Just War Theory in Game of Thrones: Part I

Disclaimer – the following article contains spoilers for George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series, as well as HBO’s Game of Thrones. Beware!

For thousands of years, philosophers, theologians, and politicians have attempted to understand the morality of war. What does a just war look like? Do traditional principles of morality apply to states? To answer these questions, modern scholars have created a philosophical model called just war theory. Just war theory tries to explain why some wars are just, and others are not.

The problem with just war theory is that people typically only use it to discuss modern conflicts, with a particular fixation on the Second World War. I would argue that the narrow time frame is a weakness of just war theory, since it limits the versatility and universality of just war theory’s ideas.

Over the next two weeks, I’m going to stress the idea of just war theory to their limit, taking them not only out of the 20th century, but out of reality itself. I’m going to use just war theory to analyze the War of the Five Kings, a fictional war encompassing the bulk of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), as well as Game of Thrones, the hit show based on Martin’s series. 

Just War Theorists divide wars into two parts: jus ad bellum refers to the underlying premise of a war, whether a particular combatant started the war for just reasons. Jus In bello, on the other hand, deals with actions taken during the war itself, such as the treatment of prisoners, avoidance of civilian casualties, etc. Traditionally, just war theorists look at the two factors separately. For example, a country might start a war on a just premise, but then wage it in an unjust manner, or vice versa. In this post, I’m going to examine the origins of the War of the Five Kings.

A political map of Westeros. For the uninitiated, the Lion is Lannister, the Fish is Tully, and the Wolf is Stark.

The Origins of the War

Just like fights on a playground, wars don’t spontaneously appear. Someone has to start them. However, that does not mean that the origins of a war are always easy to untangle. In ASOIAF, Martin devotes many hundreds of pages building to the outbreak of hostilities, establishing a gradual escalation towards war. 

Lady Catelyn Stark unwittingly set the stage for the war on page 272 of A Game of Thrones, when she kidnapped Tyrion Lannister after meeting him on the road. Catelyn believed that Tyrion had attempted to murder her son Bran, and so hoped to bring him to the castle of her father, Hoster Tully, to face trial. 

The act proved fateful. Immediately, Tyrion’s father, Tywin Lannister, begins to assemble an army to attack Tully lands (p.349) and soon after Tywin orders his men to take off their uniforms and raid Tully villages and farms (p.375). 

We hear of the Tullys mobilizing (p.349), and their allies the Starks mobilizing somewhat later (p.460). Soon after, the Lannisters marched into the Tully-controlled Riverlands, crushing a Tully force at the Battle of the Golden Tooth (p.486). The War of Five Kings had begun, with the Lannisters arrayed against the Tullys and the Starks. 

Edward I of England, the primary historical inspiration for Tywin Lannister. Both men were aggressive military commanders and hard-nosed politicians. I suspect neither would do terribly well in a modern war crimes tribunal.

The Crime of Aggression

One of the central premises of just war theory is that war involves involves many inherent ills, such as death, destruction, and suffering. Therefore, starting a war is usually an immoral act. As Michael Walzer, father of modern just war theory, puts it, “Aggression is a single and undifferentiated crime because, in all forms, it challenges rights that are worth dying for.” 

By invading Tully land, the Lannisters indisputably started the War of the Five Kings. The aggression of the Lannisters immediately puts them on the moral defensive, but starting a war is not always an immoral act. Michael Walzer, for example, suggests that there are a number of acceptable reasons for initiating hostilities. The question is, what are the Lannister justifications for starting the war?

Fortunately, we readers receive what appears to be a pretty candid explanation from the man in charge, Tywin Lannister. When Tyrion meets his father at the end of the book, Tywin lays out his motivations. “’By my lights, it was you who started this,’ Lord Tywin replied…. ‘The honor of our House was at stake. I had no choice but to ride. No man sheds Lannister blood with impunity.’” (p.493).

The argument Tywin Lannister makes is one for punitive war, that is, war intended to punish a misdeed. It is important to note that Tywin’s war is purely punitive, since Tyrion has already escaped from Catelyn Stark by the time the war begins (Tyrion escapes on p.358, and we hear of hostilities beginning on p.486), the war is not about correcting the wrong (in this case by rescuing Tyrion), merely punishing it. 

Just war theorists do not disregard the idea of punitive war out of hand. To Michael Walzer, punitive war can, under the right circumstances, serve a valuable purpose. As he puts it, “the domestic maxim is, punish crime to prevent violence; its international analogue is, punish aggression to prevent war.” 

If brought before a modern international court, Tywin Lannister might argue that the illegal and insulting act of kidnapping his son justified the war. After all, how many other people might be extrajudicially seized if Tywin had done nothing? 

Tywin’s argument, while not altogether absurd, founders against another of the core precepts of just war theory: proportionality. Proportionality makes intuitive sense to most people –  it would be wrong for the United States to nuke Canada if Canada dumped trash into the United States, for example. Had the Starks and Tullys kidnapped or killed large numbers of Lannister subjects, for example, Tywin would have an incontestable justification for war. The kidnapping of a single person would not, to a modern viewer, be remotely proportional justification for launching a war. This is why Walzer argues that the main purpose of punitive war is to punish aggression, that is to say, those who launched a war in the first place.

