Game of Thrones: Dragons, Despots, and Just War

photograph of used Game of Thrones book
"Game of Thrones Paperback Book" by Wiyre Media is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

** SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones up to and including the show’s Season 8 ending.

Game of Thrones, the popular television show based on the book series by George RR Martin, aired its final episode last week. Set in a medieval fantasy world the strength of its appeal is in its exploration of real-world themes of politics, power and war.

For a story infamous for subverting narrative expectations with radical plot twists, in the last two episodes the actions and ultimate fate of Daenerys Targaryen shocked even the most intrepid fans. Hitherto one of the story’s heroines and presumptive savior of Westeros, fans watched in horror as Daenerys chose to burn hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians alive in her quest to ‘build a better world’. What happened? Was this a calculated tactic, and if so, what possible reason or justification can there have been for her to choose the route of extreme violence?

Daenerys Targaryen was one of many contenders for the Iron Throne, the seat of power on the continent of Westeros, and the only one with dragons. In Martin’s fictional world, dragons (which can grow to immense size, and breathe columns of fire so hot it can melt stone and steel) had traditionally been used by the ruling Targaryen family as weapons of war and conquest, but had been extinct for a century prior to events of the story.

As different characters and factions vie for the Iron Throne and the rulership of Westeros, Daenerys Targaryen, living in exile after her father the “Mad King” was deposed by the current ruler(s) during a rebellion, magically hatches three petrified dragon eggs. Already possessed of the belief that the throne belonged to her by right of succession, as her dragons grew to maturity she was also in possession of a formidable military weapon with immense firepower. In a medieval world where weapons of war are swords and arrows, the dragons represent the destructive might of nuclear weapons against the mere capacities of conventional ones.

Despite occasionally displaying the fiery Targaryen temper, Daenerys was to begin with relatively restrained in the use of this significant advantage in pursuing her military goals and achieved her ascendency to ruler of Slaver’s Bay (a region on the continent in which she was in exile) with only sparing use of dragon fire. For most of the story Daenerys seems to be (so to speak) on the right side of history as, in Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen she liberated the large population of slaves and presided over the abolition of the institution and practice of slavery. To this end she was a revolutionary, and styled herself as a liberator and a ruler for the downtrodden on a mission to create a better world.

When she finally turns her gaze to Westeros to retake the Iron Throne even as her advisors, including Tyrion Lannister, implore her to hold back her firepower and not to use her dragons to attack the city of King’s Landing (the seat of her rival, tyrannical and ruthless queen Cersei Lannister and also home to a large civilian population) but to pursue other military options less likely to result in large numbers of civilian casualties, many of her allies (Yara Greyjoy, Ellaria Sand and Olenna Tyrell) encourage her to hit King’s Landing with all of her might.

This is a real ethical dilemma in military tactics. Where one party has a weapon of immense superiority, such as a nuclear weapon, there is a case to be weighed up between using it to obtain swift victory, avoiding a potentially protracted conflict which may eventually lead to a great deal more death and suffering, as against holding back to avoid the possibility of an egregious, even gratuitous, victory born from a one-sided conflict. As such, the debate continues on whether the use of nuclear weapons by the United States on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end WWII was morally justified. One informal, voluntary poll shows that over 50% of respondents believe that it was indeed justified.

Viewers who had followed Daenerys’ ascent from frightened girl to Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, and Breaker of Chains generally trusted in her, as a flawed but fundamentally good character, to do what was right. But as in the real world, in the world of Game of Thrones, it is not always clear what the right thing is. Even so, one of the things that the Game of Thrones seems to point up is the need for benevolent rulers. When Daenerys responds that: “I am here to free the world from tyrants… not to be queen of the ashes” we seem to instinctively understand that benevolence and indiscriminate violence cannot easily coexist.  

