Seizing the Dung Pile
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"Duskendale? A third of my foot lost, for Duskendale?"
Robb Stark A Game of Thrones: Clash of Kings George R. R. Martin

Basic Information

A plot trope whereby a given faction has achieved what appears to them to be a spectacular victory … which leaves their opponents perplexed and perhaps not even realizing that they are meant to have been defeated. Whatever has just fallen was of no value to those who were allegedly defending it - either because they lack genre savvy or because it is genuinely irrelevant from their point of view.

These events normally occur due to a failure of one side to understand the strategy, tactics or priorities of the other, especially when the siezers are considering their opponents plans from their own perspective - for example, kingdom A has determined that they have a huge advantage in heavy cavalry and therefore they will fight in the open grasslands along their border with Kingdom B wherever possible in the event of a war between A&B. They therefore assume that B will also consider this a good place to fight1 and, when B declares war on them, they capture and burn a series of bridges across a river that B would have required to deploy forces into those grasslands. According to their worldview, this is an appropriate and effective way of denying their attacker access to the battlefield. Unfortunately, Kingdom B is aware of the disparity in cavalry strength and instead specializes in infantry and plans to deploy through the woods and forests on the Southern end of the frontier and Kingdom A has thus seized a dungpile.

This also applies when someone fights simply to deny their opponent a victory, rather than with any objectives of their own, thus again seizing and defending something of no strategic importance (like a dung pile) simply to keep it out of the hands of the enemy. Depending on the context, this is likely to result from pride or spite as much as stupidity.

An opponent can also be tricked into this - expending significant resources on a target which they are given to understand is important, but has either been specifically constructed as a trap or is being defended only because they are attacking it. In this context the defender must ensure that the resources they spend resisting the attack remain a fraction of those the attacker is expending in the assault … or failing that, that they would not still be better spent somewhere else, defending against whatever the attacker would be doing if they weren't attacking the dunghill. The ultimate refinement of this concept is establishing a position simply to control where you are going to fight2.

This can also be incarnated in the intelligence field in the form of "ghost hunting" … spending significant resources on tracking down a problem that exists mainly in the imagination of the government agency doing the investigating. Obviously, when this is done as a "make work" exercise or for deliberate ideological reasons, the concept doesn't apply - there needs to be a genuine false belief for it to be a real ghost hunt.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Claiming that your opponent has done this is a standard part of the propaganda duel. When it happens for real people are prone to suspect obfuscating stupidity
  • Yes, we know what the example in the flavour text was really about. But no spoilers please.
  • Perhaps the objective taken actually is important, but its value is not readily apparent
    • For example a shrine or ancient site that has great cultural significance to a certain group
    • Or perhaps an important MacGuffin has been secreted there and forgotten
    • Maybe and important person, such as a sage or the long-lost son of a royal family, is living there unbeknownst to anybody.
  • This particular trope works well when the enemy is completely alien to the PCs - bizarre and inexplicable military operations may be a clue to the priorities of their culture or (especially if the aliens are on an unexplained offensive) some indication of their war aims.
    • It may also indicate that the enemy do not understand the PCs culture - for example perhaps to them a certain species of tree is sacred and to have one destroyed whilst under your protection is a nearly immeasurable shame … whilst to the humans accepting vast losses to carry out an orbital bombardment of the national arboretum merely appears insane3.
  • This can also occur if you allow PCs to derail your campaign plot (or if you run a sandbox campaign) - a frequent example being when they attach too much significance to a wandering monster encounter and oblige the GM to create a sidequest where they track down and clear the monster lair. They may consider that they've achieved something … but in campaign terms, they've seized a dunghill.
  • The battle for Ap Bia mountain (aka. Hamburger Hill) during the Vietnam War was a decent example of this - the US incurred heavy casualties and expended vast resources in capturing a position of no real strategic importance and then promptly abandoned it.
  • Crete in 1941 was a similar example - the casualties that the Wehrmacht suffered in taking the place were far out of proportion to its strategic importance or the value of eliminating the broken allied formations that were defending it. With hindsight - and possibly with better strategic analysis at the time - leaving Crete to rot under air and submarine harassment probably would have been a greater long term burden on allied logistics and Germany could certainly not afford to cripple its only airborne division for the prize on offer.
  • See also the battle for Bakhmut in the (ongoing) Ukraine war - besides any strategic significance the town itself may have (which appears to have actually decreased from an already low level), it appears a great deal of blood and treasure was expended in capturing the town's garbage dump - at least twice, possibly three times if you count the counterattack which pushed the Russians out of it the first time they took it. About as close as you can get to literally seizing a dung pile at an operational level.
  • This sort of thing happening regularly might suggest that the war is for some internal purpose: killing off a large number of people to avoid a Malthusian trap, a corrupt handout to an influential weapons industry, uniting a divided country against an external enemy…
  • Privately, this sort of behaviour may result from extremely confused envy, whereby the envious Man decides that something must be desired by others and so he must have it to prevent them getting it - sometimes regardless of whether or not they turn out to want it in the end.
    • The potential to work at least one con-game on this sort of person becomes obvious ("limited edition, get it before your neighbours do!")
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