By Taylor Marvin
Spoilers for A Game of Thrones, spoilers for A Dance with Dragons marked below.
I’ve been rereading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and just started the third book, A Storm of Swords.
One particularly thought-provoking aspect of GRRM’s world is the role of the Night’s Watch within the social structure of Westeros. The Night’s Watch, an order of celibate soldiers tasked with patrolling a seven hundred foot tall icy wall on the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms, has fallen on hard times. Once a prestigious institution, its standing has fallen in recent centuries. The demonic Others the Watch was originally established to defend against haven’t been seen for thousands of years and are thought extinct by the Seven Kingdom’s people, and the primitive human societies north of the Wall are not a serious security threat to the Kingdoms. This perceived irrelevance makes funding the Watch a low priority for Westerosi policymakers, and the Night’s Watch struggles to attract quality recruits to take it its black uniform. In the novels the bulk of the Night’s Watch is made up of former criminals, who are forced into lifelong service by an unattractive choice — the Watch, or brutal medieval justice.
This is interesting from an incentives standpoint, because it gives both lowly criminals and rebel lords facing defeat an incentive not to fight to the death. While serving out the rest of your life on the frigid Wall is certainly unattractive, amnesty in the Night’s Watch is a powerful incentive and conflict moderator. Viewing conflicts through a bargaining model, the existence of the Night’s Watch shortens conflicts because it reduces the costs of surrender. In the absence of the Night’s Watch escape valve, conflicts would be expected to be longer and costlier. While designed to protect the realm from the Northern threat, the Night’s Watch’s institutional amnesty mechanism is a force for conflict mitigation in the South, as well.
This is interesting, because in our world independent institutions work in the opposite direction. Organizations like the International Criminal Court are designed to provide mechanisms for trying and punishing war criminals. Bringing war criminals to justice is certainly a laudable goal, but it is unclear if the ICC does anything to deter war crimes at all. In fact, the threat of punishment is thought to give embattled leaders greater incentive to commit war crimes. This threat of prosecution gives war criminals a powerful personal incentive to fight longer and harder than they would otherwise; unlike in Westeros, in our world surrender offers no possibility of a new life on the Wall. If our society values ending conflicts over ideals of justice, an independent institution that assures amnesty for failed war criminals or other losers would be valuable.
To be an effective conflict moderator, the Night’s Watch must be a truly independent institution — taking the black must be available to all losers no matter how brutal their crimes, and once inducted into the Watch their removal from Westerosi politics must be assured. At the time of the novels, both of these norms are breaking down. At the end of A Game of Thrones, teenage ruler Joffrey Baratheon executes perceived traitor Ned Stark rather than permit him to join the Night’s Watch. This sets an important, and damaging, precedent. Losers who would otherwise surrender are now less likely to do so, knowing that potential victors’ offer of amnesty on the Wall is less credible than it once was. Likewise, the historical political independence of the Night’s Watch is also under threat. At the close of A Dance with Dragons [spoilers] the Watch is perceived by the Kingdoms’ rulers as a de facto arm of rebel claimant Stannis Baratheon’s forces, and Lord Commander Jon Snow breaks the Watch’s long tradition of not interfering in the Kingdoms’ politics. This entry into the Kingdoms’ internal politics is a threat to the Watch’s conflict mitigating influence. If the Night’s Watch is no longer a truly independent and apolitical institution, victors are less likely to permit political losers to take the black. If the Watch’s neutrality and universal availability continues to decay, its conflict shortening influence is unlikely to hold in the future.