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The Strategic Case for Burning King’s Landing

Was it mad? Or a canny decision by an aspiring monarch? A military strategist looks at the Battle of King’s Landing.

Jon Snow and friends striding through a burnt-down wall.
Turned out the walls of King’s Landing were not that effective.
HBO

Battle Analysis: The Battle of King’s Landing

The Battle of King’s Landing has ended with the city in ruins and Targaryen Restorationist forces triumphant. The Targaryens (Team Dragon) won a decisive victory primarily through the use of a dragon to first destroy the fortifications of the city, then to incinerate its defenders (and other inhabitants). Lannister forces (Team Lion) were completely defeated despite access to elite infantry, an effective naval force, and substantial anti-air artillery.

Team Dragon’s victory was as impressive in its speed as in its completeness. Assaulting the walls of fortified cities rarely goes quickly and rarely goes well. Stannis Baratheon’s forces failed to breach King’s Landing during the Battle of the Blackwater, despite a crushing numerical advantage. Real-world situations have played out in similar fashion; during the 1453 Siege of Constantinople, the Ottomans enjoyed a 9:1 advantage, and yet the battle still lasted 53 days. The 1099 Siege of Jerusalem lasted 37 days, despite a similar Crusader advantage. Team Dragon, on the other hand, appears to have won the battle in one morning.

What happened after that battle—the sack and burning of King’s Landing—has been the subject of much morning-after debate. Many ascribe the actions of the leader of Team Dragon, Daenerys Targaryen, to a kind of madness. Yet as we teach at the United States Army War College, political considerations infuse military strategy: Viewing her actions through that lens suggests the destruction of King’s Landing may serve Targaryen purposes.

Team Dragon

Team Dragon entered the fight battered and bruised from the Battle of Winterfell. Much of the Dothraki cavalry had fallen in the fight against the Night King, although a larger portion seem to have survived than initial estimates allowed. Team Dragon also had access to well-trained, disciplined infantry in the form of the Unsullied, and experienced feudal infantry drawn from the North and elsewhere in the Seven Kingdoms. Most importantly, Team Dragon had possession of the dragon Drogon, the last such creature to survive after Euron Greyjoy and the Iron Fleet pulled off an improbable (some would say absurd) ambush of Rhaegal off Dragonstone.

Normally, such a force would be expected to undertake a siege, forcing King’s Landing to surrender without an assault or at least weakening the resolve of the defenders. However, Team Lion had won control of the sea and could maintain supply lines to the city indefinitely. This necessitated an assault, although normally a lengthy artillery barrage against the walls and works of the city would have preceded such an attack. An alternative strategy would have involved attempting to undermine the financial stability of Team Dragon by undercutting its credit, but this effort would have taken time, and it is unclear whether Team Dragon gave it serious consideration. Finally, Team Dragon defectors infiltrated the city, intending to either decapitate or demoralize Team Lion; though they were not working on Team Dragon’s behalf, their objectives aligned with Team Dragon’s goals.

Given the decision to assault, Team Dragon’s primary tactical problem was to use Drogon to destroy or disrupt for the fortifications of the city, and kill or panic as much defending infantry as possible. “Scorpions,” ballistae developed by Hand of the Queen Qyburn, posed the primary threat to Drogon. Friendly forces would need to eliminate or neutralize these weapons as rapidly as possible in order to ensure Drogon’s safety.

Team Lion

Team Lion’s most important asset was the walls of King’s Landing, which were not impervious to assault but nevertheless posed a formidable obstacle. Team Lion also controlled extensive elite infantry, embodied in the sworn swords of House Lannister, the Gold Cloaks of King’s Landing, and the mercenary Golden Company. This gave Team Lion enough confidence to deploy its infantry outside the city walls—prepared to offer battle against the conventional forces of Team Dragon but able to retreat if such combat went poorly.

Earlier in the campaign, King’s Landing was extremely vulnerable to a siege. But the victories of the Iron Fleet over the naval forces of Team Dragon mean that Team Lion could maintain maritime access to the city, thus keeping it supplied. Moreover, the Iron Fleet had demonstrated a sufficiently lethal air defense to resist dragon attacks. Consequently, King’s Landing would remain fed as long as Team Lion could pay for food.

Team Lion’s anti-aircraft artillery offered an answer to the problem of Drogon. This artillery, equipped on the ships of the Iron Fleet, had slain one dragon and deterred further immediate attacks. The artillery was also effective against ships and presumably against siege engines. A killing shot against Drogon would probably end the war, eliminating Team Dragon’s most lethal asset and also likely killing Queen Daenerys Targaryen.

