Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict

Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict


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Set in the fictitious world of Westeros, the hit television series Game of Thrones chronicles the bitter and violent struggle between the realm’s noble dynasties for control of the Seven Kingdoms. But this beloved fantasy drama has just as much to say about the successful strategies and real-life warfare waged in our own time and place. Winning Westeros brings together more than thirty of today’s top military and strategic experts, including generals and admirals, policy advisors, counterinsurgency tacticians, science fiction and fantasy writers, and ground‑level military officers, to explain the strategy and art of war by way of the Game of Thrones saga.

Each chapter of Winning Westeros provides a relatable, outside‑the‑box way to simplify and clarify the complexities of modern military conflict. A chapter on the doomed butcher’s boy whom Arya Stark befriends by World War Z author Max Brooks poignantly reminds us of the cruel fate that civilians face during times of war. Another chapter on Jaqen H’ghar and the faceless men of Bravos explores the pivotal roles that stealth and intelligence play in battle. Whether considering the diplomatic prowess of Tyrion Lannister, the defiant leadership style of Daenerys Targaryen, the Battle of the Bastards and the importance of reserves, Brienne of Tarth and the increased role of women in combat, or dragons as weapons of mass destruction, Winning Westeros gives fans of Game of Thrones and aspiring military minds alike an inspiring and entertaining means of understanding the many facets of modern warfare. It is a book as captivating and enthralling as Game of Thrones itself.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781640122215
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 09/01/2019
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 539,263
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Max Brooks is a writer, public speaker, nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point, and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is the author of World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War and The Harlem Hellfighters, among other works. Brooks, and the other coeditors of this book, edited Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict (Potomac Books, 2018). John Amble is the editorial director at the Modern War Institute and a military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. ML Cavanaugh is a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute and a U.S. Army strategist with global experience. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, among other publications. Jaym Gates is an acquiring editor for Nisaba Press and Falstaff Books, as well as a freelance editor and author. She is the coeditor of War Stories: New Military Science Fiction


Read an Excerpt


Mycah's Parents Didn't Get a Vote

Max Brooks

No one likes to imagine they're a nobody. That wouldn't be much of a fantasy. When we watch a show like Game of Thrones, we imagine we're Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen or that cool guy with the eyepatch and the flaming sword. We don't imagine we're the dude who gets squashed by the falling bell when Cersei blows up the Sept of Baelor. Nobody fantasizes about being Random Shmuck #17 who gets stabbed by the Sons of the Harpy when they run riot through the fighting pit of Meereen. And I'd be hard pressed to find anyone who shows up to Comicon dressed like Mycah the butcher's son.

And why would anyone want to be? Mycah was a powerless peasant murdered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But imagine if we were that powerless peasant. Or his parents. Who would speak up for us? A lawyer? A reporter? An elected representative? Westeros doesn't have any of the institutions that protect the weak from the strong, the same institutions that too many of us take for granted.

Out here in the real world, we complain about the compromises, inefficiency, and slow-grinding gears of democracy. Recently, some have gone even further, calling for the "deconstruction of the administrative state." And while democracy's enemies continue to strengthen and multiply, too many of its defenders can't even be bothered to vote. Because that's what voting feels like to many of us — a bother, a hassle, a pointless, boring chore.

And why shouldn't it? How many of us have experienced the horrors of totalitarian regimes? Russian assassinations, Venezuelan starvation, Chinese execution-backed censorship. Those real-life events get less attention from us than a TV show like Game of Thrones. And that is exactly why Game of Thrones is so important for our time; it is a "stark" reminder of why democracy matters.

If we don't like being governed by a deep state, imagine being ruled by a man who literally is the state. "King takes what he wants," Ned Stark laments to his wife in episode 1. And lamenting is all he can do, because any infantile, psychotic impulse is law. From wars to taxes to murdering babies. Like a "wheel," to quote Daenerys, "crushing those on the ground."

And who's going to save us from that wheel? According to the story, the answer doesn't lie in a better system but a better person. The notion of a good king, someone with the supposed right — and by "right," we mean the freak accident of birth — is the only way that more Mycahs don't end up dead on their parents' doorstep.

At the point of this writing — on the cusp of season 8, the final season — we're supposed to be rooting for Westeros's benevolent power couple, Jon Snow and Daenerys. Both are good people — honest and kind, with a genuine moral compass that, we hope, will point the way to a future of peace and prosperity for all.

But what if it doesn't? What if, as Missandei warns, "it only takes one arrow" to destroy the hopes and dreams of millions? And what if there's a second archer on a grassy knoll that gets Jon as well as Daenerys? Who takes over? And why? Will it be civil war all over again? Isn't that why Westeros fell into chaos in the first place, because King Robert got himself killed in a hunting accident? That's exactly why our codified, legalized, Oswald-Booth-proof line of succession exists today. To ensure that our lives aren't held hostage to chance, that random tragedy doesn't descend into anarchy.

