(WARNING: Game of Thrones spoilers ahead)
Game of Thrones’ seventh season concluded Sunday night on the precipice of a zombie apocalypse, promising an epic eighth and final season featuring a battle of dragons. The fantasy genre requires a suspension of belief, but one of the reasons the show has proven so popular is its consistent ability to mix supernatural elements with realistic depictions of the often-brutal results of power politics.
This past season, GoT fans and critics alike have rightly complained about the show’s increasing lack of realism. For example, where once whole seasons were devoted to arduous travel across the fictional continent of Westeros, in season seven, the main characters all seem to possess private jets that let them move around Westeros in minutes rather than years. Yet there is a larger hole in the show’s plot that has largely been ignored. And this plot hole — and the audience’s failure to note it — may tell us something about our struggles with conflicts like Afghanistan, where the United States has once again embarked on a new strategy to “win” the conflict with more troops and supposedly modified tactics.
When it’s not about sex, violence, and dragons, GoT is a meditation on two recurring themes: the extent to which political violence is necessary and the true meaning of life in a world where honor, courage, and kindness are seldom rewarded. In sum, Game of Thrones may be a guilty pleasure, but like the best pulp fiction, it is still about big ideas and both the books and the television show are suffused with depictions of a variety of religions and religious beliefs. From the Drowned God of the Iron Islands to the God of Many Faces, religion is central to the medieval world the show presents. And yet, when the show resolved a long-standing conflict between the crown and the increasingly militant clergy of the Faith of the Seven, it did so by depicting the king’s mother, Cersei Lannister, orchestrating the mass murder of the clergy and utterly destroying the kingdom’s most sacred church.
And then … Cersei became Queen of the Seven Kingdoms and the show moved on with nary a passing reference to the outrageous act of sacrilege committed. Medieval kings were humbled for far less.
The fact that fans and critics alike were untroubled by the implausibility of this depiction speaks to some of our real-life failures to comprehend the conflicts our military are engaged in. Both in the world depicted in Game of Thrones and the world where our troops are deployed against Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban, an act like this could never happen. Cersei’s revenge would unleash a cataclysmic reaction that would shake the foundations of that society. By way of example, just last month, the mere placement of metal detectors outside the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem sparked widespread riots. In places like Afghanistan, we think we understand the game of thrones — the tribal and ethnic competition, the Taliban’s quest for power or Iran’s chess moves to subvert our efforts, but we have a blind spot. We understand the movement of the pieces, but not the game itself.
This blindness stems, in part, from our inability to truly understand concepts like “sacrilege” or “blasphemy” in their original, un-ironic meaning. Our objectives in these conflicts are purely short-term; our enemies see their aims through the prism of what they believe to be eternal. Just as GoT viewers understand Cersei’s motives — power, revenge, greed — we understand power politics. But because many GoT viewers don’t know anyone who would risk their lives to save a bible or other religious artifact from destruction, they cannot truly understand the animating forces that motivate our adversaries. It may be easy to imagine living in Westeros, and joining the fight against Cersei, but many viewers cannot imagine dying for an organized religion, let alone any sacred text or artifact.
On the contrary, if the show has any guiding creed, it was probably stated by Beric Dondarrion in season seven’s penultimate episode. “Death is the enemy," he tells Jon Snow. "The first enemy and the last. The enemy always wins, and we still need to fight him.” To the Taliban, this sentiment is as incomprehensible as their beliefs are to us. We cast them as “fanatics” or “extremists” but for them death is not the enemy at all, it is one path toward a divine truth. Until we and our policymakers learn to imagine the world through the eyes of these believers, we’ll continue to fail at meeting the challenges ahead in Afghanistan and throughout the world. In the War on Terror, as in Game of Thrones, winter is coming and we still know nothing.
Gary M. Osen litigates terrorist financing, state-sponsored terrorism and U.S. anti-terrorism law cases in federal courts. He served as lead trial counsel in the landmark Linde v. Arab Bank, Plc case, which resulted in the first, and still only, jury verdict against a financial institution under the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act. For Gary’s work on that matter, he was named one of Public Justice’s Trial Lawyers of the Year in 2016. Gary currently serves as co-lead counsel in five major terrorism-related cases pending in federal courts: Karcher v. Iran; Freeman v. HSBC Holdings Plc, et al.; Shaffer v. Deutsche Bank AG; Strauss v. Crédit Lyonnais, S.A. and Weiss v. National Westminster Bank Plc. The New York Times has recognized Gary as "an internationally consulted legal authority on terror financing." Businessweek has also noted that "Osen is doing what good lawyers do: capitalize on how jurisprudence evolves to fit the times." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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