After the Battle of the Gold Road, Daenerys Targaryen has the defeated and captured Lannister soldiers rounded up and delivers the following ultimatum:
I offer you a choice. Bend the knee and join me and together we will leave the world a better place than we found it or refuse and die.
Their plight and some admonitory roaring from Drogon convince all the Lannister men to bend the knee, except for Randyll Tarly and his son Dickon. Tyrion pleads for their lives, suggesting that they might be sent to the Wall. Randyll doesn’t refuse the offer but insists that because Daenerys isn’t Queen, she doesn’t have the authority to send him to the Night’s Watch.
Daenerys carries out her threat and Drogon roasts both Randyll and Dickon. The episode touched off a great deal of discussion about whether or not Daenerys was justified. Randyll wanted to make it very clear that he wasn’t defying the law but rather a foreign conqueror and her pet monster.
Under every code of law, threats made by private individuals under threat of force have no legal standing. If this were not so, every mugging would be a legal appropriation. For Daenerys’ ultimatum to be justified, she must be more than a private citizen; she must be a ruling sovereign.
A government may conscript its own citizens into the army. These measures are unpopular but they’re often regarded as legal and constitutional. Any citizen who refuses the conscription is breaking the law and is liable to legal penalties. Since Daenerys sees herself as the rightful Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, she may conscript the men of Weseros into her army.
The Lannister soldiers are men of Westeros but they are also prisoners of war. Daenerys may counter that since she is the rightful Queen and they took up arms against her, they aren’t really prisoners of war but rebels and traitors. And from a strictly legal standpoint she may be correct.
The British Crown faced a much similar situation in regard to the prisoners of war taken during the American Revolution. They could never grant these captured men the status of prisoners of war because that would concede that the Colonies were a sovereign nation and these men were soldiers of that nation. Yet to deny that they were soldiers at all meant that they were rebels and traitors and their condign fate was execution in the gruesome fashion of the age. And to draw and quarter captured colonial troops would make any reconciliation with their lost colonies utterly impossible. The British simply ignored the whole question, neither according them the status of prisoners of war or punishing them as traitors. Although they didn’t execute the captured colonials, they kept them in conditions so appalling that a great many of them died anyway.
Throughout most of history, those captured in war were either slaughtered or enslaved. Those combatants who were taken didn’t enjoy any legal status as prisoners of war until the Napoleonic Wars. The Mongols and Tartars frequently butchered whole populations without bothering to consider whether this was lawful or just.
The samurai almost never kept prisoners. They believed that the losers of a battle should either die fighting or kill themselves out of shame. Any warrior so cowardly as to be taken alive didn’t deserve to live.
After the ghastly wars of religion between the Catholics and Protestants, echoes of chivalry still lingered in the secular wars between nations. A captured officer may give his parole, his most solemn word, that he will do nothing either to harm his captor or attempt to escape. His parole given, he was permitted to move about freely and even to go home to return at an appointed time with his ransom. The officer is still no less a prisoner but he is held by his honor rather than by bars and fetters. We may admire the humanity and gentility of such an arrangement, but we must remember that it was a courtesy extended by aristocrats to aristocrats.
Prisoners of war were sometimes permitted to change sides and enlist among their whilom captors. But they didn’t do this because they were threatened with death but to win their freedom and improve their condition. These defectors were rarely fully trusted. Having switched sides once, they might well do so again and they were often sent off to distant postings in order to free up more dependable troops for the main theater.
I have never heard of anybody forcing an entire body of prisoners to switch sides and fight for their cause under threat of death. In modern times, international law mandates that very soon after hostilities are ended, prisoners of war are to be released or repatriated.
Daenerys’ father was overthrown by a rebellion and he was killed as a direct result of that rebellion. Daenerys invasion may be regarded as the last act of a civil war. The Tarlys fought against the Targaryens during Robert’s rebellion.
Charles II returned to rule a kingdom that had risen against his father and deposed him. Some of the men who had overthrown his father later tried and executed him. His Restoration and Daenerys invasion share many points of similarity. Although the Tarlys fought to overthrow King Aerys, they had nothing to do with his death. Aerys was killed by Jaime Lannister and because his killing was neither planned nor even really political, it was a murder and not an assassination.
Charles I was tried and executed by a large body of signatories and many of them were still living and fell into his son’s hands after the Restoration. While many of these regicides were executed, those who simply fought against his father or were part of the government that replaced him were spared any punishment. Neither were they compelled to swear an oath of allegiance to the restored King.
After the American Civil War, the general populations of the seceding states weren’t forced to swear their allegiance to the Union. The most important and recalcitrant of the Confederates were barred from holding public office and voting, but they weren’t fined or imprisoned.
During the occupation and rebuilding of Germany, many former Nazis were imprisoned and punished. Some were executed after the Nuremberg Trials. Yet the Allies made a distinction between Followers, Lesser Offenders, Offenders, and Major Offenders. They held only some of those who were officially members of the Nazi Party responsible for the crimes of the Nazi state. Former Nazis may be barred from public office and the civil service but only the most culpable were punished for their country’s crimes.
The defeated can scarcely help but admit they’ve lost. Yet to force them to declare that they were wrong ever to have fought in the first place is another thing entirely. Few conquerors have ever been so arrogant or foolish as to wring such a fruitless and costly admission from the vanquished.