A Complete Analysis of the Slaver’s Bay Campaign


“I am only a young girl and know little of the ways of war.”


Earlier posts dealt with popular characters such as Robb Stark, Stannis Baratheon and Jaime Lannister. Today, we’re going to start our study of one of the more controversial characters in ASOIAF: Daenerys Targaryen.

Specifically, we’re going to look at the Slaver’s Bay Campaign in Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen. I have one main point and a side point which I’ll touch on repeatedly.

  • Main Point – Daenerys Targaryen is a good attacker through utilization of her primary force multiplier (dragons) and through exploiting enemy weaknesses especially under siege conditions. That said Daenerys is poor counterinsurgent and most of her actions to combat groups such as the Sons of the Harpy do not win her the support of the people she’s conquered or really better her position to launch an invasion of Westeros.
  • Side Point – The Slaver’s Bay Campaign presents the readership with interesting modern military parallels. From superweapons to wars of liberation to counterinsurgency, the issues that Daenerys faces in her Slaver’s Bay Campaign are ones that modern readers are well aware of. Throughout these posts, I’ll reference recent history to make unclear plot points clearer.

So with that said, I have to make a confession: Daenerys Targaryen’s story-arc is not one of my favorites, but I think that her campaign in Slaver’s Bay is fascinating and gives us a unique perspective of how non-Westerosi warfare is conducted as well as provides us a window into how Daenerys’s war in Westeros might unfold in future books.

I’ll try my best not to let my personal bias show in the writing, but by all means call me out on bias if you see it. All right, so with that out of the way, here’s how I’m going to break down the posts:

  1. The Sack of Astapor
  2. The Sieges of Yunkai and Meereen
  3. The Meereenese Insurgency
  4. The Yunkish Siege of Meereen

So, without further ado, let’s get into the Battle of Astapor!

A Tangent on Gender Roles

“Woman?” She chuckled. “Is that meant to insult me? I would return the slap, if I took you for a man.” Dany met his stare. “I am Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, the Unburnt, Mother of Dragons, khaleesi to Drogo’s riders, and queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.”


Okay, I lied. Quick discussion on gender roles first and how they affect the perception that others have of Daenerys’s military prowess as well as her own personal perception.

An interesting side point before we delve into the material is the seemingly sympathetic narrative and the very divided opinion about the character in question by the fanbase. If Daenerys’s story arc can be summed up in a single statement, it would be: Daenerys goes from being a frightened young girl to benevolent military despot in the course of about 2 years. In Daenerys, GRRM created a character that was designed to evoke pity at first, then sympathy, then support. However, many fans of the series, to include yours truly, are not fans of Daenerys. Many even despise her. Why is that?

I think a large part of the answer comes through Daenerys’s refusal to serve traditional gender roles (Wife, caregiver, mother) and opt for more traditionally masculine roles (Warrior, Leader). It’s also interesting to me that the possible war crime Daenerys commits in Meereen is sometimes cited as an example of her madness whereas the war crimes of others such as Tywin Lannister are often lauded by some fans of ASOIAF as “necessary evils to maintain order.” My opinion of this is that Daenerys is viewed in a negative light because of the cultural constructs that we have for gender roles – Women are traditionally nurturers and those that break their societal role are labeled as hysterical or mad.

Interestingly, the in-story characters tend to reflect the same dislike for Daenerys as some fans do. Daenerys response is interesting and somewhat entertaining. Half of the time, she is using gender norms to deflect from her obvious ability by claiming to be “young girl who knows little of the ways of war” and yet other times when she is in a position of strength (like the quote from Daenerys IV), she throws off this charade and shows her mettle.

A General in Need of an Army

“What is there for me in Slaver’s Bay?”

“An army,” said Ser Jorah. “If Strong Belwas is so much to your liking you can buy hundreds more like him out of the fighting pits of Meereen . . . but it is Astapor I’d set my sails for. In Astapor you can buy Unsullied.”


Initially, Daenerys had a large Dothraki at her and her husband’s disposal. Her marriage to Khal Drogo secured about 100,000 Dothraki warriors, warriors that Viserys III Targaryen, brother of Daenerys, hoped to use in an attempt to re-take the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros from Robert Baratheon. Viserys’s brutal death ended his ambition, but it did not end Daenerys’s desire to retake the Seven Kingdoms. However, Khal Drogo’s death and the abandonment of most of his khalasar left Dany with few supporters and fewer soldiers. She was seemingly doomed until by a miracle of some sort, she hatched 3 dragon eggs. And then, Daenerys, her band of followers and her 3 dragons journeyed east towards Qarth where she hoped to secure an army in Qarth for the invasion of Westeros. As it turned out, she was rebuffed in the city and ended up being asked/urged to leave the city before she caused more destruction. This bring us to Daenerys’s journey into Slaver’s Bay.

At this point in the story, Daenerys is traveling to Pentos to stay once again with Magister Illyrio. Under her command, she has 3 dragons, 3 bloodriders, 1 knight, a pit fighter and a “squire”. All told, her military strength is too small to even be noticed for mockery. With these glaring inefficiencies, Ser Jorah Mormont suggests that they turn course from Pentos to Slaver’s Bay to purchase an army of Unsullied from Astapor.

The Unsullied, as Jorah explained, are some of the fiercesomest warriors in all of Essos. As an all-infantry force, they lacked the quick mobility of the Dothraki, but their skillset and discipline more than made up for it. Their history spoke to this. At the Battle of Qohor, a small Unsullied army numbering 2,300 faced a 50,000-strong Dothraki khalasar. Despite being entirely on foot and taking near 70% loses in the battle, the Unsullied never broke.

