George R. R. Martin’s Dance of the Dragons is an difficult war to understand because dragons are so unlike any other medieval military tool. However, if we turn to more recent history, we can gain more insight into the strategy and tactics around the use of dragons in warfare.
Aside from perhaps nuclear weapons, the best real-world analogy for dragons would be the great battleships that ruled the waves for the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These metal monstrosities were the ultimate symbol of naval power. In most cases, the only thing that could seriously threaten a battleship was another battleship. Yet they were also immensely expensive, and the loss of one was a devastating blow to both national pride and a nation’s military strength. Given the power and the vulnerability of the battleships, the nations using them put much thought into the most effective ways to use battleships. By digging into historical battleship strategy, I think we can learn something about the use of dragons in the Dance.
Mahan and Battleship Doctrine
The most important strategist of the Age of Battleships was Alfred Thayer Mahan, an American naval officer whose works soon became required reading in academies from Germany to Japan. Mahan believed that the only effective way to use capital ships like battleships was with overwhelming and decisive force.
To prove his point, Mahan drew on the wars between Britain and France in the 18th century. Time and time again, he said, the French split up their capital ships, “subordinating the action of the fleet to so-called particular operations” achieving minor objectives in multiple locations instead of winning one great decisive battle. The British, however, would concentrate their forces and crush the French main fleet, completely reversing any small advantage the French had gained from its “particular operations.”
Mahan’s argument, therefore, was simple. Any fleet who seriously intended to win a naval war had to collect the biggest, baddest warships in one place, and use them to crush the main enemy fleet. The first and foremost job of the battleships was to eliminate the enemy battleships. He did not consider asymmetrical warfare, like mines or torpedoes, to be a serious threat to battleships. In his view, and the view of other strategists, the battlefleet was the only decisive force in naval war.
Now, as it turns out, Mahan and his disciples might not have been entirely correct. Later history showed that mines and torpedoes could do quite a lot of damage to warships, and later asymmetrical developments, especially the airplane, made Mahanian fleet concentrations suicidal. However, I think Mahan’s tactics would likely work better for dragons than they did for battleships. In Westeros, dragons are basically immune to anything but each other, so asymmetrical warfare is not a serious danger. In the Dance of the Dragons, the vast majority of dragons died to other dragons, and most of the rest died while trapped in the Dragonpit. That means that it’s even more important to use your own dragons to counter and destroy enemy dragons.
Mahan’s strategy suits dragons in other ways, too. Firstly, dragons can fly, which means they can attack targets unreachable by battleships. That means a concentrated group is even more strategically decisive. If the British navy’s battleships could fly, they would have all attacked Berlin and perhaps ended World War One within weeks. The other key difference between dragons and battleships is the political importance of the riders. Because only Targaryens can ride dragons, dragon riders tend to be kings, queens, heirs, and other figures who (according to medieval politics) literally were the state. Therefore, there is a huge benefit to killing enemy riders while keeping your own dragon riders alive. Again, this works in favor of an even more extreme application of Mahan’s ideas.
So how well did the players in the Dance of the Dragons apply Mahan’s theories? Not very well.
Dragon Doctrine of the Dance
During the Black Council, the Lady Rhaenys gave a good overview of the strategic dragon situation.
“Find riders to master Silverwing, Vermithor, and Seasmoke, and we will have nine dragons against Aegon’s four. Mount and fly their wild kin, and we will number twelve, even without Stormcloud,” Princess Rhaenys pointed out. “That is how we shall win this war.”
Indeed, if we look at the number of dragons controlled by each side during the Dance, we can see that the Blacks enjoyed a huge advantage for the first half of the war.
Because of the Black’s advantage, Lord Bartimos Celtigar argued for an immediate attack on King’s Landing.
“The usurper will have no choice but to oppose us with his own dragons. Our nine must surely overwhelm his four.”
It is perhaps ironic of all the participants in the Dance, it was Bartimos, the minor lord without any dragon, who had the best grasp of Mahanian strategy. A decisive stroke again King’s Landing could well have ended the war. It would have seized the enemy capitol and likely killed the majority of the Green’s already outnumbered dragons (and therefore, the Green royal claimants as well).
However, Daemon Targaryen argued for a different course.
“It is no easy thing for a man to be a dragonslayer. But dragons can kill dragons, and have. Any maester who has ever studied the history of Valyria can tell you that. I will not throw our dragons against the usurper’s unless I have no other choice. There are other ways to use them, better ways.”
Daemon’s plan, as it turned out, was exactly the kind of “particular operations” that had failed so spectacularly in real history. The Black dragons split up, each achieving secondary objectives. The dragon Tyraxes spent the first half of the war sitting uselessly in the Vale, ostensibly protecting the Eyrie from dragon attack. Caraxes gathered forces in the river lands. Meleys and her rider Rhaenys flew alone to Rook’s Rest to defend it from attack.
The strategy costs the Blacks dearly. They frittered away their dragon advantage in the early stages of the war, and rendered their dragons vulnerable. Meleys was attacked and killed by two Green dragons in a clever concentration of force. Unfortunately for the Greens, that would be the only time in the entire war that two or more of their dragons collaborated in an attack on enemy forces.
The only truly impressive multi-dragon operation to come out of the Dance was Rhaenyra’s belated attack on King’s Landing, when she attacked the city with six dragons halfway through the war. The city instantly surrendered, bringing the Blacks their greatest victory, but even that success was tarnished because no ridden Green dragons had been inside the city. Had three or four Black dragons been present, they would have had to escape (a risky prospect) or been killed in a hopeless battle. King’s Landing was a worthy prize, but killing half of the Black’s dragons would have been a even greater victory. The Blacks, however, would never repeat that concentration of force, and immediately split up their dragons again.
Mahan would have wept if he’d seen how the rest of the war progressed. Both sides scattered their dragons across Westeros, with one dragon searching for another or escorting some army, or holding some stronghold. The strategy proved disastrous for Black and Green alike, because with their dragons dispersed, neither could win a decisive victory. Often dragons would fight one-on-one battles, which often resulted in the death of both creatures.
Daemon had rejected Celtigar’s Mahanian strategy because of the risk it posed to the dragons. Yet as it turned out, Daemon’s dispersal strategy was both ineffective and, ironically, even more deadly for the dragons. By the end of the war, every single fighting-age dragon controlled by either side was dead. What’s more, dragons hadn’t even played a decisive role in the outcome of the war. The war-winning battles of the Fish Feed, the Butcher’s Ball, and the Kingsroad involved no dragons at all. The mismanagement of the dragons during the war boggles the mind.
Both sides deserve blame for misusing their dragons, but we should single out the Blacks for special criticism. For most of the war, they possessed a clear advantage in dragons, and so they were the ones with the most to gain from forcing large-scale dragon-battles.
The Dance was, of course, a disaster for the Targaryens, and even more so for dragons themselves. With the death of so many of the beasts, the age of dragon warfare was over. It need not have been this way. Smarter and more decisive use of the dragons could have preserved many of the dragons, especially those controlled by the winning side. The Dance stands as a good example of how when combatants misunderstand the tools at their disposal, their blunders make the war even more destructive and terrible.