Inspired by this thread on /r/asoiaf, I have some thoughts on whether Jon Snow actually does break his vows to the Night’s Watch when he decides to march on Winterfell to take on Ramsay Bolton. Also: shout out to @BryndenBFish and @PoorQuentyn for putting up with my tweeted pleas for help and ideas.
His decision, announced after he reads the “Pink Letter” to the hall full of wildlings and Watchmen, has fatal consequences. It is seemingly the final straw for many in the Watch, who take it upon themselves to exact justice on the Lord Commander who has broken his vows.
Many fans agree that when he declared he would ride to Winterfell and fight Ramsay, Jon openly and clearly breached his vows to the Night’s Watch, and thus what the For The Watch-ers did was completely justified. I’ve always found this a little hard to swallow. Now I’ve finally figured out a way to credibly argue that Jon was looking at the bigger picture.
TLDR: Jon’s decision is in keeping with his vow to defend the realm of Men from the Others, except there was no way in hell that he could ever adequately explain that to a Night’s Watch that has forgotten that keeping the Others at bay, and not keeping the wildlings out, is its raison d’être.
The purpose of the Watch
The World of Ice and Fire gives us some more background to the Night’s Watch than the main books in ASOIAF. The Watch was formed was “born in the aftermath of the Long Night,” after something spooked the First Men, children of the forests and “even the giants, if we can believe the singers” to build the Wall. While TWOIAF and it’s “author” Maester Yandel cast doubt on the existence of the Others, we readers of ASOIAF know that these in-universe legends are true. We know that it is entirely stupid for the general population of Westeros to believe it when Maester Yandel says “if the Others ever existed, they have not been seen in thousands of years and are of no threat to men.”
Contrary to the view of Maester Yandel, and the majority of the Watch that we meet, the wildlings or Free Folk who live Beyond the Wall are not the primary threat from the Northern wastes to Westeros, and are definitely not the reason the Watch was formed.
So what was the Long Night? Time for some Westerosi history.
The land that is now Westeros was once occupied by the Children of the Forest. The Children deal with an invading colonial force: the First Men, who were moving from the lands of Essos and beyond into this new land.
What follows next is a relatively familiar tale to anyone with a passing knowledge of Indigenous issues: invading people spread out, take lands, destroy sacred sites (for the Children, this was the weirwood trees) and generally overwhelm the indigenous population. When the Children found themselves in this position, there was a meeting of leaders from the First Men (who were also tired of fighting) and the Children, on the Isle of Faces or God’s Eye. Here the Pact of First Men was reached: the Children would retreat from the lands of Westeros everywhere but for the deep forests, and the First Men would no longer cut down the weirwoods.
Then came the Age of Heroes, the history of which is now a matter of legend and song rather than factual analysis. It’s unclear if Brandon the Builder, Garth Greenhand, Symeon Star-Eyes and the like were actual historical figures, or an amalgamation of key leaders of the First Men and the new colonists, the Andals. There are sufficiently consistent legends across Westeros’ Seven Kingdoms and beyond, into the Rhoyne, Asshai and Valyria that the Long Night occurred, when a season of winter was so forceful and so long that all the lands were dark and cold, and the Others came.
Yet there are other tales – harder to credit and yet more central to the old histories – about creatures known as the Others. According to these tales, they came from the frozen Land of Always Winter, bringing the cold and darkness with them as they sought to extinguish all light and warmth.
From TWOIAF it’s clear that the Citadel is now trying to pretend that the Long Night was just an exceptionally long and difficult winter. Yet their attempts to science the shit out of the legends doesn’t account for the similarity in stories across Westeros and beyond about the coming of the Others, the extent of the cold and the Last Hero. Plus, we know from current events in ASOIAF that the Others actually exist and are coming south, bringing an undead army of reanimated corpses with them! So let’s assume that everything that Yandel says is ‘fanciful legend’ is actually true.
So how did it end?
In Asshai, they speak of a hero that fought against the darkness with a red sword, Lightbringer, forged from plunging it into his lover Nissa Nissa: Azor Ahai. The belief that Azor Ahai will come again is a core part of the Red Priest’s worship of R’hllor, as seen through Melisandre and her false prophet Stannis.
In Yi Ti, the people believe that “the sun hid its face from the earth for a lifetime, ashamed at something none could discover, and that disaster was averted only by the deeds of a woman with a monkey’s tail.”
