Game of Thrones and the Common-Sense Case for Pacifism
[Warning: Full of book and show spoilers.]
“And those who have not swords can still die upon them.” The words are J.R.R. Tolkien’s, but they could just as easily have come from the pen of George R.R. Martin, author of the wildly popular Game of Thrones series. Martin’s fantasy world is hard and cruel, full of men (and more than a few women) deaf to reason and compassion. It’s hardly a fertile testing ground for idealistic doctrines. Yet after finishing the most recent volume, I’m ready to defend a controversial thesis: Game of Thrones forcefully illustrates my common-sense case for pacifism.
My case for pacifism, to recap, comes down to three simple premises. The first two are empirical:
Premise #1: The short-run costs of war are clearly awful. [Empirical claim about immediate effects of war].
Premise #2: The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain. [Empirical claim
about people’s ability to accurately forecast the long-run effects of
These empirical claims imply pacifism when combined with a bland moral premise:
Premise #3: For a war to be morally justified, the expected long-run benefits have to substantially exceed its short-run costs. [Moral claim, inspired by Judith Jarvis Thomson’s forced organ donation hypothetical.]
I’ve repeatedly argued that both empirical premises are true in the real world. My task here is to show that they’re true in a fantasy world that’s practically designed to put pacifism to the sword. If the case for pacifism makes sense in Westeros, it makes even better sense in the modern civilized world.
I doubt many GoT fans will dispute Premise #1. In Martin’s world, soldiers don’t just murder and mutilate each other. They are lions and wolves to any civilian population they encounter. As Tyrion bluntly tells his men at the Battle of the Blackwater:
This is your city Stannis means to sack. That’s your gate he’s
ramming. If he gets in, it will be your houses he burns, your gold he
steals, your women he will rape.
Virtually every active army in the books practices wanton pillage and mass rape. (Stannis, ironically, is relatively scrupulous; he eventually gets rape under control by summarily punishing the crime with gelding). When an army passes through a civilian area, they routinely take the people’s food and burn their crops. Starvation swiftly follows. War also turns out to be a prime breeding ground for horrible diseases like the bloody flux.
What about Premise #2? Even Martin’s best and brightest severely miscalculate the long-run effects of war.
Consider the short career of Robb Stark. After Joffrey arrests his father for treason, Robb raises an army, proclaims himself King in the North, and moves south. He wins several victories, but his father gets executed anyway. Robb sends his best friend Theon Greyjoy to win allies in the Iron Islands. But Theon betrays Robb, joining a massive sneak attack behind Robb’s lines. Much of the North falls to House Greyjoy, and Theon captures – and ultimately burns – Winterfell, the Northern capital. Before long, Robb is the much-mocked “King Who Lost the North.” When he tries to rebuild damaged alliances, Robb’s ally Walder Frey assassinates him at the Red Wedding, scattering his once-proud army to the winds.
There can be no doubt that Robb would have stayed home if he knew what was going to happen. But his defeat hardly translates into triumph for his enemies. Stannis loses most of his army in the Battle of the Blackwater, and eventually retreats to the North with a tiny remnant of his forces. The Lannisters briefly reign supreme. But the assassinations of King Joffrey and Tywin Lannister leave the paranoid Cersei in charge. She quickly alienates her allies, empowers an upstart army of religious fanatics, and ends up running naked through the streets of King’s Landing. Not what she had in mind.
Before I read the Red Wedding scene, I was – like most readers –
inclined to sympathize with Robb and hoping that he prevails. His
shocking demise led me to reflect on Robb’s shortcomings and the
underlying message of the series much more seriously than I otherwise
would have. Superficially, Robb seems more admirable than the
Lannisters; he has a sense of honor, and is not personally sadistic like
King Joffrey. But his ultimate objective is actually very similar to
theirs: to serve the interests of his House. He does not go to war to
give the people of Westeros a better government, but to avenge his
father’s death and protect his family’s position of power. It seems
unlikely that Stark rule would be much better for the average Westerosi
than Lannister rule. By removing Robb and emphasizing the narrowness of
his political vision, Martin highlights the futility of his war for the
vast majority of the people. Eliminating Robb also focuses more of our
attention on Daenerys Targaryen.
With her determination to abolish slavery and promote freedom, she is
the one contender for the crown who actually does have an agenda that
might benefit more than a tiny clique of elites.
If you look past Daenerys’ good intentions, though, she also falls terribly short of satisfying Premise #3. She begins by freeing the slaves of Astapor. After putting power in the hands of freed slaves, she moves on to Yunkai. She terrifies them into freeing their slaves as well. Then she moves on to Meereen, conquers it, frees its slaves, and settles down.
Before long, though, her crusade comes apart at the seams. The freed slaves of Astapor quickly create a new slave class. War breaks out between Astapor and Yunkai, leading to Astapor’s swift defeat. After the horrible plague dies down, the Yunkai clearly plan to reimpose slavery and the status quo ante. Quentyn Martell‘s eyewitness reaction:
The Red City was the closest thing to hell he ever hoped to know. The
Yunkai’i had sealed the broken gates to keep the dead and dying inside
the city, but the sights that he had seen riding down those red brick
streets would haunt Quentyn Martell forever. A river choked with
corpses. The priestess in her torn robes, impaled upon a stake and
attended by a cloud of glistening green flies. Dying men staggering
through the streets, bloody and befouled. Children fighting over
half-cooked puppies. The last free king of Astapor, screaming naked in
the pit as he was set on by a score of starving dogs. And fires, fires
Meanwhile, Daenerys contends with reactionary terrorism in Meereen. Pro-slavery forces from Yunkai and Qarth besiege her city. Disease spreads like wildfire. And Book 5 abruptly ends. What will happen in Book 6? I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet it won’t be pretty.
Looming in the background of all this conflict are two other factors almost every combatant fails or refuses to see.
First, winter is coming – and in Westeros, seasons last years. The war doesn’t just disrupt the food supply; it preempts the population’s last chance to gather food for the lean years ahead. Mass famine is inevitable because every squabbling would-be king refused to back down.
Second, a mighty undead army is mustering north of the Wall. The consequences of their invasion are unusually predictable: They hate all life and kill everything in their path. War against these literal monsters probably doesn’t run afoul of Premise #2. Unfortunately, the preceding human-versus-human wars in Westeros leave mankind with little ability to resist the looming undead invasion. (Well, it’s fantasy, so maybe Daenerys will save the day with her dragons. Maybe). People’s ability to forecast the long-run effects of war is so bad that they run out of resources long before the one war with clear long-run benefits crashes down upon them.
Of course, I can’t fully dissect 5 kilopages of material in a single blog post. True fans can no doubt point to counter-examples of wars that fulfill their promise. My point, though, is not that wars in GoT always end badly. My point, rather, is that their long-run benefits are extremely uncertain. Wars in GoT often produce negative long-run benefits – and no one in the story is wise enough to foresee which wars will end badly.
Under these circumstances, pacifism is common sense. If you’re going to unleash murder, rape, famine, and disease on the world, you’d better have a very good reason. And you can’t have a very good reason is you can’t accurately forecast wars’ long-run effects. Swallowing your pride and sheathing your sword may not seem very heroic. But this is precisely what a real hero in the world of George R.R. Martin would do. Instead of glorifying the war-mongering of Robb Stark or Daenerys Targaryen, we should honor the common decency of Samwell Tarly.