The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

April 29th, 2007

How foolish to let Harry play soldiers

If Harry were to go to Iraq and be captured, he would be lucky to lose only his ears.

‘We are awaiting the arrival of the young handsome spoilt prince with bated breath and we confidently expect he will come out into the open on the battlefield. We will be generous with him. For we will return him to his grandmother but without ears.”

This might sound like some savage medieval fairy story, or primitive warrior saga. Unfortunately, it is all too contemporary and all too real. It is the very recent threat of Abu Zaid, commander of the Malik Ibn Al Ashtar brigade of the Shi’ite Mahdi Army militia in Iraq, promising what his men will do to Prince Harry if he goes with his regiment to fight in their country.

Actually if Harry were to go to Iraq, and be captured by one of the many armed factions openly after his blood and his name, he would be very lucky to lose only his ears. He would be much more likely to lose his head, horribly and publicly, on footage seen repeatedly all over the world, across the internet, after weeks or months of public humiliation and torture.

Meanwhile the most terrible questions of ransoms and trade-offs would be endlessly debated, to the shame and alarm of the British and their allies, and to the joy of Islamist extremists all over the world.

The effect would be desperately inflammatory all round; symbols have great power, particularly in unsophisticated cultures – this red-haired, blue-eyed, hard-living young man is a prince of the kufr, the unbelievers, and the decadent West to many, and to others his capture would be a mad Muslim atrocity too far – and it is extremely likely that Harry’s ears (if not his head) would be the casus belli of a much wider and even more terrifying conflict than the one going on now. Already Harry’s photographs are being circulated in Iraq and bounties being promised: this is a disaster waiting to happen.

The top brass of the British armed forces are clearly useless at public relations – the recent fiasco over the naval hostages in Iran is proof of that – but you might have thought that even they would have spotted something so glaringly obvious: the risk – high or low, and in this case very high – that Harry might be captured in Iraq is, and always was, absolutely unacceptable. He should never have been allowed for an instant to think he would be allowed to go.

That is clearly very hard on him, of course. He wants to act like any other professional soldier, and take just the same risks and show just as much courage, which no doubt he would.

But Harry can never be like any other soldier; he was born to a symbolic role, whether he likes it or not. I simply cannot imagine why General Sir Richard Dannatt, the chief of the general staff, ignored this obvious and inescapable fact when he decided so inexplicably last year that Harry should be allowed to go to Iraq, and why even now he is dithering about changing his mind.

Harry has supposedly said he is not afraid to die, and there is no reason to doubt his courage. But death is not the worst thing in a very dirty war, either for him or for his country.

The risk of his capture is not the only problem, though by itself it is quite enough to keep him at home. There is also the extreme and exceptional risk to any men serving with him. That ought also to have been obvious to the top brass from the day Harry enlisted, and indeed before then.

Last Friday the front page headline of The Times, above a picture of soldiers bringing home a coffin from Iraq, was “Dry run attack forces Prince Harry retreat”. Senior army officers say they believe a fatal attack last week on two British soldiers in Iraq was a rehearsal for an attempt on Harry’s life.

The attack was made on a Scimitar reconnaissance vehicle, which is the type of vehicle Harry will use, in a part of the country where he will serve. If army sources are right in their fears that insurgents are well-enough informed to target Harry and his troops so precisely in this way, then the prince’s men are at especially high risk, as well as the prince himself. He cannot want that, and nor can their senior officers or their families.

And it is and always was so very obviously the problem with letting the poor boy go. His loyalty to his men alone should keep him home, to keep them (rather than himself) out of exceptional danger. The hard truth is that they would be safer under another officer, as would their entire base and the whole military endeavour in Iraq.

The problem began when Harry was encouraged, or allowed, to think, under General Sir Mike Jackson, that he could be a real soldier – I’m not sure that Prince William ever was. No matter how well Harry and his brother did at Sandhurst, no matter how great their officer potential, no matter how inspiring their courage or their leadership, they could never have hoped to do anything more than playing at soldiers, for all the resoundingly obvious reasons.

You have only to think of the horrifying videos of Ken Bigley, or the draped coffin of Corporal Ben Leaning, killed in the supposed “dry run” attack. The fact that Prince Andrew was allowed to serve in the Falklands war is irrelevant; the circumstances were entirely different, and in any case he shouldn’t have gone. If Harry was too young to appreciate that, his senior officers certainly were not.

It is perhaps the greatest hardship of being born royal, or at least a senior member of the royal family; it means being not as others are. It means leading not a real life, but a ritual life, for much of the time; it means both the loss of freedom and responsibility, very often.

It is a hard lot, in that sense, as Harry must be finding, and as his father has clearly so often felt. It is not easy, under such constraints to find a role that is personally satisfying, however much one might believe that the royal role is worth playing. Those many people who believe that the monarchy has served us well and is well worth preserving, ought perhaps to spare a thought for the personal cost to its members, and allow them to enjoy the privileges of their position, however spoilt they might sometimes seem – since they are forced, whether they like it or not, to endure its pain.