When life is confusing and distressing to us, it can be useful to look back in history to examples of great figures and see how they dealt with their problems. Perhaps approach our own lives with similar philosophies. Oftentimes we’ll look to figures of peace and philosophy like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., or Bob Marley, and those guys are okay I guess. If like, being gentle and quoted a lot is your thing.
There are other schools of thought though when it comes to what makes someone great. Throughout history people have gone to war for one reason or another, and while no war is ever as “just” as people would like to believe, that doesn’t mean the battles didn’t have purpose, that the people who went through hell and back weren’t people of great capability and genius. I like to think my life will be considered impressive by the end, but compared to some of these guys, I don’t know.
Here are some specifically effective warlords who can teach us pretty good lessons for life:
This guy was the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria and he fought in the Crusades to a bunch of smashing victories. He liked envelopment techniques, where he sat in the center of his army to lure forces toward him, then he would let his flanks fall into him and the enemy. The guy used himself as bait! He also liked taking on multiple armies at once because he had a knack for making secret deals and pitting allies against each other. Dude was charming as hell.
“He’s so tall, and handsome as hell, he’s so bad but he does it so well . . . ”
When the taking of Jerusalem as their holy city was all the rage for Christians back in the day, Saladin not only had the greatest success resisting and defeating Crusader armies; he even managed to do it while still being considered a gentleman. When his siege of Jerusalem was all but done, rather than sack the city, he simply demanded that the soldiers inhabiting it pay their own ransoms to leave. When many couldn’t meet his ransom, he accepted much lower amounts of gold than originally offered, just to make sure his victory was as bloodless as possible.
In death Saladin died penniless because he kept giving poor people money, and when a lot of his territories were re-conquered by others later in life, he was able to negotiate a truce that kept Jerusalem under Arab control. Basically he lost on paper but won in spirit. Saladin’s legacy was that of a great commander, but more importantly a classy and kind dude. Saladin understood, that while it was important to be feared as a warrior (he survived at least three assassination attempts), it was equally important to be seen as a benevolent man, otherwise why would anyone surrender to you? Saladin is proof that not only don’t nice guys finish last, but sometimes they’re venerated for how freaking nice they were.
To start, not everyone can be Saladin. Nobunaga beheaded people, sacked cities, and laughed until he was crying when his enemies were so shamed by defeat that they had to kill themselves. While his ultimate goal in life was to unite Japan from warring territories, he knew he had to take down other powerful daimyo (lords) to do it. In fact, he freaking loved it. Nobunaga was known for loving war, for drinking wine out of the skulls of his enemies, and generally believing that a person’s place in life was to simply die, and make that death as meaningful as possible by taking down everyone around you.
“Lost an arm did you? Get back out there you pussy!”
So suffice to say he wasn’t a nice guy, but Nobunaga wasn’t just a cartoonish villain. He liked to threaten his officers with beheading if they didn’t follow him into battle, but unlike some people with grand apple in the sky ideas about conquering the world, Nobunaga also had the smarts to rule well. He started Japan’s evolution from an agricultural society to service and industrialization, turning small capitals into centers of industry. He expanded international trade and encouraged free market spending to help bolster the economy (and get his hands on sweet, sweet Western firearms), and he supported the arts as a way of establishing Japan’s great independent identity.
Nobunaga knew what he wanted and had a plan to get what he wanted, as well as a plan for when he got it. While he never united Japan as he dreamed, he did all of the hard parts so that when his successors and usurpers finally united Japan in its entirety, it was basically because Nobunaga did all the work. From Nobunaga we can learn that having a dream is one thing, but planning your life as if your dream is a given can do wonders.
I mean, this guy, he is hands down one of the greatest generals in human history. Almost every battle he fought, he was outnumbered. His greatest victory was a little thing called The Battle of Canae, where he used careful, tactical planning and understanding of horse capabilities and supply lines to decimate an enemy army at a 500-1 loss. He was so scary, that most of what we know about Hannibal comes from the Romans, the people he fought against, because everyone considered this guy the freaking boogeyman. Any time word came that Hannibal was marching with an army, Romans basically just accepted that they would probably lose some territory.