The Lannister’s moral argument is not entirely bankrupt. To be justified, war must come as a last resort. All other reasonable measures must have been exhausted. In A Game of Thrones, it seems clear that the Lannisters made some effort to find a non-violent solution to the problem. Before hostilities broke out, the Lannisters demanded that the King of Westeros, Robert Baratheon, intervene to return Tyrion. Robert, however, did nothing, and died soon after. By all rights, Robert should have granted the Lannister request, since the seizure of Tyrion had been completely illegal. In justifying the war, the Lannisters can reasonably point to a complete abdication of responsibility by those in a position to intercede.

Just war theory, however, does not give partial credit. Even if a war is the last resort, the war is still unjust if its underlying cause fails to meet the principle of proportionality. According to just war theory, the Lannister cause is an unjust one, full stop.

Robb Stark leading his men into battle

The Starks and Tullys

Now that we’ve established the injustice of the Lannister cause, it’s worthwhile to assess the Starks and the Tully’s. The guilt of the Lannisters does not necessarily make the Stark and Tully’s war reighous. A war can happen where both sides fight on immoral grounds. 

For the Tullys, the war is indisputably one of self defense. The Tully lord, Hoster Tully, had no involvement in the kidnapping of Tyrion, and the book makes it clear that the Tullys mobilized their forces only after the Lannisters had begun to assemble theirs. Most of the war itself happened on Tully soil, so the Tullys have a credible claim to self defense. 

The situation for the Starks, on the other hand, is a little more complicated. The Lannisters never posed a serious threat to Stark lands. What brought the Starks into the conflict was primarily the alliance between the Starks and the Tullys. As Bran, Robb’s brother, thinks to himself, “Someone had to go, to hold the Neck and help the Tullys against the Lannisters.” The book is somewhat vague as to when the acting Stark lord, Robb Stark, decided to call his troops. However, the implication is that like the Tullys, the Starks only mobilized after the Lannisters.

The delay in mobilization demonstrates the Stark’s concern for a good cause. Robb Stark resists the advice of his friend Theon Greyjoy, who advocates for a much earlier mobilization, saying “blood for blood” (p. 324). Theon is referring to the murder of some Stark guardsmen by Lannister soldiers. Tellingly, Robb Stark ignores the very same justification of punitive war that Tywin Lannister embraces. Clearly, the moral high ground lies with the Starks. 

Other Participants in the war 

The War of the Five Kings began as a struggle between two factions, but after the outbreak of hostilities (and the semi-related death of the king), the war took on a new character. The lords of the north declared Robb Stark an independent king in opposition to the Lannister-friendly Joffrey Baratheon, and three additional lords declared themselves kings. 

The three additional claimants cannot justify their actions under just war theory. In raising an army and declaring one’s self king, each of the three committed an act of aggression and initiated a conflict. Few modern viewers would argue that one’s own royal ambitions are proportional to the death and suffering inevitably arising from war. Robb Stark, on the other hand, was already waging a just war at the time he crowned himself, so his decision to become king did not directly cause any bloodshed.

Stannis Baratheon, one of the five claimants in the War of the Five Kings. Stannis is a morally interesting character because according to Westerosi law, he is technically the rightful successor to Robert Baratheon. For Stannis, upholding the law is of prime importance, but many characters have a different perspective. Some point out that Robert himself took the throne illegally by rebellion. Others point out that Stannis would make a poor king.

The Limitations of Just WAr Theory

I hope this exercise illustrates that just war theory can represent non-modern conflicts fairly well. However, there are a few notable limitations to just war theory as applied to Westeros. 

Feudal Realities

Westeros is, at the start of the story, a single unified kingdom. The War of the Five Kings is therefore a civil war. This is an issue because civil wars are just war theory’s biggest blind spot. In my analysis, I’ve treated each house as an independent state, which isn’t entirely wrong since noble families operate fairly autonomously in feudalism (especially in Westerosi feudalism, where the distances are immense and the crown very weak). The realities of statecraft are, however, very different between feudalism and modern Westphalian nations. Perhaps the practical differences also translate into moral ones.

I Am the State

We modern viewers see the state not in terms of its rulers, but as a much broader institution, encompassing people, laws, land, and history. For us, the death or kidnapping of a single individual is not a matter of existential importance to the state. The feudal people of Westeros, however, define the state almost entirely in terms of the noble families that make up the ruling class. From the perspective of the Lannisters, the kidnapping of Tyrion (an heir to the house) was an act of violence against the whole Lannister system, one that put the entire fate of the family in jeopardy. Perhaps readers should construe kidnapping a member of the ruling family as the equivalent of cutting off a modern nation’s water supply.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the morality surrounding the outbreak of the War of the Five Kings. Next time, I’m going to take a detailed look at how the various sides waged the war. 

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