Amongst the Rhoynar they believe that the darkness which made the Rhoyne “dwindle and disappear, her waters frozen as far south as the joining of the Selhoru” was defeated by the many children of Mother Rhoyne gathering together to sing a secret song that “brought back the day.”
But the most likely, given what we know about Bran, Bloodraven, the Children of the Forest and the Night’s Watch, is the tale told in the North:
… a last hero who sought out the intercession of the children of the forest, his companions abandoning him or dying one by one as they faced ravenous giants, cold servants and the Others themselves. Alone he finally reached the children, despite the efforts of the white walkers, and all the tales agree this was a turning point. Thanks to the children, the first men of the Night’s Watch banded together and were able to fight – and win – the Battle for the Dawn: the last battle that broke the endless winter and sent the Others fleeing to the icy north. Now, six thousand years later… the Wall made to defend the realms of men is still manned by the sworn brothers of the Night’s Watch, and neither the Others nor the children have been seen in many centuries.
(Side note: how much like Bran’s journey in S 5-6 does “his companions abandoning him or dying one by one…” sound?!)
What did the Children do? No idea. Maybe if the books deal with the origins of the Others in the same way as the show, they were able to do some magic to order the Others to return to the Land of Always Winter? Or perhaps the Last Hero, whether he was Brandon the Builder or Azor Ahai, was able to kill the head Other with Lightbringer, and that made the Others retreat? Or did the Last Hero just reach a truce with the Others, the terms of which are long forgotten, and their re-emergence now is because the First Men of the North have failed to keep up their side of the bargain?
Whatever happened to end the Long Night, we can at least be certain from this history that the primary purpose for the Night’s Watch is to “protect the realm of men” from the Others. Not the wildlings.
(Another side note: SAFARI STOP AUTOCORRECTING WILDLINGS TO WILLINGS! ARGH!)
If the Watch was founded to protect men from the Others, why the celibacy?
Some time ago, there was a big discussion on /r/asoiaf about whether the text of the Night’s Watch oath has changed over time. (I planned to link to it, but do you think I can find it? If I do find it later on, I’ll edit this post and provide a link, because it was quite an interesting discussion.)
Basically, a bunch of us on reddit were figuring out what parts of the Night’s Watch oath were from the original, Last Hero era, and what parts were from the experience of the 13th Lord Commander, the Night’s King.
Who? This guy:
History time again: the 13th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch married a female Other, and declared himself the Night’s King. He ruled from the Nightfort, once the head castle of the Night’s Watch, and committed various atrocities during his 13 year reign, including making sacrifices to the Others. Eventually, the then King of Winter, Brandon “the Breaker” Stark, joined forces with Joramun, King Beyond The Wall, to bring down the Night’s King. Old Nan insists to Bran that the Night’s King was a Stark, and brother to the King of Winter. After his defeat, all records of the Night’s King and all Lords Commander of the Night’s Watch before him were destroyed, so that his name would be forgotten. The legend however has lived on.
The TV show has created a Great Other character that they are calling the Night’s King, but we do not yet know if this is what GRRM intends to do in the books. I doubt it, given that GRRM has said “As for the Night’s King (the form I prefer), in the books he is a legendary figure, akin to Lann the Clever and Brandon the Builder, and no more likely to have survived to the present day than they have.”
Part of the adjusted conditions of the Night’s Watch after the fall of the Night’s King is that the Watch was not allowed to build fortified walls to the south of their castles – in other words, they were prohibited from setting themselves up in defendable castles. They had to be vulnerable to attack from the South, to avoid any Lord Commander going rogue like the Night’s King in the future. This led a bunch of us on reddit to speculate that some of the Night’s Watch oath were added after the experience of the Night’s King, specifically the portions about chastity and not being beholden to any other cause than the Watch:
I shall take no wife, hold no lands and father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.
All of this seems really connected to the story of the Night’s King: a Watch man who took a wife, held Watch lands as his own, and presumably fathered children that he gave to the Others (just as Craster does in ACOK.) He wore his crown and he wanted to win his own glory – not the purpose of the Watch.
So if we take out those parts of the Watch oath, and ignore the fatalistic tone of “I shall live and die at my post” (seriously guys…. the Night’s Watch could have solved all of their recruitment issues if Westeros had a compulsory national service set up, where every noble man had to serve 5 years on the Wall, and staying was optional!) what are we left with, at its core?
I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realm of men.
These words are not chosen at random.
