Euron Greyjoy looks out from the bow of a longship, by Allan Douglas
A while back, I wrote some meta where I explained that Euron Greyjoy was a poor strategist, cavalier toward long-term strategy and sustainability, coupled with his partial madness. In response, MadeinMyr criticized my essay, writing a response testifying to Euron’s strategic merits. A careful analysis of Euron and those surrounding him, and comparison to real-world examples of military commanders in similar situation, will show that Euron is nothing of the sort and that Euron falls short of that lofty perch.
The Difference Between Strategy and Tactics
Strategy and tactics are two aspects of military maneuver ripe for confusion. Prior to analyzing Euron’s strategy and tactics, let’s define our terms:
- Tactics are the means to seize an initial, local, or intermediate objective.
- Strategy is a full campaign plan, the final and highest objective with which victory is achieved.
When evaluating tactics and strategy, it’s critical to understand that a person can be good at both, neither, or good at one and not the other. And so, we have to identify Euron’s strategy, which the Crow’s Eye so helpfully rants during the main narrative at the kingsmoot. Euron’s strategy isn’t to gain the Shield Islands, it isn’t to maintain Iron Islands independence, it’s to conquer Westeros. His vector to do this is to ultimately bind a dragon with his magic horn, using it to overwhelm Westerosi opposition, forcing them to surrender and accept Ironborn dominance. So when I’ll claim that Euron’s strategy is a poor one, this is what I’ll be referring to. It’s a common lexical mistake among laymen to use ‘strategy’ when the proper word to use is ‘tactics,’ and it can cause fundamental misinterpretations of arguments. Now, with that being made clear, we can move on to the story as it stands.
The Strength of the Ironborn – The Cold War Numbers
We also need to identify clearly how much strength the Iron Islands has. This is critical because much of madeinmyr’s argument that Euron is an excellent strategist comes from the notion that the Crow’s Eye has 900 longships, with 20,000-30,000 men to crew them, while the Iron Fleet, the “hard heart of Greyjoy strength” as described in Theon’s chapters, are 100 larger half-longship half-war galley ships with 10,000 experienced men. This makes one thousand ships, which fits the claims heard in Cersei’s chapters of A Feast For Crows (emphasis mine)
“A thousand ships!” The little queen’s brown hair was tousled and uncombed, and the torchlight made her cheeks look flushed, as if she had just come from some man’s embrace.”
Yet right away, that number should ring falsely, and indeed it does to several men of the council.
“A thousand ships?” Ser Harys Swyft was wheezing. “Surely not. No lord commands a thousand ships.”
“Some frightened fool has counted double,” agreed Orton Merryweather. “That, or Lord Tyrell’s bannermen are lying to us, puffing up the numbers of the foe so we will not think them lax.”
This very technique of double-counting enemy military numbers has historical parallel in our own military history. In the American Civil War, shadowing (observing a force without engaging, typically for reconnaissance purposes) pioneer and future-private eye Allan Pinkerton often mistakenly double-counted Lee’s army. The speed at which they moved led Pinkerton to count the same men twice, thinking that a unit of such size was not able to cover that much ground in such a short period of time. Euron’s ships are explicitly mentioned to be raiding, thus hitting and running, creating the ideal circumstances for this type of error.
But even the text supports that number being too high. For instance, Theon spies House Goodbrother (one of the most powerful Iron Islands houses) mustering their strength of ‘forty ships,’ not one hundred. So, how do we reconcile Martin’s claim that the high lords of the Iron Islands can float a hundred ships, yet we see that House Goodbrother can only spare forty? Where are the other sixty? Balon is mustering for war, holding 150% strength not even in the harbor is beyond foolish, it’s borderline treasonous.
