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Empires of the Silk Road, by Christopher I. Beckwith

parallels between oceans of grass and oceans of water

James McCormick, at Chicago Boyz, posted a note on a book that he thinks may be valuable to ambitious NCOs, military officers, world history buffs, and prognosticators of the American future.

Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present is a grand summary of the culture of the steppes, from the time of the domestication of the horse and the appearance of lactose-tolerant humans (see 10,000 Year Explosion), to the 21st century suppression of the Chechens, Tibetans, and Uighurs.

A fascinating source book on the ebb and flow of culture across the 'ocean of grass' and the firm focus these cultures had on trading with the great empires on their periphery. Trade with us ... or die. Most of these cultures, and the direct influence they had on world history, has been largely unknown except to a handful of scholars. In Empires, the author brings all this background information together in one place, draws on the most modern scholarship in linguistics, history, and archaeology, and provides a ground-breaking introduction to the general public.

The striking parallels with the European nations that built empires based on liquid oceans becomes clear only by the end of the book ... as is the tentative nature of Russia and China's hold on the vast interior steppe (triggered by the introduction of firearms, and only solidified in the final massacres of the Junghars by Qing China in the mid-18th century). Anyone with an interest in Russia, the Middle East, or China will learn a great deal about the role of the Central Asian Culture complex on these areas in the last 4,000 years.

Nowadays, military folk posted to the 'Stans or places like Mongolia will find this book invaluable ... firstly as a brisk introduction to the cultural roots of the place, and secondly as a reference book to read and re-read in future years to grasp 'the big picture."

If you have friends or family that are ambitious for learning about the continent (let alone the region), start them off at the beginning. Anyone senior to Captain should buy this book simply to have it ready when needed. Because it will be needed. You can't understand the Chinese and Russians without understanding the 'enemy' they faced for centuries and the echoes that continue in their territorial obsessions. Highly, highly recommended.

A comment from James Bennett, author of The Anglosphere Challenge:

The Steppes book is important for understanding the important episode of Anglosphere history that is the 19th and 20th Century Conquest of the Plains. It was the addition of such a huge area of grain and meat production (and the big populations it created) to the formal and informal Anglosphere (the latter including the Pampas) that made such a difference in the World Wars. Imagine a WWI alignment fought in 1850. Even the initial steps of conquest of the central midwest made a big difference in the American Civil War.

The problem of extending urbanized agricultural civilization onto grassy plains inhabited by warlike horse nomads was one that was not solved for thousands of years, and it wasn't until industrially-supported settlement and warfare came that the problem was solved and those resources made available to civilization. And it was we, pretty much, who solved it.

And of course the geopolitical writings of the Germans during this period were dripping with envy at what we had got, and resentment that they had not got it. Getting their hands on the Eurasian steppe was what German geopolitical aims up to 1945 were all about.

The Chicago Boyz blog is an excellent source of ideas and leads pertinent to the interests of the Explorers Foundation.
December 2, 2009

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