*Note: This essay was originally published at The Ambassador’s Brief news & commentary site, and was co-written with Max Brooks.
In our new book Winning Westeros we’ve brought together a team of thirty top military and strategic experts to draw out the real lessons of war and strategy hidden in plain sight onscreen.
As we assembled our team, we were pleased by how many notable commanders – such as Admiral (Ret) James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander of NATO – came on board. They joined because they saw the value in:
- engaging a broader audience in the discussion about war and conflict – using Game of Thrones as a vehicle to hold that conversation in a more relatable and engaging way; and
- using fiction and hypotheticals as a way to understand real life possibilities on the battlefield. As Admiral Stavridis put it: “What-if questions are the root of strategic thinking.”
To give a sense of the flavor of the book, we’ve extracted three real life lessons of war from Game of Thrones here:
Fair warning: spoilers ahead.
- War is randomly cruel; brave souls know this and venture out into it anyway
One thing that everybody watches that show understands is that war is terrible. It’s randomly cruel. Good and kind people die in the worst and most tragic ways.
This reflects reality. One of the first casualties in Lt. Col. Cavanaugh’s first tour in Iraq in 2003 was a tank driver. He was rolling through the desert, crested a hill, and then put the tank nose down into a wadi – a big puddle. The tank got lodged in the wadi, and he couldn’t get out. He drowned in the middle of a desert.
He had a wife and child at home.
We’ve seen that on the show. If there’s a character that you start to like, and you care about, and you lose that person, randomly, violently, then you get a fraction of a sense of what it’s like to lose someone in a real war.
To take one example from the show, it’s very likely that Hodor had a glimpse of what the end of his life would look like. He knew what was coming for him, and he still held the door closed. He still held back evil, despite knowing what that would cost him.
There are 250,000 Americans out there serving overseas right now, who are willing to do very much the same thing.
- Technology can be a game changer
One evocative moment in the show is when the Iron Fleet, seemingly out of nowhere, ambushes Danaerys and shoots down one of her dragons with a “scorpion” weapons system.
As Admiral Stavridis notes, in modern-day war, we likely would have had reconnaissance platforms that would have identified that ship. But the broader idea that technology can turn the tide is real.
To take an example from history, in the 1967 six-day war, the Israeli air force dominated the Middle East. It destroyed the whole Egyptian air force on the ground.
In 1973, Egypt launched a sneak attack on Israel’s holiest of days. Israel was shocked, but thought that its airpower would be able to destroy the Egyptians all over again.
But in between 1967 and 1973, a brand-new invention – just like the scorpions in Game of Thrones – came along. The Soviets invented SI-6 – a surface-to-air missile which is much faster, smaller, and more accurate than its predecessors.
So the Israeli air force went up, ready to destroy the Egyptian army – like the dragons – and then suddenly they were like ‘oh my god what are these things?’ and the SI-6s were just knocking Israeli planes out of the sky.
This happens in war: a new technology comes along and it catches everybody by surprise.
- Leadership and alliance building matters
One key facet of the show is the strategic thought and instinct of Jon Snow – who actually shares several leadership characteristics with George Washington.
Washington lost many battles but won the war in part because he did such an effective job at forging alliances – particularly unexpected alliances. He had an ability to get people to cooperate and fight together in ways that that didn’t seem possible beforehand.
George Washington did it with unruly Northeasterners and Virginians. Jon Snow did it with the Wildlings, Danaerys, and many others.
The lesson: good leadership can be beneficial to your side and strategically devastating to the other side.
These are just some of the insights from the book. If you’ve enjoyed them, then this book is your ticket to cash in that viewing time for a deeper understanding of modern war and real strategy.