“Eighteen times the Dothraki charged, and broke themselves on those shields and spears like waves on a rocky shore. Thrice Temmo sent his archers wheeling past and arrows fell like rain upon the Three Thousand, but the Unsullied merely lifted their shields above their heads until the squall had passed. In the end only six hundred of them remained . . . but more than twelve thousand Dothraki lay dead upon that field, including Khal Temmo, his bloodriders, his kos, and all his sons. On the morning of the fourth day, the new khal led the survivors past the city gates in a stately procession. One by one, each man cut off his braid and threw it down before the feet of the Three Thousand.


These were the type of soldiers Daenerys needed to claim her kingdom in Westeros. And Daenerys agreed to turn course from Pentos to Astapor.

Human Rights Abuse as Casus Belli

“Bricks and blood built Astapor,” Whitebeard murmured at her side, “and bricks and blood her people.”

“What is that?” Dany asked him, curious.

“An old rhyme a maester taught me, when I was a boy. I never knew how true it was. The bricks of Astapor are red with the blood of the slaves who make them.”


Swayed by Jorah, Daenerys arrived in Astapor with plans to purchase about 1000 Unsullied by exchanging the gifts that Magister Illyrio had given her. There, Daenerys learns of the ways that the Astapori nobility brutalizes its slave population.

“To win his spiked cap, an Unsullied must go to the slave marts with a silver mark, find some wailing newborn, and kill it before its mother’s eyes. In this way, we make certain that there is no weakness left in them.”

She was feeling faint. The heat, she tried to tell herself. “You take a babe from its mother’s arms, kill it as she watches, and pay for her pain with a silver coin?”


Outraged by this and other human rights abuses cheerfully described by the slaver Kraznys mo Nakloz, Daenerys somehow maintained her composure and agreed to think about the proposal given by the Astapori. Even as she faced her decision, the outrage that Daenerys has was entirely genuine. And from an ethical standpoint, I can’t fault her. Astapor is built on evil itself. That said, Daenerys’s moral outrage will have second and third order strategic effects that are advantageous to Daenerys. But we’ll get to that shortly.

The modern parallel of human rights abuse as moral justification of a war is one that most of us are familiar with. From the Balkans to Iraq to most recently, Syria, this type of military intervention is now seen as the one of the few just casus bellis for war. Without delving too much into the politics of it all, Daenerys’s actions for the rest of ASOS seem just even as they seem somewhat anachronistic to a medieval setting.

Superweapons and Freedom

Dany turned the whip in her hand. Such a light thing, to bear such weight. “Is it done, then? Do they belong to me?”


But getting back to the story, we all know that Daenerys’s plan was never to part with any of her “children.” Her plan was betrayal. The Unsullied were lined up in the main plaza of Astapor and Daenerys brought all her treasures (save for her crown) along with her dragons. When the exchange was finally made, the betrayal began.

“Drogon,” she sang out loudly, sweetly, all her fear forgotten. “Dracarys.”

“Unsullied!” Dany galloped before them, her silver-gold braid flying behind her, her bell chiming with every stride. “Slay the Good Masters, slay the soldiers, slay every man who wears a tokar or holds a whip, but harm no child under twelve, and strike the chains off every slave you see.” She raised the harpy’s fingers in the air . . . and then she flung the scourge aside. “Freedom!” she sang out. “Dracarys! Dracarys!”


And so Daenerys unleashed the medieval equivalent of nuclear weapons on Astapor. Dragonfire roared through the assembled Astapori nobles while Unsullied massacred every Astapori slaver. (Side note: the HBO series did an outstanding job portraying this scene.) In this, Daenerys declared war on the entire practice of slavery in Slaver’s Bay and effectively entered into conflict with the other two slave cities in the region (Yunkai and Meereen).

In military terms, the dragons that Daenerys has are force multipliers, that is a military attribute which increases the effectiveness of a given force. Dragons also served as a potent warning to any potential foes of the destruction that might await them if they chose to fight Daenerys. But as we’ll see in later installments, this warning will go unheeded.

Before we delve into the Meereenese insurgency and Daenerys’s controversial counterinsurgency campaign, we have to actually get Daenerys to Meereen. Part 1 introduced the Slaver’s Bay Campaign and the Sack of Astapor. Today’s section will be an analysis of the Siege of Yunkai.

We’ll look more closely at the makeup of Daenerys army and how it compared to the soldiers fighting on behalf of Yunkai, the principle of deception in warfare, the actual attack itself and how Daenerys used weather and light data to successfully defeat the Yunkish. And while these posts will show Daenerys to be a good tactician, I’ll liberally use ancient and recent history to illustrate my points much like the first post.

Slave Soldiers vs. Free Soldiers

Friendly Forces

I told them they were free. I cannot tell them now they are not free to join me. She gazed at the smoke rising from their cookfires and swallowed a sigh. She might have the best footsoldiers in the world, but she also had the worst.


With Astapor reduced to rubble, Daenerys set out in a war of liberation in Slaver’s Bay. Fortunately for her, she now had something resembling an army. What distinguished her army from the other militaries in the region was that her army was composed of freemen. Here, I’ll pause and write a somewhat extended tangent on the difference between conscript troops and a volunteer force.

“The idea that a draft presents a reasonable solution is completely backwards. First, it puts the “wrong” people in the military — people who are either uninterested in a military life, not well equipped for one, or who put a very high value on doing something else.” – Steven Levitt, Author of Freakonomics

Daenerys’s army had a unique quality that other militaries lacked: well-trained, well-disciplined soldiers. The recently-freed soldiers from Astapor known as the Unsullied had decided to remain with Daenerys as an army of freedmen. And these soldiers were organized and disciplined in ways that were unrivaled in the region. Prior to the battle itself, this discipline is best seen through the construction of the Unsullied tents outside of Yunkai.

Within the perimeter the Unsullied had established, the tents were going up in orderly rows, with her own tall golden pavilion at the center.


And while it’s easy to discount this as scene dressing, I think GRRM is showing that the discipline of the Unsullied and further how this discipline will be instrumental in their fighting style. Before you think this unimportant to conducting warfare, discipline, even in something as simple as setting up a living space reinforces a mindset of order.

