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In both the television series and the books, the Night's Watch are presented as being shockingly bad at their one real job: guarding The Wall.

I understand that they're supposed to be an organization in decline: underfunded and understaffed, but it still doesn't explain the ridiculous strategic missteps they commit.

For Example:

Why does Jeor Mormont lead 300 men (a third of their total forces!) ranging north of the wall, where they're vulnerable and exposed, and ultimately killed? Why is Ser Alliser so resistant to sealing the tunnel to prevent the wildlings breaching it?

I'm no military strategist, but it seems to me that if your forces hold the strongest fortification in the history of the world, it behooves you to stay behind those fortifications and use them to your greatest advantage.

Why are the Night's Watch so insistent on ranging north and getting killed? Are they just bored of waiting and craving excitement?

Is it just a dramatic decision on the part of GRR Martin? If the Night's Watch were on top of their game, there'd be no story?

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"Leadership is all about getting second-guessed by every clever little twat with a mouth. But if the leader starts second-guessing, than that's it. That's the end." – KharoBangdo Jun 11 '14 at 4:44
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I think you're asking several separate question ("why ranging?", "why is Ser Alliser stubborn?", etc). O guess it's partly a dramatic decision by GRRM, but also justified because the Night's Watch notices something is amiss among the Wildlings and they need to send rangers to assess the threat, which seems pretty reasonable, especially since they are undermanned, – Andres F. Jun 11 '14 at 5:40
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Pretty much everyone sent to the Wall is a criminal of some sort. The scum of the earth. And you expect brilliant military strategy? – asteri Jun 12 '14 at 3:26
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@JeffGohlke not everyone who takes the black was/is a criminal scum. John Snow, being the most obvious example. Samwell was there of his own choice, as was Jeor Mormont, Maester Aeomon and a few others. Joining the Nights Watch voluntarilly was still looked upon with honor and respect in the North, it was mostly those from the other 7 kingdoms who were sent to avoid execution. – Monty129 Jun 12 '14 at 11:44
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Agreed, the Nights Watch's rampant incompetence is the second hardest thing we are asked to believe about them. The hardest to believe is that they somehow have survived for 7000 years. Especially since in reality, NO human institution has survived for more than 2000 years. – RBarryYoung Jun 12 '14 at 15:53
up vote 40 down vote accepted

I think the Night's Watch cannot defend the wall effectively any longer.

The wall is gargantuan and the number of "combat capable" Night Watchers is low. The Wildlings can scale the wall at any point and reach local superiority quite easily. This was even mentioned in the books - Wildlings are scaling the wall quite often.

So to defend the wall, you have to know where bigger attacks will happen. In other words: you need intelligence. Without ranging, the Night's Watch would be blind, deaf and dumb: Widlings could concentrate their forces easily and defeat the very weak defense on the wall. With ranging, the night watch has a chance to detect such attempts beforehand and can concentrate it's forces.

Finally, the Mormont-ranging was done to prevent a huge army from attacking the wall. If it had succeeded, the Wildlings would have scattered and the wall would have been secure again.

The Night's Watch did not have nearly enough resources to do it's task, so it was doomed to fail. I often think the wall is comparable to to the great wall in china: Sure, it was great to stop small groups of barbarians. But it was impossible to man, so big groups had no trouble do defeat the great wall.

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I agree with all of this. I also think there’s a tendency for people to assume failed plans were bad plans. This isn't necessarily true; if your plan has a 95% chance of succeeding but you happen to hit that 5% that doesn’t mean all of a sudden that it was a bad plan – user20310 Jun 11 '14 at 10:06
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@user20310 I agree. Mormont had a VERY bad Hand and decided to play his best cards. Since the game was rigged, he had no good chance - but roll over and die was not exactly an option either. – Christian Sauer Jun 11 '14 at 13:08
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While I think @KharoBangdo's answer is good too, this one is better IMHO. A pity it has less votes. – o0'. Jun 12 '14 at 14:28
    
@ChristianSauer Quoting Qhorin Halfhand “Belike we shall all die, then. Our dying will buy time for our brothers on the Wall. Time to garrison the empty castles and freeze shut the gates, time to summon lords and kings to their aid, time to hone their axes and repair their catapults. Our lives will be coin well spent.” – Aegon Jun 8 at 5:02

If I understand correctly, you are asking

Why does the Night's Watch have Rangers? Instead they could stay behind the safety of the Wall & protect the realm

To answer this question, you first have to know what Rangers in a military establishment are. What is their purpose & what is their value to the overall success of the defense forces.

As stated in the Wikipedia

Rangers were full-time soldiers employed by colonial governments to patrol between fixed frontier fortifications in reconnaissance providing early warning of raids. In offensive operations, they were scouts and guides, locating villages and other targets for taskforces drawn from the militia or other colonial troops.

