“[Colonel Curtis] LeMay said if we lost the war that we would have all been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right. He — and I’d say I — were behaving as war criminals…. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” - Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, The Fog of War
The pragmatist’s answer to Mr. McNamara’s question is, of course, that no one is around to call you immoral if you win. It may count as immoral when it’s written in the book of life, but insomuch as none of us has access to that while we’re living, might will continue to make right (and the winners, as it goes, tend to write the histories, too).
When the books are fictional, though, morality is a much more objective affair, with both the writer and especially the reader able to weigh in on the character of our characters. Few genres tend to offer these morals in starker terms than fantasy, in which good and evil tend not to just square off, but divide themselves neatly before doing it: a hero’s journey, after all, wouldn’t be much without a hero.
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, adapted into the award-winning HBO series Game of Thrones, which returns for a second season this Sunday, in many ways details a world where good and evil, moral and immoral, honour and deceit, are no less sharply drawn. The main distinction between Thrones and the typical fantasy story, and the feature that gives it much of its messy realism, is that here, any hint of morality is routinely and viciously punished: noble brows have a hideous tendency to be found on heads that have been lopped off.