But more than simply being good soldiers who maintained good discipline, the Unsullied that Dany had were better soldiers on account of motivation. Given the opportunity of freedom, they chose to freely serve Daenerys in her wars in Slaver’s Bay. In a lot of ways, I view the Unsullied as a force similar to the Athenian and other Greek-state hoplite force of the post-Illiad Greek history. The hoplites were citizen-soldiers. They were not forced to fight. They fought freely and on behalf of their cities. And they were tough. (Plus as a personal aside, modern infantry can trace some lineage back to the Greek hoplites.) In the following quote, substitute “Unsullied” for “Hoplite” and you’ll see more of what I mean. (Though I’ll point out that ‘champion duels’ do exist in ASOIAF as we’ll see with Meereen.)

With the development of the hoplite phalanx, war was no longer merely an act to accrue honor and loot; it became a matter of defending one’s land and livelihood. Moreover, warfare became more egalitarian. Officers fought and died within the ranks. Champions no longer existed. Victory depended on a collective effort that required the trust and cooperation of many. – Winslow C. Johnson

Enemy Forces

Throughout the Slaver’s Bay Campaign, Daenerys consistently fought against two types of soldiers. First were the sellsword companies. What the continent of Essos lacked in localized professional armies it more than made up for it in mercenary companies for sale. The advantage that these soldiers had was in their professionalism. Their ferocity and brutality were additional advantages. (See ADWD, 25, The Windblown for more on this.) The disadvantage was there was always a higher bidder and in the event that they were faced with a force of equal of greater size/skill, they often fled the field or switched to the winning side.

  • Interesting Historical Aside: I think that the sellsword companies in Essos can be compared to the Condottieri of late medieval fame. These mercenary companies were used during the Crusades to fight Islamic armies in eastern Mediterranean as well as used by Italian city states to fight their interminable wars for regional supremacy. Often times, the companies themselves became influential players in Italian Renaissance politics as their skill at arms often translated into political power.

The second force was slaves forced into service. The one population that the Slave Cities had in abundance was well… slaves. (sorry for the tautology). But the slave armies that Yunkai boasted was not equal to the force of Unsullied that Daenerys had. In fact, the slave soldiers of Yunkai were not known for their martial skill.

Their officers looked indistinguishable from Astapor’s at a distance; tall bright helms and cloaks sewn with flashing copper disks. “Are those slave soldiers they lead?”

“In large part. But not the equal of Unsullied. Yunkai is known for training bed slaves, not warriors.”


And so, Daenerys prepared to fight against these two unique forces. The advantage seemed in her corner.

Deception: Outsmarting Yunkai

“What say you? Can we defeat this army?”

“Easily,” Ser Jorah said.

“But not bloodlessly.”


Yunkai was the second city on Daenerys’s hit list. Following the sack of Astapor, Daenerys marched her new army and assorted followers towards Yunkai. Awaiting them were two sellsword companies and one large contingent of slave soldiers.

Prior to engaging in actual battle, envoys from the two sellsword companies and the city itself arrived to treat with Daenerys. The Stormcrows were the first to arrive. After threatening Daenerys, she informed them that her army would attack “on the ‘morrow.” The next to arrive were the Second Sons. To them, Daenerys attempted to persuade them to switch sides. When they didn’t, they were given a wagon of wine and sent on their way. The last to arrive were the Yunkish themselves. They attempted to bribe Daenerys with chests of gold. She informed them they would have 3 days before she attacked.

These different ultimatums, promises and threats were all intended to sow the maximum level of confusion among the defenders of Yunkai. And it worked. Daenerys summoned her bloodriders and her council and gave them her true intent.

Dany seated herself on a mound of cushions to await them, her dragons all about her. When they were assembled, she said, “An hour past midnight should be time enough.”

“Yes, Khaleesi,” said Rakharo. “Time for what?”

“To mount our attack.”


To make the situation even brighter, just prior to the attack’s commencement, one of the sellsword commanders defected to Daenerys’s side. Daario Naharis defected, killed the other Stormcrow commanders and brought the remainder of the Stormcrows to Daenerys’s side.

The plan of attack was simple and daring. The Unsullied, Stormcrows and Dothraki would attack under cover of darkness. In the modern age of night vision, lasers and thermal weapon sights, fighting at night is an easier task. But in a quasi-medieval setting, night-fighting is difficult and treacherous. For those of you who have gone camping in a remote area, you may be familiar with how dark the night can be. Even with ambient light, it’s hard to see more than a few paces ahead of you. It’s also very easy for an individual (and a large army) to get lost in the darkness. Yet, Daenerys had a plan which would guide her army into the Yunkish and sellsword camps.

The Second Sons will be drunk on the wine I gave Mero. And the Yunkai’i believe they have three days. We will take them under cover of this darkness.”

“They will have scouts watching for us.”

“And in the dark, they will see hundreds of campfires burning,” said Dany. “If they see anything at all.”


To further back up this point, Daenerys makes explicit mention in her inner monologue of weather and light data.

It promised to be a gloomy night; moonless, starless, with a chill wet wind blowing from the west. A fine black night, thought Dany.


The human eye is naturally attracted to light and movement. In a nighttime environment, movement is obscured by the lack of light. Further, campfires would attract the most attention from the most likely tired defenders of Yunkai. Plus, with Daenerys’s conflicting demands, the soldiers in the camps and the scouts assigned to watch the perimeter were most likely bored and unprepared for her army. And finally, there was no ambient light available for the defenders to see an army approaching

So with the enemy’s field of vision obscured and Yunkai’s defenders confused about her intentions, Daenerys sent her subordinate commanders out to fight in the night. While she listened to stories of Rhaegar from Barristan Selmy, her army set on the Yunkai and sellswords. The result of this attack was an overwhelming victory for Daenerys. With only a dozen losses, her army smashed the Yunkai and sellsword host outside of the walls of Yunkai in flicting about 200 dead on the enemy army.


