Last time, I discussed the morality of the actions taken by the Blacks and the Greens at the outbreak of the Dance of the Dragons, the fictional conflict depicted in the upcoming HBO show House of the Dragon. Today, we’ll judge the behavior of both sides during the fighting itself.
The Dance was a vicious war, fought both on the battlefield and, as Archmaester Gyldayn wrote, “marked by stealth, murder, and betrayal as well, a war fought in shadows and stairwells, council chambers and castle yards with knives and lies and poison.” Yet amid all these horrors, some leaders were able to reduce the violence and suffering. The war reveals important and relevant debates over morality in war.
Cycle of Escalation
Part of the reason for the savage brutality of the Dance was the escalating cycle of atrocities directed at the claimants and their families. After Aemond One-Eye started the war by killing Lucerys Velaryon, Daemon Targaryen, husband of Rhaenyra, decided to retaliate. He arranged for two assassins, Blood and Cheese, to murder Aegon II’s young son, prince Jaehaerys.
While it is hard to sympathize with Daemon’s murder of Jaehaerys, just war theory does not entirely reject the idea of atrocities as retaliation for atrocities. As one nineteenth-century French lawyer wrote, “reprisals are a means of preventing war from becoming entirely barbarous.” The logic is simple and brutal. If both sides know that their atrocities will be met with equal atrocities, neither side has any rational reason to break the rules of war.
Unfortunately, the reality is almost never as clean as the concept. Michael Walzer, the dean of just war studies, has written that, “no part of the war convention is so open to abuse, is so openly abused, as the doctrine of reprisals.” Indeed, it is all too easy for reprisals to spark a cycle of increasingly awful retribution, rather than halting the atrocities entirely.
If a reprisal is to stop violence, it has to carefully calculated. It has to be proportional in severity to the act that caused it, and cannot be an act of simple vengeance.
The murder of Jaehaerys, as related in fire and blood, emphasizes the cold-blooded proportional nature of the act.
Queen Helaena kept her calm, it is said. “Who are you?” she demanded of the two.
“Debt collectors,” said Cheese. “An eye for an eye, a son for a son. We only want the one, t’ square things. Won’t hurt the rest o’ you fine folks, not one lil’ hair.”Fire and Blood
If the murder had succeeded in stopping the cycle of escalation, then there might be an argument for its moral logic. However, Daemon’s act had the opposite effect. The sheer brutality of the killing provoked fury in the Green court, and prompted an immediate escalation. This time, the escalator was Ser Criston Cole, advisor to Aegon II.
The pretender princess had made use of stealth and treachery to kill Prince Jaehaerys, Cole said; let them do the same. “We will pay the princess back in her own bloody coin,” he told the king.Fire and Blood
Cole plotted an assassination directed at either Rhaenyra herself or her children (the sources are unclear). While that attempt failed, the cycle of reprisals had begun, and would continue during the rest of the war.
It is clear that the reprisal carried out by both sides were undertaken not because of a cool-headed desire to keep the war’s violence contained within certain boundaries, but because of an urge for vengeance.
One culmination of the endless cycle of escalating atrocities was the Butcher’s Ball, a battle fought near the end of the war. When a Green army, led by Criston Cole, encountered a much more powerful force of Blacks, Cole attempted to surrender himself and his entire army. The response was clear.
“If I strike my banners, do you promise us our lives?” Ser Criston asked the three of them.
“I made my promise to the dead,” Ser Garibald replied. “I told them I would build a sept for them out of traitors’ bones. I don’t have near enough bones yet, so…”Fire and Blood
The Greens then treacherously slew Ser Criston with arrows and destroyed his army in a one-sided battle. Criston’s earlier advocacy for a retributive war sealed his own fate.
Dragons and the Disproportionate Death of Combatants
Despite the awful and escalating cycle of retaliation during the Dance, it is a small consolation that the war’s casualties came disproportionately from the leaders of both sides. Almost none of the leaders from either the Green or the Black councils survived the war. Of the twenty dragons in Westeros at the start of the war, seventeen died.
Succession wars are not fought over land, or resources, but over people. Much like a game of chess, the way to win is by killing the enemy king. By putting themselves in harm’s way, the leaders of the Blacks and Greens allowed the war to come to an end sooner. In the end, only the deaths of the rival claimants permitted the return of peace. Imagine a different war, where both claimants kept themselves safe and secure while sending thousands of soldiers to die for them. The war could have gone on indefinitely, with far greater destruction.
Why did the claimants put themselves so directly in harm’s way? The answer is simple: dragons.
Dragons are the super-weapons of Westerosi warfare. With their huge jaws and fire breath, dragons can defeat any army or destroy any castle. Yet paradoxically, these dragons actually reduced the destructiveness of the Dance of the Dragons.
Only Targaryens ride dragons. Because of that, we have a unique situation where the political leaders of the realm are also the strongest military assets. The other side, however, is that to use their awe-inspiring dragons, leaders must place themselves on the front lines, often against other dragons. This is why so many leaders died during the Dance of the Dragons.
When dragons are present, they render conventional armies almost irrelevant. If the other side has a dragon, there’s no point in fighting. Countless cities and castles surrendered the instant a dragon appeared overhead. When two dragons from opposite sides meet, they fight each other, rather than wasting their time on enemy soldiers. Instead of a bloody battle between thousands of soldiers, few of whom have any personal investment in the war, the conflict boils down to combats between a few dragons and their Targaryen riders.
The Other Atrocities
Nevertheless, the Dance of the Dragons was full of atrocities. Cities were sacked, prisoners murdered, and towns pillaged. Yet is in an interesting feature that the vast majority of these crimes were committed by the Greens. At least five cities were sacked during the war: Duskendale, Spicetown, Lannisport, Bitterbridge, and Tumbleton. Of these, four were sacked by the Greens, and the fifth, Lannisport, by the only nominally Black Dalton Greyjoy.
Why were the Greens so quick to commit atrocities? The answer once again comes back to dragons. During the majority of the Dance, the Blacks were militarily weaker than the Greens, but made up for it with a far greater number of rideable dragons (twelve to the Greens’ four). Because the Blacks could rely on their dragons, they did not need to use armies to achieve their goals. Take, for example, the Black’s conquest of King’s Landing in 130 AC. When Rhaenyra appeared over the city with five dragons, resistance instantly collapsed, enabling her men to take King’s Landing with almost no fighting or loss of life. On countless other occasions, such as the capture of Harrenhall in 129 AC, the Blacks used their dragons to achieve major strategic objectives without spilling any blood.
All in all, the Greens committed more atrocities than the Blacks because they could not rely on dragons. Does this mean that the Blacks waged the war more humanely? Perhaps. Then again, had Rhaenyra and her Blacks been in the same position as the Greens, I see no reason to believe that they would have acted with any more mercy than their opponents. It seems unfair to give Rhaenyra too much moral credit for simply using dragons in a strategic (and coincidentally, least bloody) way.
All that brings us to the end of this two-part series. If you were hoping for me to declare one side to have the moral high ground, you must be disappointed. Yet, that isn’t the kind of story that George R. R. Martin is trying to tell in the Dance of the Dragons. Martin is making a statement about how the arbitrary rules of feudal monarchy cause pointless and atrocious wars. By placing a few noble families at the center of political families, feudal societies subject thousands of people to the whims, rivalries, and skewed priorities of a few men and women with fancy surnames. Martin’s works are notoriously gory and graphic because he is trying to show that these succession wars aren’t bloodless events. He invites us to look at all the chaos and destruction and ask ourselves, “is this really worth it?” And the answer, almost always, is a clear “no.”