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.