Here is a detailed article in How Stuff Works on how the Army Rangers work.

Their specialties

The Rangers are known for their skill at remaining undetected in a war. If you're in a combat situation and you see a Ranger, most likely he's already spotted you. There's no telling how long he's been observing you, and what's more, by the time you detect a Ranger, you're probably too late.

Their value to the defense forces

They conducted small-scale invasions in Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy and France, breaking through enemy lines and opening the way for larger forces to enter behind them.

So to sum up, Rangers are trained in Guerrilla warfare tactics to navigate, gather intelligence, neutralize & defend against enemies in the most hostile terrains & dense forest. Sounds familiar

Returning back to the Wall, the wildling army was growing (restless & in numbers) day by day.
The number of insurgency attempts were also increasing. Hence, the Night's Watch had to have a special Rangers unit among them to neutralize the threat before it comes down on them with full force.

Remember earlier in season 1 when Jon asks Benjen to take him along for ranging but Benjen refuses. Jon was a brilliant swordsmen but he was no Ranger as yet. So wasn't Waymar Royce in the prolouge of GoT.

As a military strategist & a Lord Commander it was the right choice for Mormont to lead 300 men beyond the Wall to kill the important Wildling leaders. But as Ser Alliser wisely stated in the latest episode

"Leadership is all about getting second-guessed by every clever little twat with a mouth. But if a leader starts second-guessing, that's it That's the end."

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The definition of US Army Ranger doesn't really translate to a Night's Watch Ranger, however. In the NW, the personnel is divided into three groups, stewards, builders and (the combat force) "rangers". Thus, a NW Ranger is more like "infantry" than it is like a US Army Ranger, which constitutes a much smaller fraction of the army. NW Rangers are the soldiering force, whether they scout or defend the walls, so while Army Rangers may have a skillset of Guerrilla warfare tactics and intelligence gathering, it is unlikely that degree of expertise applies to each soldier in Castle Black. – hexparrot Jun 12 '14 at 15:08
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The entire forces of the NW is about ~1000 people and Castle Black had about ~600. Of the 300 soldiers sent up, the 200 were from Castle Black are likely to be mostly Rangers. (Recon for US Army Rangers is certainly not 33% of the Army). Though Sun Tzu's The Art of War doesn't exist in this universe, general principles are not foreign to them: a fortified position is worth 10:1 AT LEAST (especially considering this wall). Having a third of your army pick a fight without these advantages was an unsound decision. – hexparrot Jun 12 '14 at 15:17
    
All 300 men that went north of the Wall weren't Rangers. Samwell Tarly was no Ranger. Even a blind man could spot him wink. As I mentioned above in the value of Rangers in defense forces, small small groups of Rangers would infiltrate the enemy camp aiding the larger defense forces(swordsmen) to conquer the enemy efficiently. – KharoBangdo Jun 12 '14 at 16:34
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I agree--many were not rangers (I indicated with "are likely to be mostly rangers"), which corroborates the point that they are much less like the elite Rangers they were being compared to from the answer. – hexparrot Jun 12 '14 at 16:35
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I agree with hexparrot. I think a modern day Army Ranger would be insulted to be compared with the NW Rangers. There's no evidence that the Night's Watch rangers are especially elite warriors, trained in guerrilla warfare or neutralizing a larger enemy force. Certainly some particular rangers (e.g. Qhorin Halfhand) are skilled fighters, but they seem to be the exception, rather than the rule. In the books, we mostly see the rangers stalking small, isolated parties of wildlings, not harrying a large enemy army. In fact, before Mance Rayder, there were no wildling armies. – bjmc Jun 12 '14 at 21:14

The root of your question (especially the question title) is the fact that the Night's Watch is not viewed as the honor that it once was. The only people that join the Night's Watch are criminals and other people with no education or training.

Occasionally, you'll get a high-born bastard or other person of standing with no other option (John Snow, Jorah Mormont, Maester Aemon, etc). They'll naturally rise through the ranks to a point of leadership.

Mormont underestimated the possibility of the White Walkers, as they had passed into legend centuries ago.

However, they're still leading a group of "people of ill-repute". The main reason why the ranging was destroyed north of the Wall was because of the dissension in the ranks. Had they not turned on Mormont, the main forces remaining after the White Walker attack would have survived.

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Jorah Mormont never joined the Watch. Jeor Mormont chose to join the watch, he was not out of options. Aemon also chose to join the watch to avoid being used against his brother King Aegon V. – Aegon Jun 6 at 8:26

Night's Watch were by no means incompetent so the basic premise of the Question is flawed.

