Just War Theory in Game of Thrones: Part II

Welcome to Part Two of my series about just war theory as applied to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. In the last post, I discussed jus ad bellum, the justness of the causes for which each side fought in the War of the Five Kings. Today, I’m going to examine conduct during the war itself, a topic just war theorists call jus in bello. 

What is jus in bello? To borrow the words of Tyrion Lannister, jus in bello is fundamentally about the idea that “even in the midst of war certain decencies needed to be observed.” Armies should leave non-combatants alone, treat prisoners fairly, and focus their efforts on bringing the war to its conclusion, to name just a few of the common principles of waging war justly.

First, let’s talk about the centerpiece of the War of the Five Kings, the conflict between the Lannisters, Tullys, and Starks in the Riverlands. 

The Ravaging of the Riverlands

One of the central themes of the later books in ASOIAF is the tremendous destruction the War of the Five Kings wrought on the ordinary people of Westeros. The primary stage for the devastation was the Riverlands, the territories on which Stark and Lannister fought one another. 

Characters traveling through the Riverlands note that both Lannister and Stark men are responsible for rampant robbing, abuse, and murder of civilians. Perhaps no group represents the lawless destruction wrought by both sides better than the Brave Companions, a mercenary group responsible for uncounted terrible acts. Initially, the Brave Companions served the Lannisters, but eventually switched sides to Roose Bolton, one of Robb Stark’s subordinates. 

An etching from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre, a series of 1633 artworks depicting the atrocities of the Thirty Years War then going on in Germany. The artwork likely gives an accurate impression of the plundering of a town.

A fascinating side note to the loathsome depredations of the Brave Companions is the role the group plays as the hatchet man of both sides. The group exists only to sow destruction, and even their employer acknowledges that they will eventually be punished for their crimes. 

“‘After a war there is always a peace, and with peace there are pardons … for the Robb Starks, at least. Not for the likes of Vargo Hoat [the group’s leader].’ Bolton gave him a small smile. ‘Both sides have made use of him, but neither will shed a tear at his passing. The Brave Companions did not fight in the Battle of the Blackwater [the decisive battle of the war], yet they died there all the same.’”

Roose Bolton, a Storm of Swords

The Brave Companions represent the dogs of war in their most literal sense, men who exist only to spread chaos and disorder, and who are cast aside once war is over. 

There is a slight moral difference between the atrocities of the Lannisters and Starks. The leader of the Lannister forces, Tywin Lannister, knew of the atrocities being committed, and actively encouraged them.

“Let them,” Lord Tywin said. “Unleash Ser Gregor and send him before us with his reavers. Send forth Vargo Hoat and his freeriders as well, and Ser Amory Lorch. Each is to have three hundred horse. Tell them I want to see the riverlands afire from the Gods Eye to the Red Fork.”

Tywin Lannister

Robb Stark, on the other hand, made some effort to maintain decent behavior (although the effect of his efforts are debatable). For example, after Lord Karstark, one of Robb’s subordinates, murders some Lannister prisoners, an enraged Robb executes Karstark, despite the political consequences of punishing such an important ally. 

“How can it be treason to kill Lannisters, when it is not treason to free them?” asked Karstark harshly. “Has Your Grace forgotten that we are at war with Casterly Rock? In war you kill your enemies. Didn’t your father teach you that, boy?”

Rickard Karstark, A Storm of Swords

Robb’s rejection of Karstark’s inhumane vision of war does him credit, but it absolve Robb’s responsibility for the crimes of his subordinates? Perhaps, but Robb’s virtues cannot justify the conduct of his entire cause. Regardless of their leader’s noble intentions, the Stark side committed too many atrocities for anyone to possibly argue that the Starks waged a just war. Even a just cause is difficult to wage in a just manner. Perhaps Tom o’Sevens sums it up best when he says in A Storm of Swords that “war makes thieves of many honest folk.” 

The Red Wedding 

All this brings us to the most infamous moment in the entirety of the War of the Five Kings: the Red Wedding. In the midst of the war, Robb Stark attended a wedding hosted by Lord Walder Frey, his subject. In the midst of the festivities, the Freys turned on their allies, killing Robb Stark and most of his subordinates. Outside, the Frey army suddenly turned on the Stark army, slaughtering most of the Starks with very little cost to themselves. The Red Wedding broke the power of the Starks and Tullys and essentially put an end to the Lannister-Stark conflict. 

Was the Red Wedding justified? The answer is surprisingly complicated. To use just war theory jargon, by participating in a war, Robb Stark, his commanders, and his soldiers waived their right to not be killed. In other words, there is nothing inherently immoral about killing enemy soldiers or leaders in a war. Had Robb Stark and all his men died on a battlefield, no one would have questioned the morality of the deed.

When Tyrion questions the morality of the move, Tywin Lannister (who had orchestrated the entire affair) replies angrily.

“I suppose you would have spared the boy and told Lord Frey you had no need of his allegiance? That would have driven the old fool right back into Stark’s arms and won you another year of war. Explain to me why it is more noble to kill ten thousand men in battle than a dozen at dinner.”

Tywin Lannister, a storm of swords

Tywin makes a fair point. From a consequentialist perspective, the Red Wedding was practically a humanitarian act. Almost no civilians were killed, and by ending the conflict, the act prevented much destruction and death. The Red Wedding passes the proportionality test with flying colors.

