Game of Thrones is a show that revels in disaster. It is a love letter to gore, a paean to murderous betrayal. Each season brings with it a more shocking on-screen act of violence, each new episode leaving viewers on the edge of their seat wondering just how far David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will go. Amidst the doom and gloom of Thrones it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that its progenitor George R. R. Martin is somewhat of a pacifist. He successfully obtained conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, and performed alternative service through VISTA, volunteering in Chicago instead of fighting overseas.
A Song of Ice and Fire delivers a strong anti-war message. Septon Meribald’s famous “Broken Men” monologue is a meditation on how war can dehumanize and destroy the men who fight. A Feast for Crows is basically one long look at the aftermath of a country torn apart by war. Martin rejects the notion his books are political allegory. “If I want to write about World War II or about Vietnam, I’ll write about World War II or about Vietnam,” he said in an interview. But to me, parts of A Dance With Dragons verge on being explicitly political. Daenerys’ plot in Meereen strongly resembles the War in Iraq and subsequent occupation.
In the end it doesn’t matter much to me what Martin intended and what he didn’t. Given that he’s been politically conscious since at least the Vietnam War, it would be hard not to be influenced, consciously or not, by the events ongoing in America at the time. A Storm of Swords was published in the summer of 2000–just over a year later the events of 9/11 permanently changed the political landscape. A Feast for Crows came out in 2005, and A Dance With Dragons in 2011, although it’s likely he was working on much of Dance concurrently with AFFC, as they were only later split into two books. So Dance was forged while America invaded Iraq. It was agonized over while private Blackwater militia killed 17 civilians. It was delayed, and delayed, and delayed as efforts to remove combat forces from Iraq were similarly hindered. And it was finished while continued violence was dark evidence the end of the combat mission in Iraq would not truly be anything resembling an end. So I find it highly likely the events of Iraq deeply inform A Dance With Dragons.
But regardless of Martin’s intentions, the parallels are there to be seen. Daenerys is a Western leader (in exile) who turns her sights on the East. The military conquest she finds almost trivially easy, removing regimes as she goes. She starts with Astapor, and leaves behind a council that falls apart laughably quickly after her departure. Like the War in Afghanistan, Dany’s sack of Astapor was brief and highly successful, removing a repressive ruling regime, but only the beginning of new troubles for the city of Astapor itself.
Then, like the U.S. turned its sights to Iraq, Dany moved on to Meereen. Again, overwhelming forces and ingenuity rapidly win her the city. She is, in fact, greeted as a liberator. But the same liberated people who greet her also loot the city, placing her reluctantly in charge of an immediate crisis. While she never intended to stay for long, it becomes clear she can’t leave: things would simply become too unstable. She finds the culture completely foreign, and discovers crushing the enemy of her neighbors isn’t enough to win her many new friends. Meanwhile, she finds that her arrival wasn’t beloved by everyone. From those she dispossessed of power, she faces an uprising whose guerrilla tactics make it almost impossible to extinguish.
Dany’s journey doesn’t parallel the U.S. involvement in the Middle East beat for beat. What it shares is the broader themes: that occupying a foreign nation is fraught with risks and complexity, no matter how noble the reason for ‘liberating’ it in the first place. That tyrants may sometimes be the only ones holding a region back from even deeper chaos. That things don’t work out neat and pat every time, even when the military operations do.
Through this lens, it’s a little easier to sympathize with Daenerys. Many readers (and watchers) find her storyline off-putting, because it seems like she’s so far sidetracked from the ‘payoff’ everyone wants of invading Westeros. But Martin has always let his plots develop organically, and while a quick march through Essos on the way to an invasion may have been Dany’s plan, it was impossible all along. Martin, who set out to write a three book series, learned that complications arise along the way, and his characters have been forced to confront the same lesson.
We possess weapons of unimaginable power, but find that they are not magic. Daenerys has weapons of unimaginable power, and magic. Based on ‘The Battle of the Bastards’, it seems Dany will indeed find her way out of Essos–but at what cost? She has lost her love and her her most devoted protectors are dead or gone. It’s not even clear if she’ll manage to rid the area of slavery. While Dany may end up returning triumphantly to Westeros, you can be sure she’ll have regrets that linger with her for a long time.
In the end, Dany was undone by her most noble impulse, her desire to destroy slavery and spread freedom. This is the gray area, the moral hinterlands, that the books thrive in. It’s what makes A Song of Ice and Fire so compelling. Without necessarily seeking to provide answers, it gives us a lens to analyze and judge the world around us.