The answer lies in one of the most frustrating things historians encounter when studying wars, the difference between actual numbers and theoretical numbers. Errors creep into historical accounts mistaking theoretical numbers, to include stripping garrisons and conscripting additional men for temporary service, into actual numbers. The classic example is one of the largest battles of the Three Kingdoms era, the Battle of Red Cliffs. T’sao T’sao claimed 800,000 men on his side at the battle. The Han dynasty’s census of China put the number of people in China at 56 million, meaning that somehow, after a generation of devastating and bloody war, T’sao T’sao was still able to field 1.5% of the total population of China just on his side. Modern estimates rightly dismiss this claim and put the number of men at Wulin at approximately 100,000, and the same can be said about the Ironborn strength.
Within Ironborn cultural mythos, many able-bodied men (and women) take up arms when necessary, but these people still need to eat, still need to maintain war materiel (including their ships). Even the great bureaucratic machines of Rome couldn’t afford to keep more than 1% of their population mobilized. In times of emergency, people can be temporarily conscripted to boost this number (almost always for defense where material doesn’t need to be shipped to the field), but only for the shortest length of time, lest the entire domestic sector collapse for lack of able individuals to sustain a war engine. So, using madeinmyr’s most conservative estimate of 20,000 individuals crewing these 900 ships, plus the 10,000 of the Iron Fleet, we’d be looking at 30,000 seaman. At 1%, the height of Rome’s mobilization percentage, that would mean a population of 3 million people on the Iron Islands. 3 million people, on islands never described as thickly populated.
That number is far too high. Even if we accept that Martin is never the best when it comes to numbers, we can still find relative comparisons within the text itself. If the Iron Islands can raise 30,000 troops, that’s 75% the size of the Riverlands and Westerlands and their 40,000-strong armies, and a rough third of the richly populated Reach, and the Iron Islands are fractions of the size of these larger, wealthier regions, and much more sparsely populated. A raiding and fishing culture can’t produce a population to equal that of an agricultural society living in an equivalently-sized fertile region, as we see throughout history. Even at an impossibly high conscription rate, the difference won’t easily be made up.
The evidence is clear, the Ironborn do not have the numbers that are being proposed.
The Greyjoy Rebellion – What Can Euron Be Held Accountable For?
Even in the beginning, we see Euron’s less than stellar grasp of greater military strategy. While the fault for the Greyjoy Rebellion primarily lies at Balon’s feet, and I certainly am not excusing Balon for the strategic error, Euron does show some lackluster traits that fit the overall analysis. In my estimation, Euron Greyjoy’s role in the Greyjoy Rebellion was mostly advisory. He did come up with the plan to burn the Lannisport Fleet (which according to Martin, runs 30 ships large), but then he disappears from the narrative. We must give credit where it is due, burning the Lannisport fleet is good tactics as it prevents the nearest threat from decisively engaging the Greyjoys before their nascent rebellion could get off the ground. This is reminiscent of the Chinese Battle of the Red Cliffs, where T’sao T’sao’s fleet was burned while his ships were chained together and prevented him from utilizing his superior numeric advantage.
However, there is no follow-up offered by Euron. Was no counsel offered to face the Redwyne fleet, the traditional west coast rivals of the Ironborn? While Balon suffers from a truly staggering amount lack of foresight, neither he nor Euron would be so simple as to ignore the fact that the Redwynes exist. Even if they believed Robert did not have their loyalty and the Redwynes would not raiserise their banners or ships for Robert, there was still the royal fleet, to which Balon understood would need to be beaten at sea. Now, certainly, Euron could not have been consulted on this, but why not? He clearly had an advisory role, and there’s no mention that Euron somehow lost Balon’s ear between those two strategic meetings (which would not have been very far apart). We know that Balon, from both the planning on Lannisport and Theon’s Pyke chapters in A Clash of Kings, holds war councils regularly, thus Euron suddenly being on the outs for the next war council seems unusual. Moreover, Euron is never in Balon’s bad graces until 297 with the Victarion salt wife affair. If Balon indeed “did not wish to bolster the prestige of an ambitious and incredibly dangerous younger brother who could conceivably threaten his children,” why take his advice into consideration at all with Casterly Rock? Balon has two adult-aged sons who command their own glories. Why would he fear Euron enough to put him in the doghouse after one idea, and have no one ever mention it once in text? There’s not enough evidence to suggest that Euron was specifically denied a seat at the table.
