The extraordinary thing—and also the alarming thing—about the hasty withdrawal of Prince Harry from his front-line duties in Afghanistan is the way in which everybody seems to assume that it was the only right thing to do. It was all very well, apparently, for the junior of the two royal princes to share in the risks and duties shouldered by his fellow soldiers in the Household Cavalry, yet not for a moment longer than his valor could be kept a secret. At that point, he was supposed to make a rapid exit and take his valor with him.
Just examine the nonlogic that supposedly underlies this decision. Once young Harry’s presence in the southern Afghan province of Helmand became known, it has been argued, he and his unit would at once become “bullet magnets” for the Taliban/al-Qaida alliance. Thus, to keep him in the field, when it was known that he actually was in the field, would be to endanger both him and his comrades in arms. What piffle this is. Helmand province is (now that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has so briskly evacuated most of Basra) one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a member of the British armed forces. Every British soldier, and indeed civilian, in the region is by definition a “bullet magnet” for the fundamentalists. But there is no reason to think that these nasty elements would, or no less importantly that they could, bring any extra firepower to bear because they thought that a Windsor princeling might be in the offing. In any case, absent day-to-day press and TV coverage of his movements in advance (an option suggested by no one), it is hard to see how the mere knowledge that a member of the British royal house was somewhere in Helmand province would be of any operational use at all to the other side. One might even surmise that the jihadists are not as obsessed with coverage of British royalty as is the international media.
Yet to the chief of the British defense staff, the marvelously named Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, it was somehow self-evident that the lad had to be evacuated from the scene—and with all speed at that—just as soon as Matt Drudge revealed not his whereabouts but his mere presence. So, now we have Buckingham Palace and the British defense staff going to panic stations on a Matt Drudge trigger. That this might look like a hugely advertised scuttle or a retreat—and thus be vastly encouraging to the Islamist gangsters who are trying to retake Helmand from the legitimate government of Afghanistan—seems to have occurred to nobody. We are apparently determined to act all the time as if the Islamists who blow up girls’ schools and destroy cell-phone towers and murder aid workers and vaccination teams are 10 feet tall. Only a few weeks ago, Condoleezza Rice paid a visit to Afghanistan that was not announced in advance and that saw her mostly confined to a few tiny enclaves on U.S. airbases. Are we certain that our obsession with “security” is not in fact making us insecure?
To take another not unimportant question: What is the point of deploying Prince Harry in the first place? Surely, it is at least partly to demonstrate that Britain’s hereditary rulers do not scorn to share dangers and rations with their soldiers and that an equality of sacrifice may be respected even if inherited inequalities are not thereby dissolved. Everybody gets this point. When Buckingham Palace was damaged during the Nazi bombardment of London, the queen mother is at least supposed to have said that she was glad of the hit because now she could look the blitzed docklands of the East End “in the face.” But perhaps I should now write that everybody used to get this point. The old imperatives are now replaced by newer and slicker ones, of PR and press management and “heightened security,” and it just wouldn’t make a story if the young man insisted on staying in the same trenches as his fellows. Many Americans ache with shame at the very few famous political-class names in our own front lines (among them a McCain). What if these deployments, too, were to be canceled as soon as they made print?
It might still be mentioned, though, as a word of encouragement, that young Harry himself said that he was “disappointed” in being hauled back so quickly, while members of his regiment told reporters that they were “gutted” to see him go. But silence there in the ranks! Do you want to become a bullet magnet? (Of course, if you don’t, you do always have the even more prudent option of not volunteering in the first place.) If this capitulation had involved his older brother, Prince William, the headline word might have been abdication.
Perhaps it’s wrong or trite for me to play for a little on the overlap between Prince Harry and Prince Hal/King Harry, England’s most celebrated martial monarch, but there’s more to it than just the banal coincidence of name. Until very recently, if you saw Harry’s name in a headline, it was because he’d been found facedown in yet another nightclub. His decision to transcend all that and to submit himself to the training and put on the uniform was, as the earlier Harry puts it so bluntly to Falstaff at the close of Henry IV, Part II, proof positive “that I have turned away my former self” and that his former riotous companions should “[p]resume not that I am the thing I was.” Having taken a fresh resolution and exchanged frivolity for the sterner forms of ardor, “Harry the King” is most often credited with the speech that Shakespeare awards him on the eve of Agincourt. Here, and speaking to those “which hath no stomach to this fight,” he warmly urges all faint-hearts to quit at once because “[w]e would not die in that man’s company/ That fears his fellowship to die with us.” He famously ends by speaking of the “few” and “the band of brothers.” This much-overdone scene of bombast is nothing, I find, to the understated words in which Henry has already replied to Montjoy, arrogant herald of the French monarch, in Act III, Scene VI:
The sum of all our answer is but this:
We would not seek a battle as we are;
Nor, as we are, we say, we will not shun it.
I am not a monarchist (and I have a soft spot for Falstaff and no liking for imperial expeditions in search of enlarged Plantagenet kingdoms), but Shakespearean virtues can also be republican and democratic ones in the face of theocracy and tyranny. Anyway, they make for much better reading than the media-conscious calculations of British officials and politicians who seem determined to cry before they have even been hurt.