The Last Hero wielded his sword against the darkness brought by the Others’ in the Battle for the Dawn, and it may well have been called Lightbringer if the Azor Ahai legend is true. He and the other founding Night’s Watch men stood guard on the newly constructed Wall, which was built as a physical and magical barrier against the Others’ march south. As Jon Snow found out when protecting Lord Commander Jeor Mormont from the wights that were once men of the Watch, fire kills the Others and their wights. And the Free Folk marshalled under Mance Rayder, King Beyond The Wall, spent their time before ACOK looking for the Horn of Joramun, which is said to be able to bring down the Wall itself.
The Night’s Watch was formed as an almost sacred order, like the Green Men that guard the Isle of Faces where the Pact of the First Men & Children of the Forest was made. But over time they have forgotten why they were formed. The real threat out there Beyond The Wall is not the wildlings, they’re just people. The reason the Night’s Watch and the Wall exist is to protect the realm of men from the Others.
(I have no idea why they decided on the celibacy outside of marriage. Except that it’s a really poor marketing strategy.)
But Jon Snow broke his vows!
In his tenure as Lord Commander of the struggling Watch, Jon makes a lot of really tough decisions. We know, as omniscient readers, that decisions like letting the wildlings through the Wall, or sending a team to Hardhome to gather the wildlings that fled to Mother Mole are objectively The Right Thing To Do, because we know that a) the wildlings aren’t the enemy; and b) corpses north of the Wall can be converted into wight soldiers for the Others as they progress south.
Jon’s biggest problem as a leader is communication. He never got the rest of the Watch on side for his fairly radical plans. And this is what leads to For The Watch: Bowen Marsh and a group of others take advantage of the chaos caused by Wun Wun the giant going apeshit to stab Jon in the back: literally. (In this show, this is changed to Olly and Aliser Thorne, and instead of Wun Wun tearing one of Selyse’s southern knights apart from attempting to woo Val, we have Olly falsely reporting a Benjen sighting to get Jon out in the open.)
I’m going to focus on the books, because that’s what I’m more familiar with.
Jon’s major controversial decisions that come back to bite him:
- he distances his friends from him, by sending Sam to the Citadel, and others to other Watch castles, because he needs people he trusts in those locations. Downside? He’s left surrounded by people who don’t trust him, don’t like him, and are looking for an excuse to rebel against him. Remember, this is the Night’s Watch that survived the mutiny at the Fist of First Men. They have form for killing their Lord Commander.
- he sends Mance Rayder on a mission to Winterfell to save “Arya” (not knowing that the Arya Ramsay Bolton is wedding is not actually Arya, but Jeyne Poole.) Jon is knowingly getting involved in the politics of the ‘realms of men’ for personal reasons. There is no benefit to the Watch for Arya Stark being rescued from the Boltons – it can only bring them a ton of trouble.
- he lets Stannis Baratheon stay at the Wall and even gives him the Nightfort to set up as his own royal castle – remember the story of the Night’s King, mentioned above? Where was the Night’s King based? Yeah. Nothing good could come of that. The southern armies cared nothing for the Others, and saw the wildlings as the enemy, plus now the under-resourced Watch has more mouths it needs to feed. And Jon is constantly juggling the fine line of respect for Stannis and his queen Selyse, and wanting to tell them to piss off with their unreasonable demands (like burning the weirwoods for R’hllor.)
- he arranges a political marriage between Alys Karstark and Sigornn, the Magnar (chief) of the Thenn, a reasonably civilised clan of the wildlings (not the cannibals -I used to get them confused!), to help Alys escape a forced marriage to her cousin, who wants to marry her in order to claim the Karstark lands. Here, Jon is directly interfering in the affairs of the realms of men – something explicitly forbidden by his Watch oath!
- Jon also gives Stannis Baratheon battle advice before Stannis sets off to reclaim Winterfell from the Boltons, advising Stannis on how to bring the Northern houses to his side, and where the best strategic locations are for any battle to occur.
- and the biggest one of all as far as the xenophobic Watch are concerned: he bargains with Tormund Giantsbane, allowing the wildlings south of the Wall, and able to pitch their camp in the New Gift, effectively setting up a new settlement in Northern lands without the permission of the Warden of the North. In exchange, Jon wants the wildlings to be prepared to fight when the Others come – and to be under the command of the Watch, or more specifically him. But this also means that Jon has unwittingly become that next King Beyond The Wall. People have been predicting for years that this will mean that after being resurrected he will ride on Winterfell with a wildling army. S6 is delivering on that one! The wildlings have very clearly followed Jon: the man to whom they pledged their allegiance, and the one that they believe is capable of leading them in the Battle for the Dawn 2.0.
