A prince appears to have killed an enemy in battle. When Prince Harry was asked on television whether “if called upon, you will fire, and presumably you have and will kill the enemy?” Prince Harry said: “Yeah, so lots of people have … everyone’s fired a certain amount.” Question and answer might seem ambiguous, but the tabloids went berserk. The remark was no more than a confirmation of what the co-pilot of an attack helicopter is required to do. But was it wise even to hint at killing?
The now ritualised skirmish between the media and the royal family took a new twist with the staged documentary about ‘Captain Wales’ at Helmand’s Camp Bastion, broadcast on Monday. It had been conceded if it was kept secret until he was on his way home. Whether the risk was worth taking depends on what was the gain. Drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan have created a generation of Pashtuns, inflamed with a desire for revenge against Nato and its members. Why the ministry of defence should encourage the prince to put himself so blatantly in those sights is a mystery, having so fastidiously protected him from duty in 2007.
The prince came across as a plausible and committed young man, but shaking the bars of his gilded cage in frustration. He wants to pursue his chosen career out of the public eye, and is infuriated by the “rubbish” media. There were frequent flashes of his mother in the interview, explicit in references to the “rubbish” press. Prince Harry seemed a red-blooded, “non-grad” — non-graduate — officer, often “more soldier than prince”. The performance was a good advertisement for himself and his profession.
The prince clearly indicated that the interview was not his idea. He was far from home, tired and on operational duty. It is hard to see why it was a deal worth risking. Camp Bastion is a wholly protected military environment, unlike being on patrol. The episode looks suspiciously like an effort by the army to dab glamour on its ailing Helmand campaign, and by the prince’s minders for an antidote to last year’s Las Vegas debacle. It may have worked in the short term, but in the long?
Glorifying “wars of choice” as reruns of great 20th century combats has been a depressing, and ominous, feature of the end of the cold war. As the threat of nuclear disaster retreats, old ambitions and fantasies, interests and bravados surface in western democracies, notably Britain and America. The politics of fear fuel a craving for conflict. The global policeman’s megaphone is brought down from the attic, and embattled politicians dress up as statesmen, their opponents shamed to silence.
There is long tradition of swashbuckling royals, from the Black Prince, Prince Rupert and George II to the relative safety on board ship of the sailors William IV and George V. They mostly date from times when it was the monarchy that needed a bit of glamour from war, rather than war needing glamour from monarchy, as now.
The decision in the 1960s to convert the British monarchy from a constitutional device to a “royal family” seemed progressive at the time. It turned an anthropomorphic headship of state into a bizarre collective of celebrities, at times almost a parody of soap opera. It put family members in the spotlight, and consequently under stress. Being “in line to the throne” acquired an aura, and commanded a security that seemed pointless. The essence of a line is substitutability. No other European monarchy followed suit.
The result was a dozen or so young royals with nothing in particular to do. The services offered a rare solution. Business, banking and diplomacy were thought too controversial. The Prince of Wales was ridiculed even for dabbling in organic farming. The princes were almost all expected to serve in the armed forces, not for presumed martial efficiency but for their symbolic role as collective heads of state. In the peaceful last half of the 20th century, a military career seemed harmless, and politically safe.
However hard it may seem on the young people involved, the essence of the headship of state is not just its impartiality but its impersonality. Prince Harry may shine as a soldier and as an articulate spokesman for his cause, but he cannot avoid the political significance of his role. He was right to say he preferred reticence.
Britain’s new belligerence has made royal service less safe, but that in turn has made it seem heroic and glamorous. And that has led the princes William and Harry — both are in this bind — into the realm of controversy. They are serving officers whose freedom to “serve” is in some degree compromised by security. They are also pawns in a serious political game.
Harry has been used to dust with celebrity a wretched and senseless war of choice, one that should never have been fought. Even were it necessary, modern conflict should be a strictly professional affair, never a theatre for personal celebrity. War is the grimmest and most banal remedy for the world’s ill. It should be kept as such.