Prince Harry is being withdrawn from Afghanistan. But Britain stands a little taller in the world for two reasons. First, he went there – not on a PR visit, or to encourage the troops, but as a soldier. Second, as much as possible, the establishment kept it secret. There was no attempt to harness Harry’s military service for publicity purposes. At a time when, with the Diana inquest running, the establishment might have jumped for some good press (though, in fact, the spectacle of Al Fayed making his accusations has rather neutralised the whole thing), but, instead, it chose to do things discretely, protecting the lives of troops, protecting the integrity of Harry’s mission. Good for him, and good for them.
Anybody who thinks carefully about these issues can find lots of reasons why Harry shouldn’t have gone. It was a risk. It didn’t achieve a great deal, since he was only one officer, it handed a media coup to the papers willing to break the embargo. But forget all that. At an emotional, human level, someone who didn’t have to risk his life did so, because he wanted to. Because he is brave. Because he shares something with his comrades. Because he has the strength of will to go through with what he started.
What a stinging rebuke – all the more powerful for being unspoken, perhaps unintended – to George W Bush, who avoided going to Vietnam when others with less influence were forced to go, but later made great political capital of leading the free world into the endless quagmire of Iraq.
Do you have to agree with war to be impressed by Harry? No, you don’t. Actually, most people, including me, did support going to war in Afghanistan. It made military sense, it was a direct move against the powers that sponsored 9/11, and there were strong humanitarian reasons for doing so. But even if you didn’t support that war, you have to be impressed.
The royal family has been bruised, battered and (I would argue, by the media at least) badly treated in the last twenty years. In Britain we seem to take a savage delight in tearing down our national institutions. Let us all note: they have in them that which still inspires men and women.
Harry is returning from Afghanistan.
Britain stands a little taller in the world.
Let us then, for one week, forget our national cynicism, and give him a hero’s welcome — not because his life is worth more than another soldier’s, but because in welcoming him, we praise all those who risk their lives in far lands on our behalf.