It’s this last one that really comes back to bite Jon.
Yes, bringing the wildlings south is the right thing to do. The Free Folk fear the coming winter, they know that the Others are moving south, they know that it’s not safe in their traditional homes and nomadic hunting grounds, that’s why they attacked the Wall in ACOK – to get to safety. For the wildlings, it was never about gaining control of the Watch, or invading the South. It was about safety. Winter is coming – the real winter, the Others. It’s time to get on the other side of that gigantic magical wall of protection.
But for thousands of years, the Night’s Watch have seen the wildlings as the enemy. Too many years have gone past, the Night’s Watch are as guilty as the rest of Westeros of forgetting about the Others. So instead they deal with the immediate, tangible threat: wildlings raiders, who pillage Northern homesteads for food, crops, women and horses.
Jon does not communicate his thoughts about why he needs to bring the wildlings south adequately. Yes, he tries to tell the Watch that they need people to fight against the Others – but this remnant of the Watch is basically what was left behind after the Great Ranging went out at the end of AGOT. Most of the Rangers who went North with Lord Commander Mormont died. A few escaped, like Sam, but the majority of those who remained at Castle Black still do not believe that the Others are coming.
Jon, somewhat understandably, just doesn’t have any patience for this. These Watchmen have seen two of their brothers come back from the dead and attack Lord Commander Mormont. They have heard their sworn brothers who survived the Fist of First Men, and the wildlings who have been dealing with the Others for longer, tell them about the Others and the wights. But they don’t believe. It is easier to deal with the “known threat” north of the Wall – the stinky, lawless wild people – than it is to accept that a mythical evil is re-emerging in the world. The Watch, like everyone else, have forgotten what the Starks mean with “winter is coming.” It’s not about the season: it’s about the threat that comes in the cold.
So yeah, when you list it like that, Jon did a lot of things in his tenure as Lord Commander that broke his vows as a man of the Night’s Watch to stay out of the politics of the Seven Kingdoms, and to defend Westeros from all people and things North of the Wall.
But if you look more broadly, everything Jon does is about supporting the Night’s Watch. He desperately need more men, and properly trained men at that. Stannis shows up on his doorstep with a well regulated army – sweet! Tormund says the wildlings, that Jon knows can fight (even if they are poorly disciplined) and know about the Others, they’re also willing to fight for him. Double sweet!
The majority of Jon’s decisions, particularly those involving Stannis and the wildlings are definitely utilitarian. Other decisions are more personal, particularly sending Mance and the spear wives to Winterfell, and then his reaction to the Pink Letter. I’ll discuss those in a minute.
Utilitarian reasoning: the best outcome for the most people
Utilitarianism is the belief that the right moral decision is the one that “maximises utility,” with utility being defined in a variety of ways according to the context of the situation, but generally as the maxim the greatest happiness (or wellness) for the greatest number. It is a legal positivist approach to law and policy making: the state should make decisions that maximise the utility of the majority of its citizens.
Westeros hasn’t really caught up to legal positivism yet though. They’re still plodding through natural law theory, stating that certain things must be done because the gods will it, and taking ethical and legal direction from the learned folk of the Citadel, and in the South the teachings of the Seven. However there are some hints of legal positivism: the grounds for Robert’s Rebellion were that Aerys II was too cruel and capricious, and had broken the trust between people and king – this is basically Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan in action. When “the sovereign behaves so badly that he risks himself undermining the very basis for having government in the first place, the only apparent limitation on the political sovereign rests on the primary assumption which led the contracting parties [i.e. nobles and small folk] to transfer their power to the sovereign in the first place: their fear of death.” (Augusto Zimmermann, Western Legal Theory: History, Concepts and Perspectives pp 61-62)
In other words, if the king is more likely to kill you or throw you in prison for nothing than protect you, as was the case with Aerys, then the nobles (and small folk, following along behind them) are entitled to revoke their social contract and overthrow the monarchy.
