Game of Thrones continued to set records at Sunday’s Emmys, but it also has important lessons for the real world. (Warning: The night is dark and full of major spoilers for the entire series, especially the last season. It is highly recommended that you watch the series first before reading this article.)
Sansa Stark: You have to be smarter than Father. You need to be smarter than Robb. I loved them, I miss them, but they made stupid mistakes, and they both lost their heads for it.
Jon Snow: And how should I be smarter? By listening to you?
– Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 1
Fans, critics, and armchair generals alike were disappointed in the stupidity of major characters in the last seasons of Game of Thrones, especially the final season. To be sure, Jon Snow, Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, and Tyrion Lannister stood out even among others making mistakes for repeated decisions that were highly questionable and resulted in disaster. The viewers who complained were often really upset, not just disappointed, that their favorite characters were stupid and doing stupid things, and their conclusions were often that these were because of objectively bad decisions on the part of the showrunners, who, viewers argues, were engaging in bad and lazy storytelling.
Specifically, many folks, including subject-matter experts, complained that the plans for battle, tactics, and campaign strategies were perplexing and even stupid. Nearly all of the great statesmen and military leaders of Westeros—from beyond the Wall and the North all the way to the Reach and Dorne—were, by this point, culled in the War of the Five Kings and had been succeeded by new diplomatic and military leaders whose experience, even when decent, still paled in comparison to that of their elders. With so many people who had suddenly and unexpectedly come to power without much training—Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister, Euron Greyjoy, and Ramsay Bolton were all left commanding armies and leading factions towards the end—competence should not just simply be expected. In fact, the last competent operation we saw was the one led by Jaime Lannister to take Highgarden (although most of that victorious army was incinerated by dragonfire or run down by Dothraki, undoing much of that success).
As they are occurring, long wars in history tend to get muddier and bloodier over time, and the longer they go on, the worse the problems military forces will face: it becomes far harder to find manpower for armies as resources—human or otherwise—become depleted, to support and equip armies over time even if they could be mustered (let alone trained), and to find leaders of appropriate experience who are able to effectively lead. Instead, recruits and resources become far scarcer, logistics become far more difficult, and the best leaders fall on the field of battle, are blamed and discarded by inept superiors, or fall into cautious self-preservation. If one side is gradually prevailing over some time, that can potentially result in a battle-hardened core of leaders so that by war’s end, an army can operate like a fine-tuned machine (e.g., the U.S. Union Army in the Civil War). But if there is a lot of indecisive back-and-forth, with victorious armies winning one battle one day only to be defeated and wiped out in another—like the Stark army’s annihilation at the Red Wedding or the Lannister army’s post-Highgarden demise—this can lead to bloody chaos; this is especially so when more and more random forces end up joining the fray (see the real-world Thirty Years War). Game of Thrones demonstrates all this reality exquisitely.
The mess and chaos—and, yes, stupidity—of war are on full display here, especially in Season 8. These people simply don’t know what they are doing. The war drags on because decisions to preserve forces, win major victories, and decisively exploit those victories are not happening. Leaders are either oblivious to opportunities to shorten or even end the fighting or unable to competently capitalize on them even if they do recognize such opportunities. And through it all, soldiers and civilians continue to die.
Jon Snow never got a chance to really be mentored. As a (supposed) bastard, Jon was not being groomed for leadership in House Stark and the mentoring plans for Jon on the part of his father Ned Stark were cut dramatically short by his execution. Night’s Watch Lord Commander Jeor Mormont was killed before he got to really teach Jon enough to mold him into a proper successor. Reality got in the way of a nice, orderly transition of wisdom and experience, and from that point on Jon mainly had to feel his way as a leader without much real guidance, the one exception being the late-in-the-game coming of Ser Davos Seaworth to his side, and even that was limited.
As Cersei got more powerful, her father Tywin was killed by her brother Tyrion, and when she had the Sept of Baelor destroyed, she also took out Tywin’s experienced brother Kevan. Once she was queen again, there were no senior Lannisters left, and throughout the series she pretty much ignored the advice of her brothers Tyrion, experienced in government, and Jaime, experienced in military matters. She only listens to the servile (if clever) Qyburn in the final seasons.
Dany never really had a true mentor, either. The closest she had was Ser Jorah Mormont, and that was hardly the same as an elder family member who had been grooming her for years for leadership, especially since he began his time by her side as an agent working against her and concealed this for some time even after he came fully over to her camp in his heart.
Sansa was in a similar position, with, at various times, Littlefinger (a.k.a. Lord Petyr Baelish) or Cersei imparting wisdom to her. But neither sought to purposefully groom her for leadership. If anything, Cersei was simply amusing herself even if she never seemed to hate Sansa, and Littlefinger’s motives here were hardly only to be helpful.
Ramsay Bolton killed his own father. Euron Greyjoy killed his older brother. Those left to command major forces in the end were practically kids (hello, Lyanna Mormont) operating without much guidance, who had sometimes even killed those who would have been their best mentors. They led too early, often with mixed results. If any modern army had most of its senior officer corps wiped out or sidelined, disaster would ensue (just see Stalin’s purging of the Red Army).
In other words, a good title for Season 8 would be “Amateur Hour.” Yes, Jon, Sansa, Dany, Cersei, Ramsay, and even Euron had all made shrewd moves to still be major players towards the end. Yet they made serious mistakes typical of less disciplined or less experienced people not accustomed to leading over many years and mentored by their elders, mistakes such elders—Tywin Lannister, Ned Stark, Robert Baratheon, Roose Bolton, Balon Greyjoy—would have been far more likely to avoid.