But let's say Daenerys and Jon live to a ripe old age, which in a world of magic and dragon's blood could be centuries long. Who's to say that they'll always remain the benevolent rulers we're getting to know and love. Not every tyrant starts out tyrannical. A lot of them had nothing but the best intentions. If you don't believe that old-timey saying that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," just ask the ghosts of Fidel Castro and Muhamar Kaddafi.

And if that happens, if those Dear Leaders eventually decline into paranoid, vindictive mass murderers? What checks and balances does Westeros have in place to stop them? The army? That's what stopped Daenerys's father, the "Mad King." The only difference now is that Daenerys still has her two dragons, and that is a very powerful metaphor for our world. Despots throughout time have feared coups as surely as popular uprisings. That's why they've kept their own dragons called the Praetorian Guard, the Savak, and the SS.

But let's say there's no need for a king slayer. Let's say John and Daenerys, "Johnerys," rule with the same fair, wise hand as Caesar Augustus. Then what? Would they have another baby-killing prince like Joffrey? That's the inbred danger of passing down power through blood. But if the storyline about Daenerys's barren womb is true and they have to choose an heir, does that make the people of Westeros any safer?

Maybe Tyrion Lannister would rule for a time, marry a nice prostitute, sire a decent heir and maybe even grand heir, but as long as power remains absolute, it leaves the throne open for a future maniac. Our founding fathers understood this from our own history. They knew that any system that allowed Augustus would eventually spawn Caligula.

This is why George Washington, in the footsteps of Cincinnatus, refused an American throne. In 2018 Game of Thrones is a fantasy. In 1776 it was everyday life. The framers of our Constitution saw what happens when a handful of drunken, incestuous, and, in the case of King George III, mentally ill mob dons have direct control over millions of subjects. The whole reason our founders established an administrative state was to protect us from a man like Louis XIV, who declared, "I am the state."

That is why we are citizens, not subjects. That is why our Constitution is our king. And unlike Aerys, Balon, Brynden, Robert, Randyll, Ramsay, Rickon, Viserys, Drogo, Hoster, Lysa, Joffrey, Mance, Olenna, Doran, Stannis, Robb, Roose, Tommen, and Walder, our ruler is immortal. Cersei had a point in tearing up the last "piece of paper" from her husband. The words spoke for a person whose power died with him. The words "We the people" speak to the power in all of us.

By choosing to live behind a wall of shared ideals, we ensure that no butcher's son can be butchered. Our administrative state protects every child, and while "constitutional democracy" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue quite like "game of thrones," I like the sound of the former much more than the latter. And so should you.


A House to Be Feared

Jonathan P. Klug

The vibrant nature of Game of Thrones starts with the creative genius of author George R. R. Martin and his ability to blend his vivid imagination with the realism of history. His approach includes grounding characters with actual historical figures and combining history with unique personalities, creating an array of rich characters who seem to be alive with motives and personalities — Martin's is not a story of two-dimensional heroes or villains. Apart from the White Walkers and their undead horde, as well as sadistic Ramsay Bolton, the distinction between heroes and villains is blurred or unclear. Game of Thrones characters are complex and unique, and Martin makes their decisions carry a price, often causing life in Martin's world to be Hobbesian — nasty, brutish, and short. Individuals must be painfully careful and lucky to survive, and the heads of the noble houses must think strategically if their families are to survive, let alone thrive. House Lannister and its patriarch Tywin Lannister are the best exemplars of the practice of strategic art in Game of Thrones, and this is the focus of this chapter. Just as Tywin and the Lannisters unintentionally taught the Starks, they can teach us much about modern conflict, such as the importance of wealth in the exercise of power and the use of military art.

In an interview, Martin points out that Game of Thrones is in part homage to England and its War of the Roses (1455–85), as Martin bases the Starks on the historical Yorks and modeled the Lannisters on the Lancasters. In the same way, the historical basis for Lord Tywin Lannister King is Edward I (1239–1307), rumored to have literally scared servants to death and earned the sobriquet the "Hammer of the Scots." From season 1 until his death in season 4, Tywin Lannister leads House Lannister and hammers his foes. Although he will not win any Father of the Year awards, he focuses on his house, its power, and its future. During his initial on-screen appearance, he sets the tone for all his future actions. As he systematically cleans a deer carcass, he lectures his eldest son Jaime: "It's the family name that lives on. It's all that lives on. Not your personal glory, not your honor — family. Do you understand?" These are the words of a stoic, clinical, and experienced strategist attempting to educate his eldest son and spur Jaime to adopt the same long-term, strategic mindset.

