Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Outlaw Captain Wales

The British papers today were predictably dominated by the news that Prince Hal has killed for his country, though I don't imagine this involved hand-to-hand combat. As a fully-paid-up hearty, I suspect he fancies himself as a cross between Jason Bourne and Jonny Wilkinson (with killer thumbs, honed by Xbox), but as was made plain by the previous decision not to allow him anywhere near Iraq, the consequences of him being killed or captured by an enemy are simply too great to allow him to be put in any real danger. It's also safe to assume that for all the banter about "my guys", the average grunt sees him as a bomb magnet and would be keen to keep their distance. Of course, the guys he is actually spending most of his time with are the royal protection squad, not other helicopter crew members. Given the prevalence of suicide attacks by renegade Afghan soldiers and police, you can bet he's not been anywhere near the locals either. Afghanistan has probably been no more dangerous than a Scottish grouse moor in August.

The happy coincidence of the prince being scrambled midway through a TV interview, with press photographers handily placed to snap him sprinting towards his helicopter, does not appear to have prompted any scepticism (why would you schedule an interview while on standby, i.e. in the middle of a work shift, when you could do it off-shift?) The coincidence of the release of the upbeat interview and the downbeat announcement of more defence cuts seems to have been ignored as well. It should be obvious that the event was as stage-managed and artificial as the entire "tour of duty". That last phrase pretty well sums up the propaganda purpose. The prince is there to boost morale and to provide justification for the folks back home, though the "sell" doesn't rise above the traditional appeal to team loyalty: "If there's people trying to do bad stuff to our guys, then we'll take them out of the game, I suppose ... Take a life to save a life". That last comment opens up questions about the equivalence of different lives, though no journalist appears keen to engage the prince in moral debate.

The media have generally trod carefully. This is understandable, not just in terms of the rules of the embedded game, which have been well-established since the first Iraq war, but in light of Leveson and the prince's own what-happens-in-Vegas moment (he amusingly says "I probably let myself down, I let my family down, I let other people down", as if he were repeating the classic headmaster's dressing down after the rugger team's antics got out of hand). There is probably also some residual guilt at work here, though not much, based on the media's contribution to the death of his mother. The salutary truth is that royals are more at risk of dying through the attentions of the press and their subcontractors than they are at the hands of the Taliban.

In decoding this spectacle, the real importance, I think, is the nature of the military role and hardware that has been allotted to the prince. From the Glorious Revolution to the Victorian era, the royals typically served (nominally) in the socially elite regiments of the army. Starting with the future George V, the younger royals took commissions in the navy, which reflected the strategic importance of that service during the peak years of empire and the Dreadnought arms race with Germany before WW1. The Royal Navy continued to be the service of choice during the 20th century, influenced by Prince Philip, who saw real action before joining the family firm, though the post-WW2 shift to air power was reflected in the hybrid "careers" of both Charles and Andrew, both of whom ended up flying helicopters. Ships were also ideal propaganda vehicles in the era of total war, the microcosm of society thrown together in common purpose of In Which We Serve and The Cruel Sea.

Helicopters are the ideal setting for a modern royal. You can indulge your Apocalypse Now and Top Gun fantasies (those aviator shades), while also implying your job is mainly search and rescue missions, even selfless civilian support. Helicopters are fluffier than jet fighters and bombers, which tend to deliver death-from-above more bluntly. Royals don't get the latest and greatest hardware, because that tends to be more obviously about killing people efficiently. Thus Harry isn't going to remotely fly drones from an airfield in East Anglia any more than Charles or Andrew got to serve on nuclear submarines. The ideological purpose of the royal as warrior is both to link the interest of the nation with the pursuit of war, in an era when wars are politically calculated interventions rather than the necessary defence of the realm, and to justify the pretensions of the royal family to be servants of the nation, willing to sacrifice life and limb in return for nothing but glory and a place on the Civil List.

The irony is that Captain Wales's kinda-sorta admission that he's killed Talibani is rather infra dig as far as the Royals in uniform charade goes. You're not meant to draw attention to the fact that the key job responsibility of a soldier is killing people. You get the whiff of man-child bravado and perhaps a desire to be considered the edgier royal, the rogue operator. For all his claims to the contrary, I suspect he is pleased about Vegas, which sealed his reputation among his peers as a "top bloke". There's clearly a desire to not look like a wuss in manly company, hence the guff about adrenaline and the visible contempt for the (civilian) hacks, but there's also the suspicion that he struggles to distinguish between shooting at the natives below and zapping the bad guys on screen ("The game's afoot", as an earlier Prince Hal said). Given the need to both humour him and keep him out of harm's way, it may be that the damage he has done has been slighter than he'd care to admit, though you can forgive him for assuming more when every fusillade from his gunship is probably met with "Good shot, sir".

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