Following their defeat, the Yunkai gave up the fight for the moment. They capitulated to all of Daenerys’s terms which included:

  • Freedom for all slaves
  • Arming of all newly-freed slaves
  • The right for the Unsullied to search Yunkai to ensure that there were no further slaves hidden in the city

The slaves marched out of Yunkai and swore loyalty to their “mother.” With Yunkai now subdued, Daenerys now turned to the greatest prize of Slaver’s Bay: Meereen.

Regaining the Moral Imperative: The Road to Meereen

“I will see them,” she said. “I will see every one, and count them, and look upon their faces. And I will remember.”


Following the capitulation (but not surrender) of Yunkai, Daenerys began the long journey to Meereen. The city was key to Slaver’s Bay. The size of Yunkai and Astapor combined, Meereen boasted past glories, but as Hizdahr Zo Loraq points out, the glory of Meereen was long gone.

“Before you came Meereen was dying. Our rulers were old men with withered cocks and crones whose puckered cunts were dry as dust. They sat atop their pyramids sipping apricot wine and talking of the glories of the Old Empire whilst the centuries slipped by and the very bricks of the city crumbled all around them.”


And while Meereen had small quantities of copper that it sold to the surrounding area, its economy was based on a large and profitable slave trade. And they must have had them in abundance, because on the journey from Yunkai to Meereen, Daenerys encountered the crucified, disemboweled bodies of slaves nailed to the 163 milepost signs, all of them pointing to Meereen.

Now again, Daenerys’s original strategic goal in Slaver’s Bay was to purchase an army. Following her encounter in Astapor, it morphed into a crusade against the evils of the slave trade. The Sack of Astapor and the Siege of Yunkai were both part and parcel of phase two of this strategy. However, in both instances, Daenerys used “ignoble” means to win. Now before you jump on that, I’d posit that her tactics were excellent and achieved her end, but they were shady too. As an aside, it’s interesting to me that GRRM would place the crucified slave children at the forefront here. I feel as though as a writer, he wants the reader to sympathize with Daenerys and may wish to remind the reader why Daenerys is fighting. That’s just my amateur writing speculation coming out. Feel free to disagree on that point.

Still though, the crucified children along the road to Meereen highlights the moral evil of slavery in Daenerys’s and almost certainly her followers’s minds. The Great Master of Meereen intended this to be a warning. For Daenerys, her army and her civilian followers, the warning was clear, but it served a different purpose. To them, crucified children said: Our cause is righteous and we either win or we die.

Starvation and Conquest: Daenerys’s Logistical Nightmare

Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals study logistics. – Military Truism Sometimes attributed to Omar Bradley

When Daenerys’s army and band of followers arrived outside of Meereen, they were confronted by the vastness of the city and the desolation without. One point I failed to mention in the previous portion was that the Great Masters had also scorched the earth outside of Meereen, meaning that there was nothing for Daenerys and her followers to forage. So while the moral imperative remained central to Daenerys’s strategy, there were practical considerations to Daenerys’s desire to take the city.

“I must have this city,” she told them, sitting crosslegged on a pile of cushions, her dragons all about her. Irri and Jhiqui poured wine. “Her granaries are full to bursting. There are figs and dates and olives growing on the terraces of her pyramids, and casks of salt fish and smoked meat buried in her cellars.”


“Foraging” in short was taking (read: most often times outright theft) of food from the local populace in order to feed your army. Foraging was a common tactic by historical medieval armies.

Unless you had a logistical system comparable to the Romans, and few Medieval armies did, you had to live off the land. This could have dire consequences. Each man needed at least three pounds of food a day, and each horse twenty pounds of feed. If these requirements were not met, the troops would first go hungry and then most of them would either desert or, if you were far from friendly territory, starve to death or be picked off by enemy troops. – Hundred Years War: Logistics

And so Daenerys and her band of followers arrived outside of the multi-colored stone wall surrounded the city of Meereen knowing that it was only a matter of time before mass starvation set in. Meereen couldn’t be starved out before she did. It had to be taken.

A Shit Job: Fighting in the Sewers

Ser Jorah’s mouth tightened. “We won you this city. We sewer rats.”


But the city’s terrain, tactics and man-made obstacles presented major problems to taking the city. First, the city was nigh impregnable. As Jorah points out, they could tunnel under the walls of Meereen, but Daenerys’s host would starve before they reached the walls. Second, the 3 ships that Daenerys had would be insufficient to breach the wall facing the Skahazadhan River. Third, since the Great Masters had scorched the earth, there were no tress to cut down to build siege towers. Finally, the Meereenese placed pots of boiling oil atop the gatehouses meaning that any attempt to hack down the gates would be suicidal.

Faced with these obstacles, there seemed no possible way to take Meereen until Brown Ben Plumm (a recent turncloak sellsword commander) offered a better but still unpromising hope for victory.

“There must be some way into this city.”

“I know a way.” Brown Ben Plumm stroked his speckled grey-and-white beard. “Sewers.”

“Sewers? What do you mean?”

“Great brick sewers empty into the Skahazadhan, carrying the city’s wastes. They might be a way in, for a few. That was how I escaped Meereen.”


Of course, the plan was fraught with danger. For one, the location of the sewer gates would be hard to approach unseen.

Ser Jorah looked dubious. “Easier to go out than in, it would seem to me. These sewers empty into the river, you say? That would mean the mouths are right below the walls.”


For another, the filth of the sewers themselves could potentially rise higher than the soldiers themselves, meaning they would drown in shit and piss. And even if the filth wasn’t high enough to drown the men attempting to find their way to the city’s surface, the myriad tunnels would disorient the attackers.

The final problem of all this was in selecting leadership for this mission. For this, the solution presented itself: Jorah and Barristan were both shown to be false in their own ways and would lead the attack. If they died in the attempt, Daenerys would be short two liars/traitors. If they lived and succeeded, the city would be hers.

