off from one year to the next, pouring sweat like the Abominable Snowman in Bugs Bunny: “Gosh it’s hot!”

Seriously though, heat was a real danger to steppe armies. The Mongols actually abandoned part of what’s now Pakistan because they just said fuck it, it’s too hot. Not that they couldn’t handle heat, but they expected the occasional nice refreshing blizzard out of Siberia to cool themselves and their beloved ponies off. Uninterrupted heat, year-round, they considered disgusting and unnatural. And speaking as a fat man, I have to say I agree. (There were fat Mongols, by the way. Subotai was so fat no pony would carry him. You skinny people think you own everything.)

Climate seems crucial to the whole idea of a Tibetan empire. I mean, have you seen a map of Asia? Tibet is one big flat mountaintop. Only place in the world as high and dry as Tibet is the Andean highlands in South America. Now there they grew potatoes; what did the Tibetans grow to feed their armies? I haven’t been able to find out yet, but one thing that occurred to me is that the era when the Tibetan empire was going strong was the same time the Vikings pushed into the far north and even set up a colony in Greenland. It was one of those warm phases you get every few centuries, when some Dark-Ages Al Gore starts shrieking, “Global warming! ‘Tis Satan’s work! We’re doomed!” But more enterprising conquerors see opportunity, like the sales seminars say, where doomsayers see only crisis. Warm weather meant the Norsemen could pop out enough kids to send the long ships into every creek in Eurasia. And I’m thinking maybe it meant the Tibetans could have their day in the sun too—before those ears started to stink.

So if the planet really does warm up again, who knows? Watch out, all you tropical products: the Norse might ride again! The Tibetans might grow enough barley or whatever to march on Beijing!

Yeah. Those are about equally likely. Makes a nice fantasy though.

By Gary Brecher



Anonymous said...

i still do not get what is he trying to say... Aside that Tibet was rulled more as twise by the mongolian ethnic groups. First by mongols of Tshinghis khan, Then by Oirats/Dshungars and Then by Khalka mongols. If someone will learn about why tibet is now how it is he should start with Oirat-Dshungar Rule and End with stupid and senseless red-chinese claims on tibetan Homeland in a our "modern days"..

Anonymous said...

CHINA has intensified its military presence in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.

The move comes amid fears that "separatist" supporters of the Dalai Lama plan a repeat of the bloody March riots.

Increased numbers of soldiers and police are patrolling the streets of Lhasa.


Anonymous said...

Khalkha Mongols in Tibet? I guess you (no.1) might be referring to Tsogt Taij, or his renegade son. But then, that was even before the Hoshuud, let alone the Zungars.

Anonymous said...

Khalkha Mongols in Tibet? I guess you (no.1) might be referring to Tsogt Taij, or his renegade son.--

try again and we are talking about Tibet and not tibetan pseudo-autonomous bullshit.

Anonymous said...

let alone the Zungars--

what? why?

Anonymous said...

#4 You see, I know Khalkha Mongolia had a Tibetan head of state until 1924, but that does not mean the reverse was true - ever.---

try again and see the whole tibet, you loser