Winning Westeros

February 05, 2020
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Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict. Max Brooks, John Amble, M.L. Cavanaugh, Jaym Gates (Eds). Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2019.


As someone who obsessed over Game of Thrones—both the books and the HBO television series—and saw in it provocative allegories for real world political problems, I was delighted to learn there was an entire book dedicated to that very subject.

Winning Westeros, edited by Max Brooks, John Amble, M.L. Cavanaugh, and Jaym Gates, is an anthology of 30 short essays written by a diverse collection of mostly American––plus three Australians and an Italian who works in the U.S.––national security professionals. Many are on the faculty at service academies or some of the U.S. military’s various schools of professional military education, quite a few are active duty or reserve officers, and some are civilian analysts and scholars, like me. The contributions cover a wide range of topics, among them general strategy, the tactical use of walls, targeted killings, and human intelligence. Many of the essays are fun, and some are informative. The real value of these essays will probably be to future scholars who want to learn about how national security professionals circa 2019 thought, rather than to people today who either want to get deep into Game of Thrones or learn about modern military conflict.

The best essays distinguish themselves through their creativity or their relatively deep look at topics other than the obvious ones. Examples include essays considering the role of sea power by Michael Junge and Bryan McGrath, and essays on walls and siege warfare by John Spencer, Lionel Beehner, Benedetta Berti, and Mike Jackson. Joshua D. Powers and Jonathan Bott penned a stimulating fictional letter, presumably to Jaime Lannister, suggesting ways to reform the Lannister army to counter Daenerys Targaryen’s strengths––providing them an opportunity to air ideas about innovation, adaptability, and the importance of trusting subordinates to act autonomously. Their piece is both fun and stimulating, which is precisely what one looks for in such a volume. The same can be said for Jess Ward's creative piece on the Battle of the Bastards and the importance of reserves. Other favorites include Nina A. Kollars’ “Game of Pwns,” which focuses on the roles of Lords Baelish and Varys and compares them to hackers, describing Baelish as a “black hat” and Varys a “white;” Andrea N. Goldstein’s discussion of human intelligence in the Seven Kingdoms; and Theresa Hitchens’ essay, “The Red Wedding and the Power of Norms.” Also worth reading is Craig Whiteside’s well-written and thoughtful essay on Arya Stark as a strategic leader, and the implications of her embrace of targeted killing. Was it worth it?

On the negative side of the ledger, the single biggest problem with the book is that it was compiled prior to the airing of the show’s disappointing 8th season. That season may not necessarily have changed any of the authors’ bottom lines, but those of us who read the book having already seen how the show ends will find the essays lacking or awkwardly silent about major developments—dragons in the room, if you will—that are directly relevant to what many of the essays discuss. Glaringly absent is any mention of the visually astonishing but militarily idiotic Battle of Winterfell, and Daenarys’s precipitous metamorphosis into a maniac whom John Snow feels compelled to kill. More’s the pity, for the Battle of Winterfell showcased military incompetence of the first order and therefore presents a great teaching opportunity. Naturally it has been the subject of a number of terrific and informative articles by military analysts and officers, ones that explain matters such as the proper use of cavalry. Daenarys’s abrupt switch from hero to villain upends numerous attempts to place her as a potential ideal in a world of competing theories about the appropriate balance between violence and justice.

Battle of Winterfell (HBO)

Indeed, at the heart of the books or shows are questions about who wins the game of thrones, and whose approach to attaining power and keeping it succeeds. Now that we’ve seen the 8th season, we know who wins: Sansa Stark, Bran Stark, and arguably Tyrion Lannister. What does the outcome mean for all the theories of power and governance discussed in many of the essays? The book cannot say. Relatedly, Jaym Gates’s otherwise excellent essay on “strategic storytelling” feels incomplete because it makes no mention of Tyrion’s argument at the end of the show for the importance of stories and for crowning Bran precisely because of Bran’s story. Tyrion entirely validates Gates; if only Gates could have discussed the implications.

As a group they do not appear to read widely, which, if true, might bespeak limitations that apply to American national security professionals as a whole.

A lesser problem is the mixed quality of the essays in Winning Westeros with respect to both the substance and the writing. One finds, for example, too many predictable and uninteresting discussions of Clausewitz and Machiavelli, and too much Victor Davis Hanson. To be fair, any reference to Victor David Hanson is too much. One also gets the impression that while all the contributors are professionals, not all are particularly high-brow thinkers. Hence my thesis that the book’s ultimate value might be as a snapshot of how American national security professionals think and what they think about at the end of this century’s second decade. Their interests say much about the times they live in. One finds, for example, discussions of information warfare, hybrid warfare, multi-domain warfare, and even the Third Offset. We also get a glimpse into their reading habits, thanks to their endnotes and in-text references. As a group they do not appear to read widely, which, if true, might bespeak limitations that apply to American national security professionals as a whole. Perhaps it would have helped if the volume featured more non-Americans, and more foreigners who are not as deeply steeped in American military culture or American national security studies. Game of Thrones was a global phenomenon, after all. Among the best military analyses of Game of Thrones I’ve encountered are the work of a serving French Army Lieutenant Colonel, Jean Michelin, whose 30-minute podcast on the Battle of Winterfell is a gem.

Winning Westeros is fun for Game of Thrones fans but mixed with regard to its substance. Undergraduate teachers can probably find a number of pieces worth assigning introductory classes, i.e. students who have yet to run into Clausewitz or have never heard of the distinctions between strategy and operations. The rest of us will prefer to focus on the more narrowly focused contributions especially about matters to which many of us have given little thought, like sea power. Mostly, though, the book is a testament to the story-telling gifts of George R.R. Martin, who managed to write a series of fantasy novels about dragons and zombies that enthralled a large number of serious people.


Michael Shurkin is a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


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