A military historian rips apart the plan to defend Winterfell on 'Game of Thrones'
By TRAVIS M. ANDREWS | THE WASHINGTON POST Published: May 3, 2019
Editor's note: Spoilers are coming.
Still thinking about Sunday's big Battle of Winterfell on "Game of Thrones"? We are, too, and we can't get over the idea that the living could have employed some better tactics out there on the battlefield.
So we asked Jesse Tumblin — a "Game of Thrones" fan and a military history scholar who is currently a visiting assistant professor in the history department at Boston College — what he thought. He recently wrote a book about how Britain's large colonies tried to use rapid militarization as a pathway out of colonial status in the early twentieth century.
Tumblin broke down the egregious mistakes made by the living throughout the battle — and explained why he doesn't believe the characters would ever make those mistakes.
The Dothraki were sent to their slaughter (but why?!)
Let's start where the battle does: with a horde of Dothraki cavalry charging the army of the undead with flaming arakhs (curved swords) while trebuchets (ancient pieces of artillery) shelled them with fiery projectiles. It's an impressive and terrifying scene. Mostly shown from the perspective of Jon Snow and Daenerys, who are surveying the battlefield from afar, the moment allows viewers to watch as the lit arakhs extinguish within minutes.
Good television; terrible military tactics.
It was "truly perplexing and truly beyond my ability to suspend disbelief that people who had military experience would agree to do things like this," Tumblin said.
It's difficult to choose one aspect of the opening strike as the "most problematic" because, as Tumblin explained, it's all such a mess.
For one thing, the artillery barrage begins as the Dothraki charge, meaning the living could only get off one or two shots before the projectiles from the trebuchets would actually be striking their own forces.
They should have placed the artillery closer to, or behind,the castle walls to give the Dothraki more time to charge across the field. Finally, they also should have started the attack with the artillery.
Instead, Tumblin said, "they begin with a charge that limits and ultimately destroys the effectiveness of all artillery forces that they have."
Not to mention, he pointed out, that "the biggest abstract problem facing the living in this episode is sightlines, the ability to see, and the trebuchets can mitigate your darkness problem because they're throwing huge flaming [projectiles] onto the enemy," lighting up the battlefield.
Then there's the issue of the Dothraki, who are "really fast and effective cavalry," but they're essentially sent to their slaughter.
"They're the most mobile part of the coalition of living forces, and almost all conventional military thought would suggest that you would want to hold your cavalry in reserve for flanking maneuvers," Tumblin said.
Instead, they put them right in harm's way, leading a frontal charge on an enemy that's many times the size of the living.
They should have put the infantry behind the trenches.
So the initial strike might have been poorly orchestrated, but how were the defenses they set up, such as the river of fire in the trenches? "Absolutely mind-boggling," Tumblin said.
"The one decently good tactical idea the living have is to trigger this river of fire" that burns alongside the Czech hedgehogs (pieces of wood lashed together and, in this instance, covered in dragonglass) to slow (or stop) the army of the dead, Tumblin said.
"But the problem is they put most of their infantry and cavalry forces in front of that line, and then they build a single choke point in the line that actually works against them."
Remember the part where all the living were trying to get through that one little gap in the flames? Tumblin said it would have been far more effective to have the troops behind the flames and to force the wights and White Walkers to go through that gap - picking them off as they go.
"The great thing about a choke point is that, especially when you have a numerical disadvantage, it can mitigate your numerical disadvantage by forcing the enemy to go through your choke point one at a time," he said, adding, "This is the principle behind the Battle of Thermopylae, a classic military moment when a small number of Greeks were able to hold off a much larger force of Persians."
It would have been even more effective when one considers the dragons.
They completely wasted their best weapon: the dragons.
The dragons are the living's "only effective war-winning weapon." And yet, for some reason, everyone agrees to "hold the dragons in reserve to wait for the Night King to come for Bran."
They break the plan when the Dothraki are snuffed out, a decision that Tumblin says "ironically and tragically was the most militarily effective thing that happens on behalf of the living in this entire episode."
Now let's say the living had set up their defenses as Tumblin suggested. After the first charge of wights, once the enemy is bunched up against the trenches, then, Tumblin said, the dragons could fly in to hit "an absolutely perfect target for an air to surface attack."
In other words, a dragon could just come and take out massive number the undead in one fell swoop, literally.
Bran should have been used as a 'reconnaissance weapon.'
One tool that's "fundamentally misused is Bran," Tumblin said.
"There's a part where, halfway through the episode, where Bran wargs into a flock of ravens and almost instantaneously locates the Night King. And so from the beginning, knowing what Bran is capable of - both what he knows and his ability to goggle into animals - is the most effective reconnaissance weapon that the living have at their disposal," he added. "But instead of putting Bran in the nerve structure of their command structure, who can tell them reconnaissance information as they need it, they park him in the godswood with Theon, where he can't help anyone."
They also don't use Bran before the battle, Tumblin said, meaning, "They start the battle with two main problems: They don't know where the dead are or what formation they're in, and they don't know how many of them there are . . . Bran can discover these things in about five minutes."
Did Grey Worm even approve this plan?
One aspect of the battle that struck Tumblin as historically accurate, though "ugly," was how the Unsullied and Dothraki were deployed.
A little context: After the episode, many viewers wondered why all the nonwhite soldiers were essentially condemned to terrible deaths outside the castle, which housed most of the white soldiers and leaders. The show has been accused of having a "racial blind spot" in the past, though this season has seen issues of race woven into the plot, as Grey Worm and Missandei interact with unwelcoming Northerners.
Tumblin pointed out the battle tactics follow a real-life racist practice.
"It's a trope of military history that any time you have colonial troops on hand, often they are thrown at the most hopeless objectives or have their lives wasted because they are not valued as highly by the officer corps," he said. "And it seemed like this episode was inviting the viewer to notice that trope."
For Tumblin, it didn't make sense that the Dothraki and Unsullied would be employed in such a way, considering "what I've been invited to believe about the characters in question over the course of the last seven seasons."
The Dothraki are Dany's people, and the fact that she went along with this plan doesn't make sense with who she has been as a ruler, he said.
On the other hand, there's Grey Worm, who has been "strategically in charge of Dany's military forces for several seasons now. And the idea that he would say, 'Yes, fine. We'll put our infantry on the outside of this defensive perimeter, then we'll fall back through a choke point that we ourselves built ourselves for no particular reason, and we'll serve as cannon fodder while the other main characters — who are from the Seven Kingdoms and not from Essos — [are safer], we'll just stand here and soak up the abuse' " is absurd.
"The idea that he would not say something about the logic of the defensive perimeter violates my suspension of disbelief about his acumen as a military commander," Tumblin added.