The news that the British media—perhaps the world’s most ferociously unscrupulous—kept Prince Harry’s presence in Afghanistan a secret for ten weeks shocked the world. But as soon as the story broke, he was pulled off the front lines and sent home.
Why? Why shouldn’t Harry be allowed to finish his tour, and return when the men he served with do?
These days, the press treats royals like movie stars, mobbing them with paparazzi and analyzing their every nightclub-outing or fashion faux pas. Accordingly, Harry’s service in Afghanistan has been talked about as if it were one of Bush’s ersatz military photo-ops, or Angelina Jolie’s U.N. diplomacy—that is, as if it were an indulgence of celebrity.
But Harry is not a celebrity. He is simply a prince, a man who is descended from people who conquered other people. Nor is he a dilettante. He is a soldier: a Sandhurst graduate, a cornet in the Household Cavalry. His deployment is no stunt, no postmodern exercise in seeming. War is what European monarchs do—it has been Harry’s family business from Hastings to the Falklands. The front lines are where he belongs.
Supposedly, Harry has been withdrawn from Afghanistan to ensure his safety. God forbid he should be killed in action—but is his life really more valuable than those of his fellow soldiers? Yes, he is third in line to the throne—but he is hardly irreplaceable. Under the 1701 Act of Settlement, any of Electress Sophia’s heirs who are not Catholic and have not married a Catholic may rule. And there are hundreds of them. Queens have been good for the UK—how about #9 on the list, Louise Windsor? Or #32, Burberry model Freddie Windsor? Tired of Windsors? Try #480, India Hicks. No doubt they are all sufficiently competent in hand-waving and ribbon-cutting to handle the job.
The royal family has broken with standard press decorum to speak out against the withdrawal’s absurdity, calling it a “frustration” (Charles) and a “shame” (Harry). Perhaps Gordon Brown’s government is behind it. The Bush/Blair wars are, after all, even more politically toxic in Britain than in America; in the next general election, they may prove crucial in bringing the newly-resurgent Tories out of their decade in the wilderness. Brown wants to go down in the books as more than a lame-duck prime minister—he needs a win of his own. And the death of Harry—good-looking, Diana’s son, and generally a mensch—in Blair’s Middle Eastern misadventure would have been a PR nightmare—and perhaps the last nail in New Labor’s coffin.