The battle itself is told in flashback. Daenerys decided to use her ships after all but in a faint against the gate.

Their masts had become her battering rams, and swarms of freedmen had torn their hulls apart to build mantlets, turtles, catapults, and ladders.


Meanwhile, her archers kept the defenders pinned down with fire arrows. Finally, 200 of Daenerys’s soldiers burned the ships in the harbor. All the while, Barristan and Jorah along with 20 Sellwords, Unsullied and Freedmen broke through the rusted gate of the sewer and moved into the city. There, they rallied slaves from the fighting pits and most likely opened the gates for the remainder of Daenerys’s army to pass through and sack the city. Surprisingly though, one of the feints succeeded in breaking through the eastern gate.

The result was a sack of Meereen and the establishment of Daenerys as the pre-eminent power in the city of Meereen and Slaver’s Bay as a whole.

With Meereen secured, Daenerys made the fateful decision not to move on Westeros. Instead, she decided to learn how to govern Meereen first. The next installment will be an analysis of Daenerys in Meereen. Specifically, we’ll look at how Daenerys set the stage for the Meereenese insurgency through her version of “harsh justice” and how the Meereenese insurgency functioned and what counterinsurgency tactics and strategy Daenerys employed against the insurgency.

Comparatively, the “big war” campaign that dominated Daenerys’s story arc in A Storm of Swords was the easy part. The “small war” that Daenerys encountered in A Dance with Dragons would prove not to be so easy. It ground her forward progression as a leader as well as delayed her movement back to Westeros. In short, conquest of foreign powers was the easy part, rule the motherfucker.

General Tactics of Insurgents

  • Sow disorder.
  • Incite sectarian violence.
  • Weaken the government.
  • Intimidate the population.
  • Kill government and opposition leaders.
  • Fix and intimidate police and military forces, limiting their ability to respond to attacks.
  • Create government repression.

U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency, Paragraph 1-8

Sowing the Seeds of Insurgency

“How many?” one old woman had asked, sobbing. “How many must you have to spare us?”

“One hundred and sixty-three,” she answered.


When we last left Daenerys, she had just taken the city of Meereen. She imagined herself a conqueror much in the vein of her ancestor Aegon. But her triumph in Meereen was despoiled by her actions after the conquest. As we talked about in the last installment, Daenerys was able to regain the moral imperative for her actions through the heinous and barbaric crucifixion of 163 slave children on every milepost on the road to Meereen. When she took the city, her moral indignation was still hot. So, she ordered the people of the city of Meereen to give up the leadership of the city. These individuals were all crucified in the city plaza, each with a hand pointing to the next.

When I wrote the last section and the portion on Daenerys’s new moral imperative, I felt I could understand why Daenerys did it. Upon re-reading Daenerys’s chapters in ADWD, I can’t help but feel that her actions were utter foolishness. For starters, were all the 163 leaders complicit in crucifying the slave children? To me, it seems indiscriminate. Secondly, the best way to alienate the local population is to be indiscriminate in the use of force. Was any intelligence done on the people crucified? Could they have been potential allies of Daenerys or were they all enemies? There seemed to be no intelligence on the people nailed to crosses – only a hot desire for vengeance

Finally, it played right into the hands of the probably-nascent Sons of the Harpy movement. As foreign conquerors, Daenerys and her party were already underdogs in the Meereenese eyes. Yes, they ended a regime who committed numerous human rights abuses, but consider in modernity how the US and Coalition Forces were viewed by the Iraqis. Initially, most Iraqis were happy to be rid of the Hussein regime, but when the smoke of the big war cleared, the people of both Iraq and Meereen were left with foreign invaders who did not have much cultural commonality.

Both counterinsurgencies and counterterrorist campaigns raise the problem of distinguishing friend from foe. Although guerrillas sometimes wear distinctive clothing, terrorists almost never do. Nevertheless, both groups hope that the authorities will alienate the population through indiscriminate or inappropriately severe measures against innocent civilians mistakenly identified as terrorist operatives or sympathizers. Non-Military Strategies For Countering Islamist Terrorism: Lessons Learned From Past Counterinsurgencies

Add on the indiscriminate executions of 163 people and suddenly the liberator becomes the oppressor in the eyes of the population.

Fighting Blind

I am still at war, Dany realized, only now I am fighting shadows.


Before I go too far in disparaging Daenerys’s counterinsurgency efforts, let me give her a little room. She was severely resource and manpower limited. Her initial responses to the insurgency make sense within the context of what she had available to her. Also, her experience was in fighting grand wars of conquest, not in fighting a shadowy insurgent war.

Her initial desire to stay in Meereen was motivated mostly on a desire to learn how to rule prior to returning to Westeros. Problematic though for her was that she hated the people that she wanted to save. She also recognized that she had to win the hearts and minds of the people in Meereen even as she despised the people.

To rule Meereen I must win the Meereenese, however much I may despise them.

Her hatred of Meereen wasn’t unfounded. A shadowy group known as the Sons of the Harpy were out to de-legitimize and potentially depose her. When Stalwart Shield, one of her Unsullied soldiers, was brutally murdered, her response at the death of Stalwart Shield was to instruct the Unsullied to start doing searches for the killers and further detective work to find the culprits. Barristan Selmy (rightly) cautions her against this.

“Soldiers, not warriors, if it please Your Grace. They were made for the battlefield, to stand shoulder to shoulder behind their shields with their spears thrust out before them. Their training teaches them to obey, fearlessly, perfectly, without thought or hesitation… not to unravel secrets or ask questions.”

In short, soldiers are not cops and using them as such would have the ability to further undermine her legitimacy in the eyes of the population. But some of her advisers pushed her to conduct more brutality, to inspire fear rather than love from Meereen. One of those advisers was Skahaz mo Kandaq. A Meereenese noble who shed his former identity, Skahaz (known as the Shavepate) was the adviser who consistently wanted more blood. More than sending the Unsullied to find the culprits, he wanted something more extreme.