While vital, Tywin's strategic mindset would be of little use without resources. The inhabitants of Westeros seem to know the Lannisters' unofficial motto: "A Lannister always pays his debts"; of all the noble houses, the Lannisters are the richest. At first blush, it may appear that the Lannisters are rich because they are powerful; however, they are powerful because they are rich. The Lannisters' major source of wealth is the many gold and silver mines in their territory, the Westerlands, making it one of the richest regions in Westeros. In fact, one of the most productive gold mines lies beneath Casterly Rock, the Lannister's ancestral stronghold. This fortification sits above the Sunset Sea and the city of Lannisport, which is one of the great ports of the Seven Kingdoms, a bustling commercial center, and the home of the powerful Lannister fleet. Naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan would have agreed that the Lannisters were a maritime power, as they politically support maritime efforts, enjoy a large volume of seaborne trade, possess a large trading fleet, and maintain a large navy, although they lack the colonies that Mahan argued were necessary for sea power. Navies, armies, and allies are expensive, but they are necessary to accumulate wealth from mines and maritime commerce and to secure business investments, which overall makes Tywin Lannister the wealthiest man in Westeros.

Lannister wealth underpins their power, not unlike Great Britain during the era of Pax Britannica, or the United States after World War II. From the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, Great Britain's "sinews of power" started with wealth. In the twentieth century, the United States' wealth was the foundation of the "arsenal of democracy" and the post–World War II superpower. Like these two powers at their zenith, the Lannisters leverage their wealth to build power and, at the same time, used power to make wealth, creating a virtuous circle of building wealth and power.

The Lannisters also understand finances, as they know how to leverage their wealth by securing loans. The Iron Bank of Braavos is the most important source of loans, continually extending the Lannisters credit based on their mineral wealth and Tywin's track record of sound investments. During his short stint as the master of coin, Tyrion Lannister has concerns that the enormous expense of the War of the Five Kings could force the Lannisters to mortgage their future or not be able to win the war due to insufficient funds. Ominously, the Iron Bank previously funded the enemies of rulers who failed to pay what they owed, of which Tyrion is aware. After winning the War of the Five Kings, Tywin reveals to his daughter, Cersei, that the Lannisters' gold mines had run dry three years previously, driving both Tywin and Cersei to trust no one and increase their willingness to accept risk to maintain their strategic position and secure additional strategic advantage. The alliance with the Tyrells was one of these strategic risks, and it would prove to be a costly decision.

To win the War of the Five Kings, the Lannisters often had to accept risk, and accepting risk is part of using military art to achieve your objectives. For those unfamiliar with the term, military art is broken into the following components: strategic art, operational art, and tactics. Strategic art is "defined as the skillful formulation, coordination, and application of ends, ways, and means to promote and defend the national interests." Successful strategic art achieves the desired set of conditions and thereby secures strategic advantage, which the Lannister's did by winning the War of the Five Kings. Operational art is a series of efforts "successively developing one after another, logically connected to one another, united by the commonality of the ultimate aim, each one achieving limited intermediate aims which in their totality represent an operational pursuit." Robb Stark's efforts against the Lannisters, when viewed together as an overarching campaign, are an example of operational art. Tactics are the pursuit of victory on the battlefield through the application of combat power, and Tyrion's use of wildfire during the crushing defeat of Stannis Baratheon at the Battle of the Blackwater is an example of successful tactics.

Strategic art, operational art, and tactics each require a different perspective and mindset to practice effectively, but they are also interconnected and interdependent. As Russian military theorist Aleksandr Svechin wrote more than a century ago, "all branches of military art are closely associated with one another: tactics takes the steps from which an operational leap is formed; strategy points out the path." Because it points out the path, so to speak, strategic art is the most important component of military art, and operational art and tactics are the materials for strategic art. Tactics are the most dynamic component of military art, as they are subject to the evolution of technology and military techniques, which for Game of Thrones includes magic and mythical creatures such as giants, wights, white walkers, and dragons. The changes in tactics may, in turn, impact operational art, as dragons provide a form of operational maneuver, for example. Operational art provides the context for the tactical level of warfare and tactics, and successful operational art, in turn, facilitates strategic art.

Returning to Tywin Lannister's first scene in Game of Thrones, he emphasizes the importance of the near term to his son, although still clearly thinking strategically, when he says, "The future of our family will be determined in these next few months. We could establish a dynasty that will last a thou- sand years, or we could collapse into nothing, as the Targaryens did." His mention of "these next few months" indicates operational thinking about the forthcoming military campaigns and battles that would be necessary to achieve his strategic goals. Concerning military art, his focus on the future of his family underscores that he is practicing strategic art, his campaign design is a demonstration of operational art, and his battlefield leadership later in the series indicates his tactical abilities.