However, there is one other just war principle, called “no means malum in se” (latin for ‘bad in themselves’). The basic idea is that some acts are simply so evil and morally wrong that it doesn’t matter how many people they kill or how successful they are at ending the war. Typical examples include chemical or biological weapons. Treacherously murdering people at a wedding might fit into the same category. 

This etching from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre, depicting the ransacking of a house, likely captures some of the chaos of the Red Wedding.

Article 23(b) of the 1907 Hague Convention (one of the first and most important international conferences on the laws of war) forbids any nation “to kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army.” The common philosophy between the rule and no means malum in se is obvious. The Hague Convention’s apparently clear line, however, is notoriously fuzzy. Michael Walzer, the most famous living just war theorist, has argued that targeted drone strikes are morally acceptable, so long as they avoid civilian casualties. However, if weapons which strike you without warning while you relax in your home are not ‘treacherous,’ it is difficult to imagine methods which are. 

The people of Westeros, however, see no such ambiguity. Westeros has a highly developed sense of the obligations between guest and host, and someone who has eaten their host’s ‘bread and salt’. As Catelyn Stark tells Robb shortly before the Red Wedding, “Once you have eaten of his bread and salt, you have the guest right, and the laws of hospitality protect you beneath his roof.” To Westeros, the actions of Walder Frey deserve nothing but infamy and scorn.

This puppy has nothing to do with the article, but I figured you deserve it after making it through all this talk of atrocities and murder

conduct of Other Participants in the war

Of the other three sides in the War of the Five Kings, one, Renly Baratheon, died before involving himself in any real fighting. Balon Greyjoy, another claimant, made no claim to waging a war according to traditional morals, saying on the eve of his invasion of the North, “The rest shall be ours, forest and field and hall, and we shall make the folk our thralls and salt wives.” 

The final claimant, Stannis Baratheon, is worth discussing in further detail, for he is the only participant in the War of the Five Kings who can lay a claim to fighting his war in a just manner. Stannis’ forces are responsible for no major atrocities or violence against non-combatants, a singular distinction in the dark world of Westeros. The legalistic Stannis keeps his men tightly in check, harshly disciplining those guilty of misconduct.

Stannis’ self-righteousness, however, does allow him to justify some morally questionable measures. Most infamously, Stannis used dark magic to assassinate his younger brother, Renly, who had also claimed the crown and thus come into conflict with Stannis. Morally, the act has a lot in common with the Red Wedding. Both had a clear military purpose, and the amount of suffering they caused was quite humane by the standards of war. However, both also violated sacred principles. The Red Wedding involved a murderous perversion of guest-right, and the death of Renly was both assassination and kinslaying, another unforgivable crime in Westeros. All the same, I would judge Stannis’ crime as lesser to that of Tywin’s, since Renly had also happily taken the field against his brother. 

Stannis’ other moral failing is his treatment of defeated enemies. Several of these he executes through burning alive, as both punishment and offering to the god R’hllor. Executing enemy leaders is hardly the high road, but neither is it necessarily wrong. Indeed, every person Stannis burns (in the books, at least) is guilty of fighting aggressive war, betrayal of their superiors, or equally severe crimes. As for the method of death, burning is indisputably inhumane. According to the traditionally secular just war theory, an unjust act’s religious motivations cannot excuse it. However, since Stannis lives in a world where magic and mysticism have clear power, perhaps getting the favor of his god should be percieved as an entirely rational (and war-shortening) act.

Burning at the stake, also from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre

Stannis’ record is far from perfect, but a few wrongful executions of which he is guilty pale in comparison to the widespread atrocities committed by men under Tywin Lannister, Robb Stark, or Balon Greyjoy. 

Perhaps Stannis’ relative innocence says more about his strategic position than his personal morality. Stannis’ forces never enjoy much success on mainland Westeros, and therefore never come into contact with large civilian populations. Were Stannis to fight a war in the Riverlands, it seems likely that his forces would be responsible for serious crimes. As it currently stands, just war theory cannot commend good action, only note and judge bad deeds. Inaction and righteous action are, so far as just war theory is concerned, the same thing. 

Our Narrator 

Unlike most historical events, we see the wars of ASOIAF through the lens of a single narrator, the author, George R. R. Martin. It’s therefore worthwhile to discuss Martin’s own views on the ethics of war. 

Interestingly, George R. R. Martin is something of a just war theorist himself. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, Martin later explained that while he believed the Vietnam War was unjust, he would have been willing to serve in other conflicts, such as World War II. 

“The truth is we look at war through most of human history, and you can ask, “Were any of them just?” Were any of these wars necessary? Were any of these wars worth anything? Did it improve anything for anybody except for [the leader]? You look at these wars in Medieval times and it’s like, what difference did it make for the common man what lord had dominion over them? It’s not like they were fighting for political systems… I don’t think that’s true of all wars, but it’s certainly true about history. 

George R. R. Martin

Martin’s views are in part what makes ASOIAF such a rich ground for discussing just war theory. Were Martin, for instance, a pacifist, the series might portray war as a simplistic trope, in which no one has any rational or moral reasons to fight. Instead, we get a complex story in which every character has at least some explanation for their involvement in war. Martin invites the reader to judge for him or herself the true morality of it all, if such a thing even exists.

History has a tendency to simplify events, both narratively and morally. As time passes, we lose sight of important characters, motivations, and factors on the ground. One of Martin’s greatest accomplishments as a writer is to create a sophisticated world where we can understand the actors. Through appreciating the complexity of the moral situation of the War of the Five Kings, I hope we can gain a greater appreciation for the complex morality of other wars from our real history.

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