Photographic evidence of Tibet’s military, circa 1950
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.
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