Yet following the failure of other tactics, she finally unleashes the immense firepower of a dragon against the Lannister army, literally incinerating it, and afterwards, presenting the captured soldiers and nobles with a ‘choice’ – to “bend the knee” (accept her as their ruler) “or die.” She executes with dragon-fire those who do not acquiesce. If Daenerys is going to win, if she is going to take the throne and build her better world, she needs some victories – but is this use of firepower, and subsequent refusal of mercy the right thing to do? At this point her advisors, and possibly her supporters, are uneasy.

In our world, the rules of just war have been formulated, and latterly enshrined in international law, in order to regulate, and limit when and how war is waged. Just war theory includes the principles of jus ad bellum and jus in bello.

Jus ad bellum is a set of criteria to be consulted prior to resorting to warfare to determine whether war is permissible, that is, whether it is a just war. This principle has a long history in the western philosophical tradition. In his Summa Theologica, circa 1270 Thomas Aquinas writes: “[we deem as] peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” One principle of just war, particularly relevant here is the principle of proportionality which stipulates that the violence used in the war must be proportional to the military objectives.

Daenerys does, in accordance with Aquinas’ stipulation, have as her objective the ‘securing of peace’ and ‘uplifting of the good’. Her attack on the Lannister armies, following the exhausting of other tactics, probably passes the test of proportionality – though executing prisoners of war would contravene the Geneva Convention.

However, in the penultimate episode of the series, the worst fears of those who had counselled her against unleashing the full force of her destructive capacities upon a whole city – civilian and military alike, come to pass. Worse still, this action is not taken as a last resort. Using her armies and dragons she has already overcome the enemy’s military. The city has surrendered and the bells of surrender are ringing out as she begins methodically to raze the city to the ground. In this moment she cedes the moral high ground and loses all the moral authority she had earned as a warrior for justice and liberator of the people. But why does she do this?

Daenerys believes that the end will justify the means. She believes that the good of the new world she wants to build will outweigh the suffering caused by the destruction of the old one. She relies on a consequentialist justification here, but if an action can be justified morally by its consequences, then one must know what the consequences will be, and one must know that the resultant good will be certain to morally outweigh the suffering.

Theoretically, if the death of, say, hundreds of thousands prevented the deaths of millions then it could be justified in consequentialist terms. Many philosophers find in such reasoning grounds to reject consequentialist ethics. The reason no one accepts this rationale from Daenerys is that the magnitude of devastation renders it nearly impossible to see it as anything other than utterly, horrifically disproportionate, and the fact that the city had surrendered renders such a justification moot since the immense suffering can not be shown to have been necessary for the better world she claims to be trying to build. As such, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it was gratuitous.

If Daenerys actions cannot be justified as a sacrifice in pursuit of “mercy towards future generations who will never again be held hostage to a tyrant” the other explanation is more sinister – and also more realpolitik. In his book on ruling and the exercise of power, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote: “it is much more safe to be feared than to be loved when you have to choose between the two.

Coming to the bitter realization that she was not going to win the Iron Throne nor hold power in Westeros by virtue of the love of those whom she needed on her side, Daenerys knows that if she is to rule, fear is her only pathway to power. She says as much to Jon Snow before the attack on King’s Landing: “alright then, then let it be fear.” As such, she had made her choice before hand and knew that were the city to surrender she would not pull back, as Tyrion urged her to do, but unleash the full force of her fiery might.

Perhaps Daenerys thought that this was the right thing to do, perhaps, cornered, she thought it was the only thing left for her to do. As Cersei Lannister so prophetically said to Ned Stark in Season One “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die, there is no middle ground.” Is this Machiavellian move compatible with the goal of building a better world? Daenerys had wanted to free the world of tyrants, but what is a tyrant but someone who must rule by fear? Sadly the Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, and Breaker of Chains in the end became what she despised.

Dr Desmonda Lawrence received her PhD from The University of Melbourne in 2017, with a dissertation on the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. She is a freelance writer, poet, and lecturer. Her research and teaching specialties include ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of literature, criticism and poetics.