The Course of Battle

In the event, Daenerys Targaryen decided to tackle the problem of the scorpions head on. The tactics that had worked so well in ambush of Rhaegal failed to defeat a prepared opponent. Drogon approached the Iron Fleet out of the sun, then maneuvered at low altitude to limit the ability of scorpion operators to track and fire. The ships of the Iron Fleet could not resist dragonfire. Drogon then worked his way along the city walls, destroyed the main gate, and incinerated a large contingent of Team Lion’s infantry in the field. The walls breached and the defenders in disarray, Team Dragon’s ground forces stormed the city and induced the civilians and the remnants of Team Lion’s infantry to surrender. Then things got complicated.

A dragon torches King's Landing.
Things getting complicated.
HBO

In his seminal work Arms and Influence, Thomas Schelling cites the aftermath of fall of Jerusalem in 1099, when a Crusader chronicler related that “the slaughter was so great that our men waded in blood up to their ankles.” Similar stories of brutal sacks abound in medieval and ancient literature, to the point that Shakespeare (also cited by Schelling) dramatizes Henry V’s threats against the town of Harfleur:

Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;

Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace

O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds

Of heady murder, spoil and villany.

If not, why, in a moment look to see

The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand

Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;

Your fathers taken by the silver beards,

And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,

Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,

Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused

Sacks, in short, are nothing new. Even Cersei spoke to Sansa about the horrors of a sack during the Battle of the Blackwater. But what happened to King’s Landing went rather beyond a sack. Team Dragon’s forces entered the city in good order and appeared on the verge of accepting Team Lion’s surrender. At this point, Queen Daenerys Targaryen determined to refuse the surrender, and burned large parts of the city to the ground. Team Dragon’s ground forces followed suit, slaughtering the surrendered soldiers of Team Lion and massacring unfortunate civilians. By midday, the city was in flames and ruins.

Why Destroy King’s Landing?

To appreciate what happened to King’s Landing, we need to move beyond the tactical and operational levels and think strategically. At the Army War College we think about strategy within an “Ends-Ways-Means” framework. Team Dragon’s Means include the army and the dragon; its Ways involve a siege or assault to destroy Cersei’s forces. But its Ends are not just the capture and defeat of Cersei Lannister: They are installing Daenerys Targaryen on the Iron Throne and giving her the ability to rule all of Westeros.

Political considerations necessarily infuse strategic calculations. For Queen Daenerys Targaryen, seizure of King’s Landing and the deposition of the usurper Cersei no longer cuts it. Aegon Targaryen (Jon Snow) has a better claim to the throne; he has a base of operations, a narrative of legitimacy, and his own army. Even if Jon doesn’t want to be King, people who dislike Daenerys will fight in his name. Dany is no longer the presumptive Targaryen heir and can no longer rely on her family’s right to the throne.

She can rely on Drogon, however. Her claim to the throne rests on demonstrating the power of her dragon. With Rhaegal—the dragon Jon had ridden—dead, she is uniquely capable of making such a claim. Daenerys need not be “mad” in order to see political value in burning King’s Landing to the ground. We impute a desire to burn things to hereditary mental instability in the Targaryens, but rational political calculation can lead her (and perhaps her Targaryen forebears) to the same conclusions. In terms that Thomas Schelling would surely appreciate, the destruction of King’s Landing represents a message of commitment on the part of Daenerys Targaryen to the Seven Kingdoms. It also represents her political maturation insofar as she is willing to do to King’s Landing what she could not imagine doing to the slaver-cities of Astapor and Yunkai.

Wrap

Thus, we can’t think of the destruction of King’s Landing as an undisciplined sack in the same sense as Jerusalem in 1099. It is a purposeful act, meant to demonstrate the queen’s power in service of securing her claim to rulership over Westeros. Ironically, King’s Landing served as the first base and seat of power for Aegon the Conqueror, founder of the Targaryen dynasty.

Daenerys Targaryen’s destruction of the city may win her the Iron Throne, but it has ominous implications for her future rule. Given that her power depends utterly on Drogon, it may also bode ill for the dragon.

This article has been approved for public release in accordance with Carlisle Barracks Regulation No. 360-1 (Public Release of Information and Engagement) to ensure that it accurately portrays official policy and does not include classified information. The views expressed here are the personal views of Farley and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or the Army War College on the Battle of King’s Landing.