It’s simply too far-fetched to believe that Balon would simply 180 on Euron, including him in his highest level of war councils only to immediately snub him afterward, yet not do the same to Victarion, who if anything, earned even more glory than Euron. Certainly, Euron has more ambition and is much more intelligent than Victarion, but why, if that was such a worry, is no mention ever made of it in any of our Ironborn point of view chapters? Why is Euron welcome on the Iron Islands until a wholly separate incident causes his exile? Rather than invent the notion that Euron came up with a successful plan then refused an ignominious command because Balon feared his ambition, Occam’s razor cuts that their was no plan to defeat the royal fleet because there was no plan save to beat Stannis in open naval combat. Even more so, if Euron refused an ignominious command as is suggested, why would Balon, if he so feared his brother’s ambition, not seize Euron and execute him for failing to obey orders? Why would Euron be welcome on the Iron Islands after behaving in such a fashion?
Euron Objectives, Tactics, and Strategy in the Reach Campaign
Now, we get into the heart of the matter, where we actually have some hard data to look at. Like many military campaigns, Euron’s objective with his campaign is political. He knows that even upon winning the kingsmoot, his reign won’t be secure. Aeron (who hates and fears Euron) commands respect amongst the Drowned Men; Victarion (who desires rulership of the Iron Islands) holds sway of a great number of the traditionalists and has the Iron Fleet to back him. Asha (another rival) has a firm control of the sentiments of House Harlaw, the number two house of the Iron Islands. Euron won some love with his dramatic appearance and his riches at the kingsmoot, but the luster of that will wear off without something concrete behind it. Buying loyalty is not permanent, Euron is intelligent enough to know this and continuing the stalled out war against the North will not fulfill the big promises he made.
Euron enjoys the spoils of victory, by Mathia Arkoniel
Euron is successful early in his campaign against the Reach. He takes the Shields, put four new lords to weaken and isolate his rivals. By naming four ironborn lords as the new holder of the Shields, he takes a step toward his grand political objective of dividing the base of the anti-Euron factions on the Islands by giving his enemies appointments that invest them tacitly in Euron’s new kingship.
However, can Euron Greyjoy and the Ironborn hold the Shield Islands militarily? Even if the numbers that Garlan Tyrell can muster at Oldtown are exaggerated (which they likely are), the Reach armies are largely unblooded. More importantly, the Redwyne Fleet, the largest collection of vessels left in Westeros with the Iron Fleet in Meereen and the royal fleet at the bottom of the Blackwater, is sailing back to the Reach. Euron is still facing a massive deficit in manpower and materiel. The Reach, the most heavily-populated of the Iron Isles, can wash over the depleted armies of the Ironborn, now without their prized Iron Fleet, the ‘hard heart of Greyjoy strength.’
MadeinMyr also suggests that Euron is close to “pulling (the taking of Oldtown) off”, which we hear of in Sam’s Oldtown chapters:
“Once inside the walls they meant to set the port ablaze and open a gate from within whilst we fought the fire.” (AFFC, Samwell V)
In truth, there have been cases where an open gate has made the difference in the seizure of a city. The fall of Constantinople, Publius Cornelius Scipio’s conquest of Carthago Nova, the taking of Neapolis, all are testaments to the power that securing a gatehouse can have in conquering a city. This might be enough to make the argument sound convincing on paper, but there’s a key oversight. All of those conquests required an army deployed to take the walls once the gate was opened. Thus, the argument is no longer, could the crew of one ironborn ship utilize the chaos of a burning port to secure a gatehouse, but could the crew of one ship secure a gatehouse for the rest of Euron’s occupation force to land, muster, and march to Oldtown? Euron’s forces are not within view from the towers of Oldtown, so his intrepid ironborn attack plan is far different than is proposed. Even in the best circumstances, getting an army to land, muster, and march takes hours if not days. We don’t have a count of the strength of Oldtown’s city watch, but we do have one for King’s Landing, which Tyrion helpfully outlines for us in Tyrion XI of A Clash of Kings.
“The gold cloaks were almost as uncertain a weapon. Six thousand men in the City Watch, thanks to Cersei, but only a quarter of them could be relied upon.”
We know that Cersei inflated the numbers of the Watch, and Tyrion suggests perhaps a quarter were competent soldiers, and Oldtown is slightly smaller than King’s Landing. All of these dock our total, so conservatively, we can estimate around 900-1000 competent Watchmen in the city. No Tyroshi ship holds 900 men, no medieval ship, whether cog or hulk or dromon, held that many men. Even the great Spanish galleons or Genoese war carracks didn’t hold that many men. If attack has a preferred 3:1 attack ratio, Euron is attacking below 1:1 odds. There are lopsided odds, and then there are foolhardy ones, and absent something such as happened in Winterfell with the depleted garrison, I’d say this goes beyond an unreasonable leap to an absurd one. This proposed seizure of Oldtown goes beyond the militarily impractical and into the realm of the outlandish, and so we can safely dismiss the argument that Euron had a reliable plan to take Oldtown as mere idle talk.
Where We Go From Here – Euron’s True Objective
So, if Oldtown can’t be taken, if Euron doesn’t have the ships or the manpower to fight the Redwyne navy and Reachmen army, then what is his plan to ‘take everything’ as he claimed at the Kingsmoot? Euron’s plan has been what it was from my first argument, supernatural means to take and hold his territory. No matter which way you look at it, Euron is going to need his dragon to achieve his complete and final victory. A dragon would mitigate the massive size disparity Euron faces in the Reach and give Euron the strength he needs to force a surrender. Aegon the Conqueror used his dragons as force multipliers when he took Westeros, and Euron wants to perform the same task. The problem is that Euron is gambling his strategy on securing the dragons and deploying them fast enough to stave off his enemies and force their surrender. He’s enacted his plan before he has the tools required to implement it successfully. That is what is meant by being cavalier about strategy, and why Euron is a poor strategist.
Euron’s game is, and has always been, buying time for him to get his dragon. Victarion took approximately four months to get to Meereen, so he’ll need a little less time to bring a dragon to the east coast of Westeros, assuming that the dragon horn works perfectly. By taking the Shield Islands, he’s fixing the Redwyne and royal eye west instead of east, looking at the Ironborn and not the oncoming dragon that he plans to bring. While this might be considered by some to be a strategic move, remember, Euron doesn’t have the dragon yet. He does not know if his dragon horn will work. And even if it does, he still needs to bring it to Westeros to use it. Euron is all-in, hoping to draw an inside straight because he has no other cards worth playing.
Euron’s first and final objective, by Mathia Arkoniel
This fits Euron’s personality. Openly disdainful of the ironborn, he throws their cultural taboos in their face when he sells the Shielders into slavery and mocks their holiest customs. Euron ultimately doesn’t care about the success of the Ironborn and their taking of the Shields, his purpose is altogether different. He wants his dragon, to dominate and humiliate the world much as he dominates and humiliates Victarion, Lord Hewett, and everyone else he can. His campaign in the southwest looks doomed to fail because Euron doesn’t care whether it succeeds. The taking of the Shields is irrelevant, a sideshow to getting him the dragon and the power that it entails. He’ll let the Reachers fight his ironborn, and throw those lords who so recently opposed him into the grinder to rid himself of past enemies. That campaign will fail because Euron doesn’t care if it succeeds. All that matters is his dragon, and he’s thrown all-in on the hopes that his dragon will be there for him. Those are the moves of a man cavalier about strategy.