“Take one man from each of the families I have named and kill him. The next time one of yours is slain, take two from each great House and kill them both. There will not be a third murder.”

To me, this is a tactic intended to win in the short-term and may not even be able to do that as it violates one of the so-called paradoxes of counterinsurgency.

Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is: Any use offeree produces many effects, not all of which can be foreseen. The more force applied, the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes. Using substantial force also increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda to portray lethal military activities as brutal. U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency, Paragraph 1-149

And so Dany (rightly) declined the Shavepate’s advice for the moment. Brutality wasn’t going to win her the support of the people of Meereen, even if it might have satiated her hatred of them…


I’ve pretty much only touched on Daenerys’s last chapter from ASOS and her first chapter from ADWD. As much as I’ve enjoyed writing these posts, I feel that /u/feldman10 has written a much more comprehensive analysis of what happens next in his excellent blog than I could. So, I’m not totally sure that I want to continue pursuing this as much of the material retreads on ground that has been better trod by others. Now, if I get a lot of responses asking me to continue, I’ll be more than happy to write more (though I can’t guarantee when they might be written and posted). You all have been great, and I really appreciate all the comments, suggestions, PMs, lively debates that come in the comments section.

I have a few ideas of what I might work on next. Your input would help. So here’s some topics I’ve thought of for what I might work on next:

  • Comprehensive Battle Analysis: In A Complete Analysis of Stannis Baratheon as a Military Commander Part 3, I mostly did a battle analysis of the Siege of Storm’s End. It was my favorite post to write. I’ve thought about doing one for the Battle of the Wall or the Battle of the Trident.
  • Arms and Armor: Robert’s Battle Helm, swords, Gregor’s heavy armor vs. Oberyn’s light armor, Historical arms and armor of late medieval armies: the possibilities are endless.
  • Continuing the Daenerys series
  • A Commander Analysis of Tywin Lannister and/or Roose Bolton
  • Whatever you want! I love this sub, and I love the people here. Like I said, I really enjoy all the interactions here. Without sounding too sentimental, you all are great, and I’d like to do something you all want seen done.

Thanks again for reading. Comments are welcome below.


Filed under ASOIAF Military Analysis

23 responses to “A Complete Analysis of the Slaver’s Bay Campaign

  1. Good stuff! I’d like to see an analysis of the Battle of the Wall – that would be cool.

  2. Adriaan

    I would love to read more about Dany in Meereen. But all the subjects seem awesome.

  3. stevenattewell

    Hey, sorry I haven’t replied on r/asoiaf since the Robb Stark thing, but I’ve started to read through this stuff on your blog since it’s all nicely collected and a bit easier to read.

    Agreed overall with your analysis, although I differ with both you and Meereenese Blot about one crucial aspect of the situation – namely that in the case of Meereen, we can’t think about “the people” or the “Meereenese” as a single entity because Meereen was a slave society. Rather, we have to think of Meereen as comprised of the former slaveholders, the former slaves, and the former non-slaveowning free citizens. Thus, one of our most critical comparative texts here ought to be the history of American Reconstruction, which I plan to fully explore if I ever get to ADWD.

    • Hi Steven – no worries on not replying since Robb. I think WordPress has become my go-to site for writing/posting essays, though eventually one of my projects is to try to better edit the Robb, Stannis and Daenerys essays to make them more seamless as those initial essays were broken up on r/asoiaf in 3, 5 and 4 parts respectively.

      I actually agree that the societal strata of Meereen is more complex than I made it out to be. If I had continued this essay out to the end of Dany’s arc in ADWD, I was hoping to touch on it, but felt that the Meereenese Blot better handled the source material.

      My main point would have been that Dany’s best potential supporters in Meereen were the lower and middle classes of Meereen and that by empowering them through placing them in higher political positions, she would upend the political structure in Meereen and pry power away from the nobility, that is, those most likely supporting the Harpy’s Sons with manpower, financial backing and safe harbor.

      I hope you make it to ADWD as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your Chapter-by-Chapter analyses of AGOT. Though it’s far in the future, I am most excited for your takes on ADWD, The Kingbreaker, ADWD, Jon XIII and ADWD Epilogue.

  4. James

    I agree with you on every point except for 1.
    Listening to the shavepate is not a bad thing. There is 1 key difference between Dany’s situation and the Middle East. Dany knows exactly who the Sons of the Harpy are. They are the nobles. Their livelihood depends on slaves. Naturally, they oppose her. By killing them off, she would be rid of the Sons. Sure it’s brutal, but when you think about it, GRRM does not portray the nobles of Slaver’s Bay as human beings. As cruel as human beings can be, the Masters are beyond human cruelty as a society. Not just as individuals, but as a people. There is something inherently wrong with them, though I chalk it up to GRRM’s exaggerative writing style.

    • James

      I think I should add to this, and also point out something else.
      This is with regards to listening to Shavepate, and the lack of humanity in the nobility of Slaver’s Bay. Pophistory is usually wrong, or it exaggerates A LOT. Example: If Hitler listened to his generals, Germany would have won. Another example is historical fiction centered around WWII/the holocaust that make Germans look like demons instead of people. It’s just exaggeration. The same applies to the cruelty of human cultures. People seem to confuse the existence of cruelty and the normality or commonality of it. Yes there are hundreds of examples of LEGAL vicious cruelty practiced by people. Crucifixion, hanging, torture in general are all examples. The thing is, popular history is full of hyperbole, and the commonality of such cruel practices is turned up into an everyday thing. That’s how Slaver’s bay is depicted in the series. Cruel practices don’t just exist, they are the norm. Torture, and killing slaves by starvation or beating is very common there. Because this is a fictional world that is 100% created by GRRM, it means that the cruelty of Slaver’s bay isn’t hyperbole. We directly see just how messed up it is. It’s not just a human rights violation by a ruling class, it’s a human rights violation by the majority (of citizens, not population). In this case, Dany’s failure to heed the Shavepate is foolish. When you know just who the insurgents are, and what they do, taking them out isn’t a bad decision. Slaver’s Bay represents as a whole, everything wrong with humans in the real world and in the world of ice and fire. GRRM is writing about a time period where the world changes. Nature and mankind will both change drastically. Slaver’s Bay represents the first stage of this change. It needs to cease to exist. Everything about it is wrong, and holds back humankind.