Jeor Mormont's decision to lead 300 men into the wild is not a strategic misstep. You are miscalculating the defending capabilities of the wildlings. Wildlings were no match for discipline and equipment of the men of the Night's Watch. Also if Wildlings climbed across from any place unseen (Which they would have done if Night's Watch did not send rangers beyond the wall), Castles would be completely vulnerable as they had no defenses in the South.

I'd like to split my answer into following parts.

Why was Great ranging necessary?

Night's watch was constantly losing rangers on their reconaissance patrols. Which meant something was happening beyond the wall and someone did not want the Night's Watch to know what was going on. Jeor Mormont could either stay put and be surprised by whoever it was on their ground of choosing and at their time of choosing. That could have spelled the end of the Night's Watch. Or he could ride outside and find out for himself what was going on. The enemy who was picking out rangers one at a time would find a tougher foe in 300 trained men of the NW.

There were more dire things happening as well. Joer Mormont had survived an attack by wights. Night's watch had forgotten about that enemy and this event meant something bigger than wildlings was at play in wilderness beyond the wall. Night's watch was sworn to defend the realms of men and wake the sleepers in the South in time of danger. How could Night's watch do this if they didn't know themselves what was the danger?

Quoting the strange events reported to Lord Commander by then from AGOT:

The cold winds are rising, Snow. Beyond the Wall, the shadows lengthen. Cotter Pyke writes of vast herds of elk, streaming south and east toward the sea, and mammoths as well. He says one of his men discovered huge, misshapen footprints not three leagues from Eastwatch. Rangers from the Shadow Tower have found whole villages abandoned, and at night Ser Denys says they see fires in the mountains, huge blazes that burn from dusk till dawn. Quorin Halfhand took a captive in the depths of the Gorge, and the man swears that Mance Rayder is massing all his people in some new, secret stronghold he’s found, to what end the gods only know. Do you think your uncle Benjen was the only ranger we’ve lost this past year?

So the ranging was necessary for following reasons:

  1. They needed to find out why wildlings were abandoning their villages.
  2. They needed to find the missing rangers or whatever happened to them.
  3. They needed to find out the dead men rising in the north.
  4. They needed to find out what was Mance Rayder up to.

Why did Lord Commander choose to ride out?

Jeor Mormont explained his decision to ride out in these words:

“I will not sit here meekly and wait for the snows and the ice winds. We must know what is happening. This time the Night’s Watch will ride in force, against the King-beyond-the-Wall, the Others, and anything else that may be out there. I mean to command them myself.”

The first rule of battle is never to give your enemy what he wants. Jeor Mormont took the initiative and moved on the enemy before the enemy could move on them.

As Blackfish Bryden Tully explained to Catelyn Stark:

My first rule of war, Cat, is never to give the enemy his wish.

"Friends" beyond the wall

Night's Watch had friends beyond the wall like Craster. They had hoped to find some intel from him but since rangers were getting picked out by an unseen enemy, it was unlikely that any small party would be able to meet Craster and return to the wall. From Jon's POV in ACOK:

Thoren Smallwood swore that Craster was a friend to the Watch, despite his unsavory reputation. “The man’s half-mad, I won’t deny it,” he’d told the Old Bear, “but you’d be the same if you’d spent your life in this cursed wood. Even so, he’s never turned a ranger away from his fire, nor does he love Mance Rayder. He’ll give us good counsel.”

Night's Watch superiority

Night's Watch was superior to Wildlings in equipment, training and discipline. Wildlings lacked all of these. Quoting from Jon's POV in ACOK:

“The numbers would be greatly against us,” Ser Ottyn had objected. “Craster said he was gathering a great host. Many thousands. Without Qhorin, we are only two hundred.”

“Send two hundred wolves against ten thousand sheep, ser, and see what happens,” said Smallwood confidently.

Wildlings fought like heroes. Brave yes, but not with any strategy. They fought for glory and as many men as they could take down with them; ultimately, a good death. Night's Watch fought with strategy and discipline. They knew when to retreat, when to double back, when to attack.

Wildlings had poor weapons made of stones and bones. At max they had few copper weapons and a few stolen steel swords. Night's watch was equipped with best quality steel weapons and armor. They were all mounted and thus had the advantage in mobility. Wildlings were further hampered by women and children. Night's Watch was not hampered by anything. They could cut through the wildlings like knife goes through cheese. They did not have to fight a pitched battle. They could hit and run. Then come back, hit again and run again. Wildlings would be harassed all the way to the wall and then there was wall itself.

