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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 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 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 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 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 at 15:53

6 Answers 6

up vote 29 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 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 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. –  Lohoris Jun 12 at 14:28

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 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 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 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 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 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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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 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 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 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 at 11:14

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