The thing that made Hannibal most effective was that he was a logistic mastermind. He spent fifteen years in enemy territory and had lots of generals and higher up military officials abandon him (after all, the longer you march in war, the longer your stuff back at home could get stolen), but his army rarely dwindled because he knew how to train new levies, keep men loyal, and use information networks to capture enemy supplies to support himself. Part of that was because he knew how to delegate, but a main part of his success was because the guy knew every role that every soldier played, and therefore knew how to best utilize them. Whether you were an outrider, a bowman, or the guy who cooked the goats back in the supply train, Hannibal understood the strengths and weakness of every part of his army.
Plus the dude was confident! After his death, a letter from Hannibal was found stating: “Let us relieve the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced, since they think it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man’s death.” From Hannibal we can learn that being a know-it-all nerd might not make you friends (he angered a lot of people who met him for being arrogant and talkative), but it pays off.
Glengarry Glen Ross would have loved Hannibal.
Let’s not forget the ladies! While Shih was not a military operator or warlord in the strict sense, she was something even better: a pirate! While she started life out as a prostitute, during a raid she was captured by pirates and eventually married to their leader. When the leader died, she ascended to power and became the leader of said pirates. Feeling like that wasn’t impressive enough for her resume, Shih then followed that up by making the Chinese, Portuguese, and British navies look like straight up punks to the point where they paid her to not attack them.
Not only was she a great pirate, but she was a smart one too. She created a system of checks and balances with her fleet and captains that focalized power through her, she kept control of her men by treating them well but also threatening them with beheading or cannonball execution if they broke her rules, and she made it illegal to rape female hostages. Now, she also killed men for having consensual sex with said hostages, so she wasn’t all roses and progressiveness, but she at least made the high seas a place with order and rules rather than just random chaos. People paid her “ransoms” rather than taxes, but I’m sure to the random peasant, the difference between Shih’s piracy and the “protection” of royal navies was negligible.
Eventually she embarrassed the Qing dynasty of China so much that they offered her amnesty for her and her crew for all crimes, including allowing them to keep their ill-gotten gains, in return for her to just, like, stop making them look bad. She took the offer, opened a gambling house, and died of old age. Ching Shih teaches us that if a position doesn’t exist for you in the world, just make it yourself, and eventually everyone else will just follow suit.
Genghis Khan steals a lot of this guy’s thunder, as he was one of the Khan’s principle strategists and commanders. This guy was the first person to use siege weapons outside of sieges, I guess because before him no one ever thought giant catapults and scorpions might be useful against standing armies. He also liked learning the techniques and technologies of conquered people, so he could incorporate them into his own armies. Now that’s some open minded thinking from a guy who probably pooped in a bucket next to his straw bed.
There’s honestly not a lot to say about this guy. He won practically every pitched battle he was ever in and conquered more land than any other in Genghis Khan’s army, and he did it by planning meticulously. He planned all of his battles down to a T, predicting weather and enemy positions through a vast spy network, and he had a knack for luring enemies into ambushes and unfavorable terrain. His favorite trick was to suddenly bull rush his enemies, causing them to panic, and then before their commanders could retake control of their men, Subutai would order that his men create fake openings in their lines. Desperate soldiers would attack this seeming weakness in Subutai’s formation . . . only to then fall into a trap, whether it was a swamp, a circle of crossbowmen, or even off of a cliff into a lake.
Subutai always went into battle with a plan and took the time to understand his enemies so that he could manipulate their movements for his own plans. When Genghis Khan died, he retired after some small commands and left the warring to his sons, essentially retiring while at the top of his game. Subutai was a nerd like Hannibal and an effective boss like Ching Shih, but I think the better lesson we can learn from Subutai is it pays to learn from everyone, including your enemies.
While the idea of history being defined only by great men is an old and outdated idea, I think it’s important to remember that people have been doing shocking, amazing, world-changing things for thousands of years. Just because these amazing feats took their shape in war and battle, doesn’t make them any less impressive than inventing things like iPhones and Netflix Original Series, Stranger Things.
What we have with these great military commanders are people who had the confidence to reach for their dreams and the wherewithal to do the homework to achieve said dreams. We could all stand to be a little more like warlords.