Jon’s leadership is of a different sort: further down the legal positivist spectrum. He’s at the point of Jeremy Bentham, the first philosopher to write about utilitarianism. “Bentham aspired to investigate human action in accordance with a ‘calculus of felicity,’ which is a calculus of pleasures and pains by which happiness can be weighted by purely quantitative terms.” (Zimmermann, p 65)
Jon is looking at the bigger picture: the Others are coming. The wildlings want to be safe. That’s why Mance Rayder leads the Free Folk to assault the Wall in ACOK-ASOS. They are fleeing the Others, aiming to get south of the Wall to safety. It’s ultimately why Tormund and Val are able to convince the remaining Free Folk to pledge fealty to Jon Snow – they know what the stakes are north of the Wall, and they want to get the hell out of there.
Jon has spent time north of the Wall, and has faced the Others and the wildlings in combat. Unlike Bowen Marsh and the men of the Watch who remained at Castle Black when the Great Ranging went out to find out what the hell was going on, he knows the stakes that they are playing with here. Winter is coming. Not in the “hey boys, it’s getting a bit chilly,” sense, but in the gathering doom and killer frost sense of the Others and the Long Night v2.
So Jon has to weigh up the best option for the most amount of people. He needs people able to defend the Wall from the Others. He knows that the pitiful remains of the Watch aren’t enough, and Stannis has his own agenda – he can’t count on the men of House Baratheon’s armies to be the only line of defence Westeros has against the Others. So he makes his choice: bring the wildlings south, and get them to fight with the Watch.
This means that more people survive the Others, and the Wall has a better chance of being defended. Right?
But then he makes another choice: he wants to save the wildlings that followed Mother Mole to Hardhome. He and Tormund know that there is no rescue waiting for them there, at best they’ll be captured by slavers and taken to Essos. At worst… they’ll be wight-ed by the Others and used as a weapon in the Long Night.
Was it the best utilitarian decision to send a humanitarian mission to Hardhome? No. The Watch, even bolstered by the wildlings and Stannis’ men, could not afford to lose fit, fighting soldiers on a hopeless cause. The only shred of a utilitarian argument here is that by saving the masses at Hardhome, even if they only go to burn their bodies, the Watch can prevent hundreds of wildling corpses from being used against them later on.
But the potential reward in this instance doesn’t justify the risk. This is a poor utilitarian decision, driven by Jon’s desperation to save as many people as he can. For all of his leadership faults, Jon is a caring and compassionate man. He wants to help the wildlings save themselves. He wants to defend Westeros, Seven Kingdoms who all sneer at him because of his bastard birth, against an evil that they don’t believe in, because it is objectively the right thing to do. Jon lacks the maturity and experience to make the tough decision that they have to leave the wildlings at Hardhome to their own fate.
He’s spreading the Watch too thin, straining tensions in an already tense atmosphere. But above all, Jon compounds his leadership problems by not communicating his bigger picture clearly. He just tells the Watch that it’s happening. He makes a vague attempt to explain things, but doesn’t really manage to persuade the For The Watch-ers to see the bigger picture. That’s his biggest mistake.
The final straw: the Pink Letter
The final straw for Jon and the Watch (in the books) is the Pink Letter.
Recap: Jon is sent a letter, purportedly from Ramsay Bolton (but possibly authored by someone else?) that says
Your false king is dead, bastard. He and all his host were smashed in seven days of battle. I have his magic sword. Tell his red whore.
Your false king’s friends are dead. Their heads upon the walls of Winterfell. Come see them, bastard. Your false king lied, and so did you. You told the world you burned the King-Beyond-the-Wall. Instead you sent him to Winterfell to steal my bride from me.
I will have my bride back. If you want Mance Rayder back, come and get him. I have him in a cage for all the north to see, proof of your lies. The cage is cold, but I have made him a warm cloak from the skins of the six whores who came with him to Winterfell.
I want my bride back. I want the false king’s queen. I want his daughter and his red witch. I want this wildling princess. I want his little prince, the wildling babe. And I want my Reek. Send them to me, bastard, and I will not trouble you or your black crows. Keep them from me, and I will cut out your bastard’s heart and eat it.
Ramsay Bolton, Trueborn Lord of Winterfell
Now, a reasonable response for Jon to have in front of the Watch and the wildlings who now consider him their leader would have been something like “hey guys: we need a united North behind us if we want to have any hope in hell of defending the Wall when the Others come. I mean, that’s why Stannis took his army and rode for Winterfell. Now I get this letter that say Stannis failed spectacularly and I dunno if you know this or not but the Boltons like to FLAY PEOPLE ALIVE. For shits and giggles. And they currently have my little sister, except that Ramsay Snow now thinks that I have Arya, which I don’t, and he wants me to return his Reek and I don’t even know what the fuck that is…. THIS GUY IS A TOTAL MANIAC AND WE HAVE TO STOP HIM SO THAT WE ARE NOT FIGHTING ON TWO FRONTS WHEN THE OTHERS GET HERE!”