      My second point is about the dislike of Daenerys coming from her apparent rejection of gender roles. First, I do not think that she is rejecting them. She isn’t taking up the role of a warrior at all. She is a noble woman, and it’s not uncommon for noble women to have a lot of power. Almost all upper class women have complete control of their household. A smaller number have control as the primary ruler of an area. Dany’s situation isn’t uncommon. She was not meant to rule, but has to because she’s the only one left. That’s not a rejection of gender roles. She is simply taking on a bigger level of control/leadership than most women do. As for the reaction to her war crimes in comparison to Tywin, there are a few differences. Their actual wartime campaigns have many similarities. They are both capitalists in the sense that they seize opportunities to defeat their foes. People criticize Dany because she chose her foes, and is the invader. Tywin may have been planning for war, but it was the Starks who were driving to fuel it. People criticize Dany because what she’s done (and is doing) has permanently destroyed a region. I personally have no problem with this, but some people do. They don’t like it because they don’t like her being there, period. It has to do with impatience for TWOW and ADOS more than anger at her supposed rejection of gender roles. Also, her war crimes seem to have no purpose for the overall plot. Dany is already disliked by people who feel that chapters like hers are distractions from what’s really happening with everyone else. As for calling her actions madness, it has to do with the lack of payoff. Look at Tywin’s major war crimes. The Rains of Castamere, the Sack of King’s Landing, the burning of the Riverlands, and the Red Wedding. Each of these had multiple positive effects for Tywin. He turned around the Lannister reputation, cemented his loyalty to Robert, and got rid of multiple enemies while putting allies in their places. The negative effects are miniscule. The people of KL were bitter about his actions, and this led to their fervor when protesting Joffrey. Thing is, those protests wouldn’t have happened if Joffrey wasn’t a psychopath who abuses his citizens. Also, the Lannisters get next to zero blame for the RW. People know they planned it, but they despise Frey the most because of how far it went (killing all of the other lords and their kin). I disagree with many fans that these are necessary actions, but at the very least, they benefit Tywin. Compare this to Dany’s actions. She burns Astapor, and leaves it in ruins. It’s currently worse off than it was before. She frees the Yunkish slaves, but Yunkai returns to business as usual immediately. She conquers Meereen, and is left with a city full of starving people, and seditious nobles. Within Meereen, she contradicts herself constantly. At first, she favors her freedmen in spite of her order that they start with a blank slate. Not only does she deny nobles reimbursement for their losses (which is in line with her order), but she punishes them further. She doesn’t give the boy his home back, and she makes the man pay his old slaves. Both of those actions contradict her command. Later in the book, she begins to bend over backwards for these slavers. Eventually she loses control of just about everything, and Meereen is back to the way it was, but with a few extra things tacked on (her army, the enemy army, and rampant disease). People criticize her because of the frustrating nature of her very boring, self-absorbed, and isolated POV. They don’t like her actions because they seem to serve no real purpose (learning to rule is bull, and you and I both know it). They criticize her actions as mad because there isn’t really anything smart about them. Not only do they lack morals (ends don’t justify means when it comes to morality), but they lack any sense of pragmatism (where the ends do justify the means). Nothing beneficial comes from her actions. The only positive thing is the freeing of slaves, but it’s a crap situation. They’re a logistical nightmare, and they detract from what many fans consider to be her true purpose: Westeros.

  5. Pingback: A Dragon Dawn: A Complete Analysis of the Upcoming Battle of Fire, Part 1: The Gathering Storm | Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire

  6. a57se

    According to the texts, there were 3 slaves for every Master in Mereen.
    I don’t believe the Harpies were made up of former slaves so killing the Masters would not lose the city for Dany as that is exactly what the former slaves wanted. I think being merciful to the Masters fanned the insurgency in this case.

  7. Fahimul

    I kinda lost patience with this piece of work at the very beginning. Call it prejudice, but the tone it started on felt wrong to me, so I didn’t read this.

    You should read this, though., It’s interesting http://meereeneseblot.wordpress.com/2013/09/27/untangling-the-meereenese-knot-part-i-who-poisoned-the-locusts/

  8. Pingback: 5 Reasons Daenerys CANNOT Be The Queen | ANGRY GOT FAN.com

  9. Stargaryen

    This was a good read – don’t think the few paragraphs about gender roles were necessary. personally I don’t look at Dany as a warrior. Who has she fought with her own hands? She is a leader. Ive never met anyone who despises Dany either. What most people say is I don’t like Dany because she never goes to Westeros she lingers in Slavers Bay and readers are impatient (especially ASoIaF) and don’t care about Slaver’s Bay or Essos for that matter. I think you may have thought to deep on why people are bored with Dany chapters. Once readers understand that the Slaver’s Bay is meant to provide two things then readers will become more excited to dive deeper into her chapters: one, show her growing as a leader and into the woman she is to become. two, after she tries and sacrifices for peace in Meereen and it fails you will see her “dragon” wake inside when she is back out with the Dothraki. Shit about to hit the fan!

  10. David

    Are you guys ever going to do a analysis on tyrion

    • Not sure I have much to say on Tyrion. I’ve thought about trying to do an animated analysis on the Battle of the Blackwater, but I don’t have the video-making skills to attempt it. I think some of the others might have more profound thoughts, but I think his arc is moving him towards a more villainous character in The Winds of Winter, but I’m not sure that’s worthy of a full out analysis. I’ll think on it.

