War and Other Zero Sum Games
There is little doubt that George R. R. Martin is a superb writer of fiction. His characters are deeply human and deeply flawed. They are engaging, sympathetic, well rounded, with complex pasts and contradictory aspirations, as well as being very well-written. To say his novels are epic in character and plot does not do them justice. The stories Martin tell are not simply epic. They are timeless and they explore deep truths about human nature, especially our propensities towards violence, domination and cruelty. There are of course many parts of The Game of Thrones that are beautiful and memorable. There are however far more that are disturbing. The pages are replete with casual violence of all kinds: rape, torture, incest, infanticide, and fratricide, not to mention battles of such levels of horror to render one disturbed for years afterwards, perhaps a lifetime, that is, if one were unfortunate enough to actually experience them first hand. Reading about them or watching them on the big screen is upsetting enough. More than anything it is a tribute to the level of writing both onscreen and on the page that this vision, which is in so many ways so terribly dark, actually reaches our screens and eyes undiluted of realism and thus impacts us so deeply. Beauty and horror and magic and philosophy co-exist with thuggery and torture and chicanery and power obsession. In Martin’s world the meek do not inherit the earth, and by ‘earth’ I do not mean the planet – rather the imaginary ground that the Game of Thrones takes place on. The meek and the weak are killed off unceremoniously. Sometimes the not-so-weak get killed off too. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of morality or good planning or anything within human control whether one lives or dies. It’s a matter of wit and luck and good timing and spontaneity whether or not one lives. But one thing is absolutely certain, whether it be brawn or brain or a blend of both, if you cannot protect that which is yours, if you do not have a weapon, then you will probably get killed off by a band of wandering hunter killers, a passing platoon of sociopathic soldiers, or a very hungry homeless person who needs food and supplies just to get by. Life goes on according to the uncertainty principle, so one girds ones lions and develops lethal skillsets, either that or one does everything possible to stay out of trouble, which only very occasionally works. I think everyone wants to know who will win The Game of Thrones, for that is what it is: a power play where the stakes are so high that hundreds of thousands are killed at a go, where lives are ruined at a King or Queens whim, where spirits are crushed by indifferent sneering hordes of people – and all for the sake of absolute control of an area of land which is but a tiny fraction of the size of the planet this Game of Thrones is carried out on.
The thing is it doesn’t matter who wins The Game of Thrones. It seems inevitable that unless the winner of the throne of swords, the Iron Throne, kills literally every enemy and potential enemy, it is inevitable that someone will rise up and lead a revolution. There is something deeply pessimistic and Sisyphean in the striving for the Iron Throne. It reminds me very much of Wagner’s ring of power, a prize that gives its wearer absolute power, yet renders love impossible. Or like Tolkien’s ring, which also gives absolute power yet consumes the soul of the wearer. Power, according to George Martin, is an addiction, an addiction that destroys everything in its wake.
The Oppenheimer Effect
When I saw Game of Thrones, I immediately thought of Robert Oppenheimer. In the early 1940’s Oppenheimer had a horrible realization, rather like the vision unpacked by Game of Thrones, which is based on the Wars of the Roses and Ivanhoe by Walter Scott. Oppenheimer and other rather visionary thinkers realized something truly awful. It was this: If they didn’t do the unthinkable, the unimaginable would happen. Let me unpack this: He and some colleagues realized that the technology existed in embryonic form to create what was to become nuclear weapons. A paper on nuclear fission fission was published in 1939 in Nature Magazine. It was all there. You now could conceivably make a super bomb. This was a difficult situation. The West was facing an implacable foe: Adolph Hitler. Furthermore what if Adolph Hitler got access to that kind of technology? Einstein had already written to Roosevelt saying this. Hitler going nuclear would mean the war was lost, no matter how conventional warfare was progressing. Worse, in the hands of someone as clearly insane as Hitler, it might mean some kind of Apocalypse. Fascism plus nuclear weapons undoubtedly could mean the end of civilization as we knew it. Something had to be done. So they, the USA built the bomb.
Then they detonated it over civilian cities. Oppenheimer was horrified to the core when this happened. Why was it necessary to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians like that? He told Truman he felt he had blood on his hands. Truman was furious. Oppenheimer was a liberal intellectual with a long history of left wing sympathies. The cold war was heating up. The Soviet Union was operating spy networks among the scientific community in a bid to get as much information as possible on the new technology. The FBI was watching and amassing a vast dossier on Oppenheimer’s complex left wing ties which would eventually lead to his security clearance being revoked and his being cast into the outer darkness politically. Oppenheimer was up to this point a formidable operator with enormous influence, politically, ideologically as well as scientifically, and he had many implacable enemies, especially in the right wing scientific community. Though he was later rehabilitated, things were never the same for him and a culture of conformity was established in the scientific community that to a greater or lesser extent remains to this day.
For Oppie (as he was known) nobody could win a nuclear war. Moreover he was unafraid to say so. The one moment more than any other that gave a clear picture of Oppies view of the unwinnable nature of nuclear war was a talk he gave to the New Eisenhower Administration Elite Council on Foreign Relations on Feb 17 1953 called Atomic Weapons and Foreign Policy. He spoke as he always did with the eloquence of a poet, the vision of a mystic, and the mind of the brilliant scientist that he was. He simply had no peer when it came to debate. Oppie was a brilliant, but he was a man who made enemies because of his hubris, his depressive temperament, and his tendency to miss the point politically at crucial moments. But he gave his talk and he was as ever mesmerising. There was, he said, a sense of inevitability now about the development of nuclear technology. Soon there will be well developed nuclear intercept capability, and from that point there is conceivably no limit to how far the development of nuclear weapons could go. It was, he said, like two scorpions in a bottle. Both had absolutely lethal stings. It was a zero sum game. War by definition meant escalation. He was of course, absolutely correct, and it was inevitable that nuclear arms agreements and disarmament was the reason why we did not have a nuclear war during what we call the Cold War and afterwards. Oppie’s vision foresaw that. Oppie’s speech was also the final nail in his political coffin. After that his enemies had everything they needed to destroy him. And they did. To read more about Oppie, I suggest the mind blowing book by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin called American Prometheus.
The End of The Game
But there is something more to Oppenheimer’s and Martin’s realizations. This is a weird moment where history and fiction come together to uncannily give the same powerful message of peace. Oppenheimer and Martin both had a vision of conflict that not only embraces the horrors of the nuclear option, but of all conflict. War has no limits, only peace can bring limits. War means escalation. All weapons lead to greater weapons. All escalation eventually leads to genocide. The nuclear option is one weapon of mass destruction. There were others, and there will be even greater ones. Even in the Game of Thrones we had dragon fire and fleets of ships and huge temples being detonated by liquid fire. If we have an enemy we are determined to destroy we will do everything in our power to destroy them. If we engage in the Game of thrones our enemies will be defeated, that is until they rise up against us some time in the future. There is thus no real winner to The Game of Thrones. It sounds trite, but this is a game that both Robert Oppenheimer and George R R Martin is telling us there is no and can be no winner to the Game of thrones. The Game of Thrones is a game of death, on every level.