Without older, wiser souls to guide them, the survivors’ youth and inexperience got the best of them as they made mistake after mistake.
Cersei kept overplaying her hand, being far too hostile and cruel to her rivals, allies, and even her own family (who all made things much more difficult for her). With her own back against the wall, she needlessly provoked Dany by having Dany’s close advisor and friend Missandei decapitated in front of her, wasting Missandei’s potential as a hostage and ignoring heartfelt, pleading appeals from both of her brothers that would have strengthened her position. Cersei’s isolation in the end was more a result of her vindictive actions than anything else.
Ramsay often let his cruelty overtake his rationality, taking out his own father, butchering prisoners of war repeatedly when hostages could have been valuable or his own forces could have used the extra men, and shooting arrows into his enemies’ and his own forces alike at the Battle of the Bastards.
Even while Winterfell was being overrun by killer ice-zombies, Sansa was being as petty as ever when it came to expressing her dislike of Daenerys. Instead of skillfully assessing and playing the situation, Sansa broadcast her distaste for Dany brazenly and in public situations, lacking subtlety where subtlety was warranted. As much fun as it was for her to mockingly ask “What do dragons eat, anyway?” in the moment, there was a good chance the (later-Mad) Dragon Queen would have returned with her last dragon and roasted Sansa and all of Winterfell because of the barely restrained hostility Sansa had repeatedly expressed towards Daenerys. That hostility that did not actually advance Sansa’s or Winterfell’s interests but instead helped push Daenerys over the edge and made her even more dangerous to the North. Sansa and Winterfell, then, were fortunate that Jon (whom Sansa consistently challenged and doubted) risked it all to take Daenerys out when he did. And lest we think Sansa and her sister Arya cleverly outfoxed Littlefinger at the end of Season 7 to set up this final season, we now know they had fallen for Littlefinger’s plan to turn the Stark sisters against each other, each flirting with killing the other, with Sansa only realizing she was being played by Lord Baelish after a last-minute conversation with Bran that was cut from the episode.
If you think stupidity is not one of the more ever-present, all-powerful forces in war (especially World War I, as I noted for the Modern War Institute before), it would seem you are not paying attention to even our own present conflicts, let alone history.
In final episode of the final season of Game of Thrones, when the surviving leaders of Westeros decided to go with Bran “the Broken” as an elected king, Robin Arryn—yes, the whiny brat who just a few seasons before, as a grade-school-age child, was still being nursed like an infant by his mother and had smashed Sansa’s replica snow castle of Winterfell in a toddler-like tantrum—had a seat at the table with the “great” leaders who were left. There was no Tywin Lannister, no Olenna Tyrell, no Doran Martell, no Ned Stark, no Stannis Baratheon; they were all dead by the end of the show, as were most of their top advisors. Barely-not-still-children like Robin, Bran, Sansa, and Gendry and people who never thought they’d be leading realms—or at least not nearly so soon—were the ones left standing in their stead, along with lacklusters like Edmure Tully, who, sadly, could accurately claim to be “one of the senior lords in the country” at the council that elected Bran king.
Taking stock of who was left then, it’s easy to see why the closing phases of conflict before that final council were chaotic and messy. Quite often in the real world, wars devolve into Pyrrhic stalemates, with sides whittled down to shadows of their former selves as the conflict grinds on, with the bold and creative and even simply competent leaders dwindling ever more in quantity as the fighting takes its toll. The final seasons, especially the final season, of Game of Thrones demonstrate this usefully and impart to viewers how messy war can really be in a way few shows have.
If you were one of those people frustrated toward the end of the series with the stupidity of characters and felt that itself was somehow indicative of lower-quality storytelling, consider the words of the ancient Greco-Roman historian Polybius:
There are two roads to reformation for mankind—one through misfortunes of their own, the other through those of others. . . . We should always look out for the latter, for thereby we can without hurt to ourselves gain a clear view of the best course to pursue.
As we are right now in the midst of the seventy-fifth anniversary of World War II’s ill-fated Operation Market Garden, an example of real-life stupidity in war from which one may learn many valuable lessons, the very same questions and issues posed by the fictional Game of Thrones can also be valuable tools for engaging critical thinking and pondering the stupid, needless risk and slaughter into which war so often devolves. Any of us can appreciate to some degree the lessons of Market Garden in viewing the classic film A Bridge Too Far, and for those looking for more modern examples, HBO’s singular Generation Kill miniseries does a similar service for the Iraq War. In these, you can see not just failure, but also bravery, competence, even brilliance (sometimes in mitigating the effects of failure, a vital skill in war). David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, George R.R. Martin, and their Game of Thrones provide the same, however fantastical the dragons and wars of Westeros may seem to us, and for that, they should be commended and their work herein discussed seen as the teaching tool it can be.
Author’s note: This has been adapted from an upcoming much larger article on the final season of Game of Thrones. If you want to read more work on Game of Thrones (or are wondering why I did not include Tyrion Lannister in my examples of stupidity) or other topics, feel free to keep up with me on social media.
Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer and consultant from the New York City area who holds an MS in Peace Operations and specializes in a wide range of interrelated topics, including international and US policy and politics, security, conflict, terrorism and counterterrorism, humanitarianism, development, social justice, and history. He just returned to the United States after over five years in the Middle East.You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981 and at his own news website: Real Context News.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: C.C. Chapman