History’s filled with terrible military leaders. Quintilius Varus, Horatio Gates, Ambrose Burnside, George A. Custer, Sir Douglas Haig, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Saddam Hussein come to mind. But I would offer up two more. Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, etc. and Jon Snow, Warden of the North.
In Season 8 of Game of Thrones we have seen these two military leaders in action and I must say that I’m kind of shocked at their poor generalship … certainly where tactics comes into play. They have fought in two major engagements so far, the Battle Of Winterfell, and the naval expedition to Dragonstone. Let’s examine how they did, shall we?
First of all, let’s dissect the fight to defend Winterfell from the onslaught of the Army of the Dead. The strategy centered around a defense-in-depth approach with the main impediment to the enemy being the fortress of Winterfell itself. And yet, they mustered their combined armies out in the open and, worse, placed their catapults up front, rather than safely behind the walls where they could unleash a storm of flaming projectiles unimpeded at the charging dead. The catapults were soon captured and rendered useless. In effect, Daenerys and Snow gave up their heavy artillery in the first few minutes of the battle.
And before the engagement even got properly underway, they prematurely unleashed the Dothraki cavalry in a foolish charge right out of the Light Brigade against an enemy whose strength was unknown and hidden under the cloak of night. Although it made for stunning cinematic imagery, the outcome was to be expected. The Dothraki, in effect light cavalry (not heavily armored knights with lances) were overwhelmed and cut to ribbons. It would have been best to save them for a counterblow, an encircling maneuver ala Hannibal at Cannae, or some sort of coup de grace chase.
And what of the phalanxes of infantry spearheaded by the Unsullied and supported by Wildlings and Northmen? Why were they arrayed outside the castle? Would it not have been better to keep them back within the protection of the citadel manning the walls and preventing the Dead from climbing over the top? How much more effective of a defense would these soldiers have mounted by fighting from behind high battlements rather than out in the open plain facing an attacking force that greatly outnumbered them? (I guess the writers never considered the plight of the Union XI Corps at Gettysburg which, when compelled to defend flat, open terrain against superior numbers, was routed in an hour).
As for the flaming trench, it was a good idea. So why didn’t they dig several? They could have presented the Dead with not one but two or three rivers of fire to overcome. And each time they faced another burning moat, their advance would’ve been blunted and the defenders would’ve had the Dead right where they wanted them: exposed in the open and pinned against the flames in a stationary position. That would’ve been the moment for catapults, archers with flaming arrows, and, of course, two dragons to do their worst. And those who eventually would make it through the deathtraps then would’ve had to climb the high walls and face a rested, fully intact army ready to beat them back from behind the protection of stone battlements. (Oh, and no flaming oil guys?)
Ultimately none of this would have mattered anyway … not when it just took one assassin girl with a dragon glass dagger to end the combat with one stab. Given that, what was the use of all that sacrifice? The fiercest cavalry in Westeros was decimated while its most disciplined army severely bloodied. The bottom line is this: but for the pint-sized Arya Stark and her magic blade, Daenerys’ and Jon’s defense of Winterfell would have resulted in a massacre.
Not to be outdone in their blundering tactics, our aunt-nephew tag-team doubled down on stupidity. First they ignored Sansa’s sound advice and gave their bloodied and exhausted army no time to rest, resupply, or recover from wounds. Instead they marched and sailed pell-mell for King’s Landing.
Now, I’m not sure what military textbooks they were reading, but it’s usually advisable that when you go on the offensive you do some recon to get the lay of the land and find out what’s waiting for you out there over the hill. And along with well-placed spies and scouts, what’s the best way to gather intelligence of enemy strength and dispositions? Aerial reconnaissance. Oh well, this was the age before drones. Still, if only they had some sort of flying—hey! Wait a minute. Here’s an idea. Maybe Daenerys or Jon should’ve hopped on a dragon and done a fly-over of the area they planned on attacking. See what was in store for them like, oh I dunno, a Kracken fleet with giant dragon-killing cross-bows?
It’s also a good idea to remember what weapons your enemy possesses … Daenerys already knew the Lannisters had good anti-dragon technology from the attack on their wagon train when Bron almost took one out. (A cautionary reminder from Jamie before they set off would have been nice). One would expect that Cersei, and certainly Qyburn, would’ve had their masons feverishly constructing more of these dragon-killers … which they apparently did. So, given what she already knew about their ack-ack technology — and having already lost one to the Night King’s ground fire — why would Daenerys fly her two remaining dragons, her most precious military assets, just a few hundred feet off the ground when a thousand would’ve kept them well out of harm’s way and offered a much better prospect of the surrounding countryside and any nasty surprises awaiting her ships around the next bend?
Once Euron’s surprise attack was underway, and he’d taken out one dragon — half of his enemy’s air force — all Daenerys needed to do was fly her remaining dragon very high, mindful to stay out of range, and then swoop around the rear of the fleet and gone all “Dracarus!” on them. She must have seen from her vantage point that the cross-bows were only mounted on the bow of Euron’s ships, and thus were their sterns completely vulnerable. It’s not like the warships could’ve come about quicker than a dragon would’ve circled around the back and swooped in for the kill. I guess Daenerys never heard of the classic flanking maneuver as old as warfare itself?
So. The score stands at Common Sense 2, the Targaryen duo 0. Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. Even history’s greatest captains suffered defeats. Thus it’s my hope that team Targaryen will learn from their mistakes and fight the next battle only after a serious perusal of Sun-Tzu’s Art Of War. Otherwise my money’s on the Lannisters. We shall see.
Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can order his book here: