The Futility of War: George R. R. Martin, “A Song of Ice and Fire”, and Vietnam

One of the most commonly quoted encapsulations of George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” is the following from a Reddit thread comment by Lave:

“I think a lot of people miss that ASOIAF is an attack on loving fantasy worlds…ASOIAF, to me, is a love letter to democracy, equality and all the wonderful things we have, because it reminds you how horrendous a world without them is.”

There is a great deal of truth in this observation. Martin has frequently stated he is writing a “dirty” fantasy, a response to Tolkien imitators, and a story for adults with the dial turned up to an eleven. However, Martin is unlikely to share Lave’s positive reading of the USA or its history during his lifetime. Given how frequently he talks about it and its presence in all of his work, the Vietnam War is a truer inspiration for “A Song of Ice and Fire” than the War of the Roses. Even Martin himself may not fully realize how much that disastrous conflict is shaping his view of not just medieval history, but the human condition itself. In other words, “A Song of Ice and Fire” is a meditation on America and the Vietnam War.


American involvement in the Vietnam War began in the Eisenhower administration with the U.S.’s support for Ngo Dinh Diem, a Roman Catholic and a dictator, and the non-participation of the southern part of the country in the elections in 1956 conducted under the Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the conflict between nationalist revolutionaries under the communist leadership of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap against French imperial rule. Believing at least in part in the “domino theory” – any victory for the communists would cause a ripple effect throughout the region, President John F. Kennedy sent several thousand U.S. military “advisors” to aid Diem and the generals who succeeded him after the U.S.-sanctioned coup and assassination. Upon the deterioration of the military situation in South Vietnam, President Lyndon Baines Johnson arranged for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964, which authorized a general military operation by U.S. forces to maintain the government of South Vietnam. In a seemingly never-ending bid to maintain the status quo, Johnson ratcheted up military involvement to the point where nearly two million U.S. military personnel were in theater (South East Asia) and his administration became consumed by the war including, but not limited to, the commitment to domestic reform under the title of “The Great Society”. Johnson’s successor, Richard M. Nixon (the second son incidentally), with a horrible resentment against the Kennedys, eventually arranged for the Paris Peace Accords, the Vietnamization (basically American withdrawal) of the war, but only after escalating the combat operation both in effort and area.


By 1975, when North Vietnamese troops finally prevailed in unifying the country and establishing a communist state throughout, the United States had lost over 58,000 troops with hundreds of thousands wounded, disabled, and suffering from PTSD, illnesses from drug use and exposure to defoliants, and a society that had been ripped in half over the war. Many people emerged from the civil strife of the late 1960s and early 1970s believing that America had gone on the wrong track. Religious fundamentalism flourished. Inflation due at least in part to spending on the war spurred opposition to regulations, taxes both property and income, and “big government” in general. The massive peace movement was considered so disruptive that people widely believed the stories of military personnel being harassed at airports and spat upon by war protesters. Various members of the media, academia, and entertainment industries were accused of treason, most notably “Hanoi” Jane Fonda for her visit to North Vietnam and outspoken opposition to the war.


A general distrust of the establishment, particularly government and institutions like universities and organized religion, set in. The repeated supposed misrepresentations about the war that came from generals, politicians, and others in society sowed suspicion about government and other elite conspiracies. Even business leaders, scientists, and doctors came under closer scrutiny as revelations about pesticides, cigarettes, pollution, pharmaceuticals, nuclear reactors, and automobile safety took turns scandalizing the country. At the risk of sounding like R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” or Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, there was a great deal of material that could lead one to believe in noxious conspiracies during the Vietnam and post-Vietnam eras. Some of them, like Watergate, were even true.


Those of us who did not experience this time period will never fully grasp the turbulence, combustibility, and fierce questioning of that milieu, zeitgeist, or whatever one wants to call it. But, Martin definitely did. He went to college at Northwestern a rather typical American who opposed the communists and came out a skeptic, a conscientious objector to the war, and a deliberate questioner of assumed political and social realities. Thus, Martin may love the ideal of American democracy, the “melting pot”, and equality, but he has no illusions about how much America lives up to those ideals. All of it was fodder for his writings.


For example, “A Song of Ice and Fire” is filled to the brim with the horrors of war – the rich man’s war, poor man’s fight. There are also a surfeit of survivors of war, conflict, and the debilitating nature of a patriarchal society with feudalism on steroids. Regardless of whether Robb Stark was justified, his actions had terrible consequences. In all of the armies and navies, we have the fragging of Vietnam, the dishonorable behavior of sworn brothers, and an institutional decay that is darkly evocative of the despair of the 1970s. Even in the transition from a young, vigorous JFK and his Camelot-like Robert Baratheon to the corrupt lethargy of an LBJ-like older Robert Baratheon with a Nixon-like Stannis, the perpetual second son, grinding his teeth, realpolitiking his way into power with his outcast Kissinger, Davos Seaworth, as a key advisor, we have American politics from hope to “peace with honor”. The pacifist, anti-war protesting brother priests – Philip and Daniel Berrigan – are dead ringers for Septon Meribald and the Elder Brother on the Quiet Isle. It certainly would not take much for Washington, D.C., or Trenton to transform into King’s Landing. There is a lot of Vietnam Era America in “A Song of Ice and Fire”.


The question remains though as to what the significance of this is. Martin himself genuinely believes he is writing a hybrid of historical fiction (The War of the Roses mostly) and fantasy. He lists several reference works and Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, a popular history of the European thirteenth century, along with the Froisart’s chronicle it is based on, as his sources. He has denied that “A Song of Ice and Fire”’s Westeros is based on Bayonne, New Jersey. However, he has also confessed many things from his life including his winters in Dubuque, Iowa, at Clarke College and his visit to Hadrian’s Wall inspired aspects of “A Song of Ice and Fire”. His personal relationships also make it into his writings both intentional (Triarch Belicho was a Volantene patriot who wins a series of victories until he is eaten by giants, as a reference to Superbowl XLII, A Dance with Dragons, Chapter 33, Tyrion VIII, comes to mind.) and probably unintentional (His wife Parris is a redhead and so are the love interests Ygritte, Catelyn, and Sansa. He likes cats so Arya becomes Cat of the Canals and Tommen has a few including Ser Pounce.). It is highly likely that, like every other writer including historians like yours truly, he is seeing and interpreting the world through the lens of his social, cultural, economic, and political context.


By now those of you who have read my other posts know that I am reaching a very old point: that the standard reading of “A Song of Ice and Fire” is incorrect in light of this analysis. To whit, the Chinese were the enemy in Korea, but they also had a perspective. The communists of the Viet Minh and Viet Cong were the enemy in Vietnam, but they were also fighting for their country. It is always a mistake not to question the official histories. Just because there are honorable people fighting honorably, doing what they think is right does not mean the war is honorable, just, and right. One needs to look behind the curtain and ascertain if there is a conspiracy at work. Looks can be deceiving. Finally, truth is a matter of perspective. Good luck to us all.


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