Bone and Bronze and Copper are no match for castle forged steel. Stannis proved that with 1,500 men when he forced a general rout of the entire Wildling host. If 1,500 Baratheon men can prevail over 100,000 wildlings in pitched battle, 300 NW men can also cause considerable damage with hit and run tactics. From ASOS, Jon's POV:

The free folk still had the numbers, but the attackers had steel armor and heavy horses. In the thickest part of the fray, Jon saw Mance standing tall in his stirrups. His red-and-black cloak and raven-winged helm made him easy to pick out. He had his sword raised and men were rallying to him when a wedge of knights smashed into them with lance and sword and longaxe. Mance’s mare went up on her hind legs, kicking, and a spear took her through the breast. Then the steel tide washed over him.

It’s done, Jon thought, they’re breaking. The wildlings were running, throwing down their weapons, Hornfoot men and cave dwellers and Thens in bronze scales, they were running. Mance was gone, someone was waving Harma’s head on a pole, Tormund’s lines had broken.

Night's Watch objectives

The objective was not to destroy the Wildling army. It was to buy time for the men at Wall to prepare defenses and notify the lords of the realm. They also needed to find exact info on what they were facing. As said by Qhorin Halfhand to Lord commander in ACOK:

“Belike we shall all die, then. Our dying will buy time for our brothers on the Wall. Time to garrison the empty castles and freeze shut the gates, time to summon lords and kings to their aid, time to hone their axes and repair their catapults. Our lives will be coin well spent.”

Wall's Defensive Value

You are thinking only about defensive value of the wall but you have forgotten that all but three castles on the wall were abandoned. There were not enough men to mount efficient patrols. If Night's Watch had chosen to stay blind in their castles, they would never have known about the rear attack on Castle Black by Thenns and Freefolk. They would never have been ready to defend the Castle Black. They would never have had the time to ask for aid from East Watch, Shadow Tower and Lords of the realm.

If the strike from South had been a success, Wall's height would have meant nothing. Wildlings would have slaughtered the garrison in their beds and opened the gates for Mance Rayder. Instead, thanks to the ranging, Night's Watch was ready for the southern attack and main invading force. So it was a great strategic move by Jeor Mormont which actually saved the Night's Watch from defeat.

Conclusion

In any case, Night's Watch did not have sufficient men to defend the wall in case of an invasion. It only made sense to ride out and find the danger to alert the realm.

Night's Watch enjoyed advantage in discipline and technological superiority. They were well-armed and armored unlike the wildlings so they were ten times as dangerous as a wildling. In a pitched battle of course this advantage will be neutralized by numerical superiority of the wildlings but that was not the strategy the black brothers chose. They chose to hit and run once the rangers returned. In the meanwhile they were waiting for the wildlings at fist of the first men. Which according to Mance:

“Aye, he was [Ready for me]. Had I been fool enough to storm this hill, I might have lost five men for every crow I slew and still counted myself lucky.”

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+1, best answer by far. – DCShannon Jun 6 at 15:07

The ranging could have been rather successful if not for the Battle of the Fist of the First Men. If not for the wights, they could have safely gathered intel on Mance's army and returned to Castle Black and prepared. They would have then been able to handle Mance with a greater number of men and better leadership.

Up to that point, the Night's Watch had only encountered a single wight. That one wight was a brother they knew had died beyond the Wall. They couldn't have predicted an army of undead that showed up and slaughtered them.

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A wall is not just a means of stopping people - it is also a means of limiting the scale of incursion even when there is a breakthrough. By having a wall where a successful attack must come through one of the gates/forts, you are limiting the rate of incursion and also the ability of an invader to come across on a broad front.

A wall without intelligence is also limited. There is a need to concentrate defending forces where a likely assault will take place, otherwise the attacker to defender ratio will be impossible odds to defeat.

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I do not agree that the Night's watch are incompetent. Before Mormont's adventure over the wall, they had no intelligence about the huge wilding army marching South or the Others (who had not pop up for 1,000 years or more).

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That doesn't really answer the question and as long as you don't provide a source for them not knowing about the wildling army that is also just your opinion. – LarissaGodzilla Jun 12 '14 at 12:14
    
Yes of course I am giving my opinion and your know-it-all attitude is depressive and nonconstructive. What kind of evidence do you require to prove that Mormont had no intelligence what so ever about the huge wilding army beyond the wall? He adventured with a 300-men battalion, which is a pretty good decision. – Gaizka Allende Jun 13 '14 at 12:04
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Quote a passage from the book or give the name of an episode where that becomes clear. You can't just throw 2.5 lines of opinion in people's faces and expect them to take it as fact. Also, I don't feel like my critizising is nonconstructive, as I at least tell you how to make the answer better, in contrast to 90% of all other downvoters. – LarissaGodzilla Jun 14 '14 at 7:22
    
Not sure what you're asking me to quote, but don't worry, it doesn't really matter, only you, me and our egos are paying attention to this discussion. I hope you like GOTs as much as I do. Cheers – Gaizka Allende Jun 16 '14 at 11:14

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