Why the dragons on Game of Thrones aren’t akin to nukes

Jon Snow and one of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons on <em>Game of Thrones</em>’ first episode of season eight.

In fact, another weapon in George R.R. Martin’s universe better fits that description.

I spend a lot of my time at Vox thinking about nuclear weapons. So when I hear talk of the bomb as it relates to Game of Thrones, well, I’m all over it.

That’s why I read a recent Washington Post piece by the University of Pennsylvania’s Michael Horowitz and Texas A&M University’s Matthew Fuhrmann, both security experts, with such interest. They argue that comparing the show’s mythical creatures to the world’s deadliest weapons — as George R.R. Martin himself does — is mostly wrong. Instead, they suggest, a single dragon is more like a fighter jet, while more than one comprises an air force of sorts.

“Dragons have been employed, both on the show and historically in the universe of [Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels], much more like conventional air power,” Horowitz told me when I called him up to further discuss how dragons function in the narrative. He pointed out that so far, we’ve seen the three dragons precisely burn up individuals on a battlefield (RIP, Randyll and Dickon Tarly) but not really cause the widespread chaos that nuclear weapons are known for.

That doesn’t mean dragons aren’t destructive, or that they don’t provide Daenerys Targaryen a massive boost in battle. But it does mean that her dragons are beatable — especially if an opposing force has a dragon of its own.

So as Game of Thrones fans eagerly anticipate the Westeros-versus-White Walker Great War, I wanted to dig into how useful dragons really are, whether any other Game of Thrones weapons more closely resemble a weapon of mass destruction, and what advantages the Night King has over his opponents, despite having only one dragon to their two.

A lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Horowitz follows.

Alex Ward

Since the dragon eggs first showed up back in season one, I’ve heard so many people compare the dragons to nuclear weapons. Your piece makes the case that they’re not precisely that — so what are they?

Michael Horowitz

Nuclear weapons are these special, incredible weapons that changed international politics, and it’s therefore no surprise the comparison has been made time and time again. But dragons actually have a lot more in common with something that we’re a lot more familiar with: conventional air power.

Alex Ward

When you say air power, you mean that the dragons are more like warplanes — and together an air force — more so than nuclear bombs.

Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons in the first episode of Game of Thrones’ season eight.Courtesy of HBO
Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons in the first episode of Game of Thrones season eight.

Michael Horowitz

Yeah, exactly.

There are lots of different ways air power is used. One is called “close air support,” where you use an airplane to attack forces on the battlefield to support your army. Another use of air power is “strategic bombing,” where you might bomb a factory or part of a city to destroy it and aid the war effort.

The other use of air power that we’re familiar with from movies like Top Gun, of course, is “dog fighting” or air-to-air combat. We’ve never seen that on Game of Thrones, although in the extended universe of the books, there’s dragon-on-dragon action during the Dance of the Dragons.

And who knows, we may see it when the White Walkers and Westerosi troops face off this season.

Alex Ward

In the real world, a country develops or obtains nuclear weapons partly as a deterrent, meaning it makes another country think twice before attacking because no one wants a nuclear bomb used against it.

But the dragons don’t really give Daenerys Targaryen that advantage, right? They make her a formidable opponent, but not a guaranteed existential risk to an opposing force.

Michael Horowitz

Armies facing dragons don’t have “air superiority,” to use the military term of art, but they still have options.

They have surface-to-air weapons, primarily scorpion bolts, which are essentially enormous crossbows that fire, well, bolts. In the history of Westeros that George R.R. Martin has written, those bolts have occasionally killed dragons.

An army facing a dragon should be worried, but there actually are defenses that can be used against it.

Alex Ward

Is there a weapon in the Game of Thrones universe that more closely resembles nuclear weapons than dragons? In my mind wildfire is much more a weapon of mass destruction than a dragon.

I’m still recovering from when Cersei blew up a major part of King’s Landing and killed scores of principal characters at the end of season six.