U.S. Air War College professor Everett Dolman describes strategy as "an idea ... about the future in anticipation of the probable and preparation for the possible." Strategy deals with the highest levels of statecraft and war and is an unending process. However, who wins at the tactical level is straightforward, as it usually is evident when a battle has a victor. This is also true at the operational level, as it is often clear if a campaign has a victor; however, who "wins" at the strategic level is not always so clear, as it is possible to win a war but lose strategic advantage in the aftermath. In other words, victory is not a strategic concept. At first this notion may seem strange, but because strategy never ends, it is a constant competition without an ultimate victory. Put another way, those who practice tactics and operational art maximize choices within the given rules and constraints provided by strategic art. Those who practice strategic art pursue strategic advantage by manipulating the rules and limitations, thereby changing the context and conditions that circumscribe and shape tactical and operational actions.

Earlier in the Game of Thrones series, Robb Stark also demonstrates a growing understanding of Dolman's ideas. After the Starks capture Jaime Lannister, Robb brings him before his mother, Catelyn Stark. During this discussion, Jaime Lannister challenges Robb to fight man-to-man as champions for their houses. Robb wisely responds, "If we do it your way, Kingslayer, you'd win. ... We're not doing it your way." Robb lives to fight another day and marry a woman he loved, but this breaks the arranged marriage that was the basis for the Stark alliance with the Freys. This sowed the seeds of his undoing. Sadly, Robb did not understand that the Freys would turn on him, nor does he foresee the Lannisters changing the nature of the game with a secret agreement with the Freys and the Boltons, which culminates with the Red Wedding assassination of Robb's pregnant wife, Robb, and his mother.


Excerpted from "Winning Westeros"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Max Brooks, John Amble, ML Cavanaugh Jaym Gates.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

James Stavridis
Part 1. People and War
1. Mycah’s Parents Didn’t Get a Vote
Max Brooks
2. A House to Be Feared
Jonathan P. Klug
3. Fear or Love: Insights from Machiavelli for Those Who Seek the Iron Throne
Liam Collins
4. The Source of Tyrion Lannister’s Unlikely Survival and Success
Joe Byerly
5. The Mother of Dragons: Defiant Leadership for Uncertain Times
Rick Montcalm
6. Lessons for Command from Khaleesi’s Rise
Erica Iverson
7. From Brienne of Tarth to Lyanna Mormont: Shifting Attitudes about Women in Combat
Kelsey Cipolla
8. You Know Something, Jon Snow, about the Qualities of a Strategic Leader
P. W. Singer and ML Cavanaugh
Part 2. Technology and War
9. The Lessons of Viserion and Technological Advantage
Jonathan E. Czarnecki
10. Game of Pwns: Baelish and Varys as Drivers of Modern Conflict
Nina A. Kollars
11. WMD in Westeros and Beyond
Magnus F. Nordenman
12. The Influence of Sea Power on Westeros
Michael Junge
13. Winning the Waves: Sea Power and the Seven Kingdoms
Bryan McGrath
14. What the Walls of Westeros Teach Us about War and Warfare
John Spencer
Part 3. Combat and War
15. Siege Warfare in the Seven Kingdoms
Lionel Beehner, Benedetta Berti, and Mike Jackson
16. Dragons, Dothraki, and Achieving Victory in Battle
Mick Cook
17. The Wildlings at the Wall: When Climate Drives Conflict
J. Daniel Batt
18. Shock and Chaos: Psychological Weapons of War in Westeros and Our World
Gregory S. Drobny
19. How to Fight the Lannister Armies
Joshua D. Powers and Jonathan Bott
20. Becoming No One: Human Intelligence in the Seven Kingdoms
Andrea N. Goldstein
21. The Battle of the Bastards and the Importance of the Reserve
Jess Ward
Part 4. Strategy and War
22. The Myth of the Accidental Strategist
Steve Leonard
23. Why the Westerosi Can’t Win Wars
Chuck Bies
24. Strategic Storytelling in Game of Thrones
Jaym Gates
25. Resources, War, and the Night King’s Deadly Arithmetic
Andrew A. Hill
26. The Red Wedding and the Power of Norms
Theresa Hitchens
27. Daenerys Targaryen’s Coalitions for War
Mick Ryan
28. Arya Stark’s Targeted Killing and Strategic Decision-Making
Craig Whiteside
29. Ned Stark, Hero of the Seven Kingdoms, and Why the Good Guys Win (in the End)
ML Cavanaugh
30. White Walkers and the Nature of War
Paul Scharre
Epilogue: Down from the Citadel, Off the Wall
ML Cavanaugh

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