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Dragon power is awesome. But it can’t tell you how to rule.

The ‘Game of Thrones’ dragons reveal what military power can — and cannot — achieve.

- April 28, 2019

Unless you’ve been living under a rock — or a weirwood tree — you probably know that “Game of Thrones” is into its final season. Given the importance of dragons to “Thrones’” endgame, a debate has emerged about whether dragons are a metaphor for nuclear weapons or are closer to an air force. Both views miss the point that series creator — George R.R. Martin — is trying to make.

Rather than symbolizing nuclear weapons or air power specifically, dragons are a symbol for military power more generally and the limits of what it can achieve. After comparing dragons to nuclear weapons and claiming they make Daenerys Targaryen “the most powerful person in the world,” Martin says:

What does Martin mean by this? Here are two insights from political science.

1. Dragons are great for toppling governments. Not so much for beating insurgents.

In Season 2, Daenerys warns that “when my dragons are grown, we will take back what was stolen from me and destroy those who wronged me. We will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground.”

Dany is absolutely right about the immense destructive capability of dragons and their utility in conquering cities. In her famous “dracrys” scene, Dany used her dragons to overthrow the slavers of Astapor. Her ancestor Aegon also used dragons to conquer Westeros.

Unfortunately, dragons are of little use against insurgents. For example, after toppling the ruling class in Meereen, Dany faced an insurgent group called the Sons of the Harpy. Instead of meeting Daenerys’s forces in an open field, where they would surely be overwhelmed by her massive advantage in military capabilities, the Harpies adopted classic guerrilla warfare tactics. Essentially, the Harpies compensated for their weakness by melting into the population, concealing their identities with masks, and engaging in surprise attacks when the numbers were on their side. As Daenerys says in the books, “I am still at war … only now I am fighting shadows.”

That’s the same situation the United States faced in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite a huge advantage in military capabilities, the Americans found it extremely difficult to defeat these countries’ insurgents. Dragons, the most powerful weapon in “Game of Thrones,” were practically useless against the Harpies. Dragons can’t hit what they can’t see.

Moreover, dragons, like other forms of military power, can sometimes harm counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts.

Killing civilians, accidentally or intentionally, can lead to backlash from the local population — and thus hurt COIN efforts. For example, research has found that aerial bombing of civilian targets in South Vietnam actually helped Viet Cong insurgents.

Daenerys faced this issue in Meereen when her favorite dragon, Drogon, killed a young girl. In the show, Dany locked up her other two dragons to protect the Meereenese people and prevent them from turning against her. In the books, she also tells the young girl’s father that “this tale must never pass your lips again.”

While Daenerys did order her dragons to roast Randyll and Dickon Tarly, they were military commanders rather than civilian noncombatants. But even this may ultimately come back to bite her.

2. Dragons are not a tax policy

Although dragons bring fire and blood, they don’t necessarily give you the insight to adopt wise policies after the war is won. Martin famously criticized “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien by asking, “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” Similar questions will plague whoever wins the game of thrones, if anyone does.

What should their tax policy be? How will succession be decided? Will the North get its independence? Sadly, dragons provide no answers to these tough questions.

Daenerys grappled with similar thorny political issues in Meereen, with varying success. Should the traditional fighting pits be reopened? Should Dany marry someone for political purposes, even if she doesn’t love him? Whom should she trust to rule the city while off trying to conquer Westeros?

All militarily powerful occupiers and conquerors face comparable challenges. For example, after toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan, the United States had to help draft a new constitution. The decision to create a highly centralized government in a country with a strong tradition of local autonomy may have been one of the biggest mistakes of the war.

Similarly, after deposing Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the United States had to decide what to do with the Iraqi military and members of Saddam’s Baath political party employed as government civil servants. The Americans ultimately chose to disband the Iraqi military and fire all senior Baath Party members. These decisions put tens of thousands of armed men out of work overnight and deprived the government of competent employees.

When Dany reminds Tyrion Lannister that she has “a very large army and very large dragons,” Tyrion retorts that “killing and politics aren’t always the same thing.” Although dragons can help Daenerys “break the wheel,” they don’t reveal what to replace it with.

Whether dragons are nuclear weapons or air power isn’t the main point

Political scientists Michael Horowitz and Matthew Fuhrmann are technically right that dragons are used in the show and in the books like an air force, which they wrote about here at TMC. But this is a plot-driven decision by Martin.

Nuclear weapons tend to prevent conflict because of the fear of complete destruction. If dragons did work as a nuclear deterrent, then the final season would be extremely boring!

[Note: spoiler ahead!]

However, dragons represent more than just air power; they symbolize the limits of what military power can achieve. Even though the living have defeated the army of the dead, there will still be much work to do to rebuild the Seven Kingdoms. This is yet another way that Martin is able to subvert the traditional tropes of fantasy and speak to important political issues.

Joshua A. Schwartz (@JoshuaASchwartz) is a PhD candidate in international relations at the University of Pennsylvania.