  11. Mike

    The point where Danny lost my support was when she crucified those 163 leaders. Not only was it indiscriminate, it was also needlessly cruel (given that their death was slow, taking days).

    Compare that with the case of Caesar and the pirates, when he crucified the pirates as promised (standard practice of the day), but slitting their throats. He used that as an example of his mercy (while simultaneously making it an example of why one shouldn’t f*ck with him, which he didn’t have to point out).

  12. Mike

    Another Danny’s ploy that was used at Yunkai was that she got Second Sons drunk (she gave them a lot of wine) before she attacked. It’s certainly advantageous to attack an incapacitated enemy, and she got them to incapacitate themselves.

    This is not the only time this trick was used in ASoIaF (other being the Red Wedding).

  13. Great analysis – but 1 thing:
    Dany isn’t irritating & boring because of her so called changing-gender-roles thing(?where?) but beacuse: she is NOT learning from her mistakes, she is boringly arrogant, full of silly claims…and just childishly stupid. OK, she’s a lone teenager never planed to rule, lead or anything.. but many characters in ASOIAF (many women included) were put into the brutal, challenging situations they were not prepared to face before and they seem to learn more. (take Sansa for expample, take Brienne).
    I’m a woman I love woman “switching” traditional sex-roles.. 😉 but to me Dany is not the case.
    There are many other who do this: again: Brienne,+ Asha, Arianne, and even Cersei with her constant being a woman complex (lack-of-the cock syndrome) & mad longing to be a ruler as great as her father (witch she’s not, and gender is not a real factor here).
    Yeah, she conquered these cities and that was somehow impressive. But in fact it was mostly thanks to the legendary threat(dragons) + few good advisors/bodyguards lucky fate gave her(Jorah, Barristan), than her own wit or talent. She used dragon-threat really good way in Astapor & Yunkai, but then what she left there? What it really gave her as a political leader? OK – Unsullied were needed. But aside of that she win:problems, distraction & dangers(starvation, epidemy, ruined economies, counterincugercy issues).

    She’s still extremly womanish if not girlish in being driven by that compassion to slaves, children(I understand here here), and being easy to manipulate by man as Daario.She longs to be loved, cared for, adored more than she longs to be a real leader – and she shows that in her actions, (even if her intentions are maybe different)! Are these leaderly traits? Male role taking symptoms?
    Another thing: She don’t really want to listen to Jorah&Barristan. Her decision to “learn” how to rule is definitely naive &silly – no one can learn using real city & not be forced to take consequenses of her fails/unmaturity.
    Her political decisions are more chaotic than really thoughtfull (ok, marrying a foregin noble is as good move, but not knowing the culture, not having real support insie, not planning to really STAY & live there is contradicting everynything).
    YOU grab resources(unsullied) and go to conquer Westeros,without ruining slavers economy and starving mobs behind you…and GO to your main goal(Jorahs advice). YOU try to win WEsteros, using some intelligence how Westeros works – or you plan to stay & rule exotic city – for real. NO middleground. She is still like a child who cannot decide what she really wants, do not learn how to fight real wars & conquer ppls hearts/pragmatic loyality for good, not for 1 moment.
    Her being a leader “Queen” is more a pose than reality when you watch her actions closely.

    Dany’s arc is transforming abused, extremly shy girl into the…leader? well, I’m not so sure its the whole truth. She’s a woman who grown up to be more confident due to: 1. Drogo desiring & somehow respecting her -> giving her HIS support, so she felt strong. 2.Hatching dragons after shelost everything normal in her life..-> giving her some hope but also mad obsession about takieng whats “hers” with fre&blood. This all put her into the position when leader is neaded to continue, but frankly… in the end, again: =>is she a true leader? or just a symbol some adore and then hate?
    To me she is a symbol,like Spartacus ( “white saviour”) – not real leader. ANd how Spartacus ended? Putting aside her chapters in ADwD being really too long & boring… her being a real leader is still big question for future, not present. Same about her being able to EVER go to Westeros. If you take in mind she really do not have any control of the dragons…her main asset? PLus dragons are special weapons, advantage..but thats not what help you to really rule. Also: she has no idea what’s really going on in Westerosi politics..and that Winter is coming 😛

    YOU’re right – she’s good attcker, a conqueror…but a material for a ruler, leader?
    I might be biased (I loved her arc till 2nd book, then she started to irritate & bore me..).
    Anyway, honestly, I feel comparing her with political leaders like Tywin or military ones like Stannis, Jaime, or even Robb..is kinda lack of proportion. Somehow Robbs fate should be real warning to this girl. 😉 He get too much in to short time, too…and wasn’t able to use it to stay in the position & even stay live. And Robb WAS trained how to lead & rule, even if he was too young (sadly) …and to naive at some levels (Jeyne, Theon).

    • Arya92

      Hi BryndenBFish, first congratulation for your wonderful pieces of writing. I’m an italian student and I would like use this four chapters (about Robb, Stannis, Jaime and Daenerys) in my graduation thesis. I have translated them in Italian. would you want to give me the permission to use your wise man as texts of translation? Thank you.

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  15. She’s dreadful and this is partly dreadful as well. I cannot believe you went on to say the Unsullied went off to choose her and they are free, when it’s specifically said in the text that “all question has been erased from them, they obey, that is all”).

  16. I find it interesting that so many want to condemn Daenerys’ actions in Meereen. And I find myself wondering about those who call her a criminal for her actions. Frankly, I was more appalled by Tyrion’s willingness to sacrifice the slaves’ new freedom for seven years of more servitude just to maintain a peace that proved to be irrelevant.

    Was Daenerys an inexperienced leader? Well . . . yeah. That’s obvious. Why did so many expect her to do the right thing all of the time? Even more experienced leaders have made bad or dangerous decisions. Do many condemn her because she was a powerful young woman?

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