Michael Horowitz

I actually think you’re right on. Wildfire in the Game of Thrones universe, to me, looks more like chemical and biological weapons in that they’re hard to contain and they’re not very good battlefield weapons in general, with the exclusion of the naval battle that we saw in season two.

But wildfire is aptly named in that it can cause mass destruction pretty quickly, and there’s no real known defense against it. That makes it, I think, a lot more like chemical and biological weapons, which are generally thought to be inferior to nuclear weapons but certainly have mass destructive qualities.

Compare, for example, the firebombing of Tokyo, which took hundreds of aircraft dropping thousands of bombs, to the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, which took just one bomb each. There’s nothing quite like that in the Game of Thrones universe, at least that we’ve seen so far.

Alex Ward

I think the dragons-as-nuclear-weapons theory works, though, as long as you’re willing to use them solely to wreak extensive havoc. Had Daenerys approved or gone through with the idea of burning down King’s Landing — or torching anything she wants, really — then I think it makes some sense.

But she’s shown restraint. Perhaps dragons can be used as nuclear weapons, so to speak, but so far, she’s used them in more precise ways.

Michael Horowitz

I would say yes, and the only thing I would add to that is that I think you have better defensive options against dragons than you do against nuclear weapons. Not that they’re great. I mean, think about the javelin throw from the Night King. That’s pretty epic.

But I think it’s true that dragons have been employed, both on the show and historically in the universe of the books, much more like conventional air power.

Alex Ward

Has Daenerys Targaryen used her fighter jets-cum-dragons well? In other words, has she capitalized on her military advantage?

Michael Horowitz

She’s tried to conserve the advantage to use the dragons when it’s truly important.

For example, she [fought the impulse] to burn King’s Landing to the ground, which Tyrion convinced her not to do because it wouldn’t endear her to the people of Westeros.

But more importantly, Daenerys hasn’t yet had to use her dragons in a battle where her forces would probably lose otherwise, excluding the excursion to the North at the end of season seven. [Earlier in season seven, during] the loot train battle, the Dothraki actually might have had that battle in hand regardless. The dragons were still helpful, of course.

It’ll be very interesting to see how she chooses to use her dragons against the White Walkers.

Alex Ward

As you mentioned earlier, we haven’t seen a dragon-on-dragon fight yet. But now that the Night King has a zombie dragon, we may see one before the series is over.

Does that change how Daenerys must use her two dragons?

Michael Horowitz

If you’re Daenerys and you have two dragons and the other side has one, you’ve got a couple of different options.

One would be letting the dragons loose on the battlefield because you have more of them and the biggest dragon overall, all while keeping an eye on the Night King.

But if the Night King shows up riding Viserion, you immediately need to divert at least one, maybe both of your dragons to go after him. We saw what that blue flame did to the Wall at the end of the last season. What would it do to the Unsullied? What would it do to the Dothraki? What would it do to the Free Folk?

The presence of the Night King’s dragon will become critical to the fight, and it will likely divert Daenerys’s dragons potentially from their close-air-support mission.

Alex Ward

Since we’re on the Night King, what advantages does he have?

Michael Horowitz

Oh, man, he has two incredible advantages.

First, anybody you kill joins your army. And second, you don’t have to worry about feeding them.

Logistics are critical to warfare. Think about Sansa’s comment in this season’s first episode about, “How are we supposed to feed this army that just marched north?” The Night King doesn’t have to worry about that.

If you don’t have to worry about feeding your army, and anybody you kill becomes part of it, those are some pretty good odds on your side.

Alex Ward

As we close here, I always remind myself that George R.R. Martin himself has compared dragons in the Game of Thrones universe to nuclear weapons. That counts for something, right?

Michael Horowitz

Yes, but again: The way he describes their usage — both in his books and then the way the show expresses them — is a lot more like conventional air power.

So while I obviously have my views on this, it’s his world, man. And who knows what’ll happen over the last five episodes.

Author: Alex Ward

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