Or something like that.
Ramsay is making outrageous demands (if it is Ramsay) and Jon cannot deliver on them. That means that Ramsay and the Bolton army are, as far as Jon knows, coming to Castle Black to fuck shit up. And that’s something that the Watch just can’t afford right now. If they fall to Ramsay Bolton, then there is nothing standing between the Others and Westeros.
Also the North is the only region in Westeros that still considers the Watch to be an honourable calling for a man. Many Northern houses have supplied the Watch with supplies and men for thousands of years. Jon needs to get the North back on side, even though he has let in the wildlings, who are despised by the Northerners. Jon needs the North organised, ready to supply the Watch, and ready to support the Watch militarily when the Others arrive. That means regaining control of Winterfell from the Boltons, in the immediate short term.
But Jon doesn’t communicate any of these valid strategic reasons to the Watch in the shield hall. He just says “this is personal now, I’m going to Winterfell. I know this is breaking my vows so I don’t command or even ask any of you to join me. But if you will, that’s great.” And then he gets For The Watch’ed immediately after the wildlings react with rapturous applause to his “let’s go wreck Ramsay” speech.
There are some decisions that Jon makes that are clearly personal, and have nothing to do with the bigger picture. Specifically:
- Sending Mance Rayder and six spearwives (sadly unnamed because who needs to know women characters in depth…. sorry. Very salty about misogyny at the moment in the wake of this.)
- Deciding to abandon his vows and ride out to meet Ramsay himself.
Yes, I have articulated above that Jon had good strategic reasons for wanting to tackle the threat of Ramsay
Snow Bolton, but this is a decision that has only a small amount of strategic thinking.
Put yourself in Jon’s shoes here.
Your uncle, Benjen, is missing presumed dead beyond the Wall, and you could do nothing.
Your father, Ned, died in King’s Landing, branded a traitor, and you could do nothing.
Your little brothers, Bran and Rickon, were killed by Theon Turncloak in Winterfell. (Yes – we know that they aren’t dead, but Jon doesn’t. As far as he knows, they’re dead.)
You probably didn’t mourn Catelyn Tully Stark much, as she was horrible to you throughout your life, but your dearly beloved brother Robb, DAKINGINDANORF was killed by Boltons and Freys at the Red Wedding, and you could do nothing.
You have no idea where Sansa is, and you thought Arya was dead too until you heard that “Arya Stark” (aka Jeyne Poole, but you don’t know that) was being married off to Ramsay Bolton, a known violent sadist.
Arya is possibly your only family left alive. Also, she’s the one that you were closest too. You risked your father’s wrath to give her a little sword, her Needle, as a parting present before you went to the Watch. You and her alone of all the Stark children look like Starks (*cough* Lyanna *cough*)
Wouldn’t you want to save her too?
Maester Aemon might have told you that you had to kill the boy so the man could live, and that duty is the death of love, but you still love your family and if she’s all that is left…
It’s poor leadership, poor decision making – but it’s entirely understandable.
First, Jon tried to do it sneakily – without technically breaching his Watch vows, by sending a man who is meant to be dead. I mean, the Watch vows don’t explicitly say “the Watch takes no part in the business of Westeros” but that is definitely how “I shall take no wife, hold no lands and father no children” is interpreted. You give yourself to the Night’s Watch, wholly, solely and forgo your familial ties. The idea here is that you cannot serve two masters: so you pick one, the Watch.
But then that fails, and Ramsay threatens the Watch. Jon has to decide whether to stay and wait for Ramsay to ride on Castle Black, or ride out and meet him (and in doing so find out what the hell has happened to ‘Arya’.)
Did Jon make the right decision here?
Was it strategically smart?
Was it emotionally understandable?
If Jon had communicated his ideas better, and the Night’s Watch of now really remembered their purpose (to defend the realm from the Others) then his controversial decisions might not have got him killed.
While he broke his vows in some respects, particularly in meddling with Northern politics and announcing his march on Ramsay Bolton, most of the decisions that the Watch felt were treasonous were actually made in the best interests of the Watch.
However Jon is also driven by strong emotions – he cares about people. He cares about the wildlings, he cares about the Watch, he cares about Westeros, and above all he cares about his family.
It’s just that he’s not meant to care about his family as a man of the Night’s Watch.