BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 17:33 GMT, Friday, 7 March 2008

For Harry, this war was personal

Princes Harry, William and Charles

By Clive James

The Australian writer and broadcaster returns to ask who did Prince Harry go to war for - the Army, the Royal Family... or was it a rare chance to do something for himself?

The British royal princes are brought up with Shakespeare ringing in their ears like an alarm clock they can't turn off.

Though they might not get around to reading any of the other plays, Henry V is certainly one title that they can't escape. Henry V, known to his familiars as Harry, starts off as a scapegrace but proves his mettle on the battlefield.

If a prince's name actually happens to be Harry, the Shakespearean role model must be hard to get out of his mind, even if he is not much of a student.

Henry V features on a new range of stamps
Can Harry ever avoid the parallels with Shakespeare's Henry V?
Many a line in the play must sound like a prescription for conduct, with the possible exception of the one about "a little touch of Harry in the night," and even that one was said on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, where the young king was seen by all to have finally put his wastrel days behind him.

Whatever you think of Prince Harry's adventure in Afghanistan, you can see why he wanted to do it, and understand why he must have been disappointed when the eventual puncture to the press embargo cut the adventure short.

But for a while there, he was doing what he most dearly wanted. It's probably what most men want, early in their lives, even when the very idea frightens them.

Dr Johnson once said "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier".

It's not so much that men seek danger - any fool can do that - as that they feel guilty about not having been tested in mortal combat. There are things you don't know about life if you have never been faced with somebody who wants to shoot you.

I remember when I was doing national service in Australia and we had a spell of so-called "realistic training" when we had to lie down clinging to the open ground while bullets were passing low overhead. It was scary enough to actually hear the bullets ripping by.

But I couldn't help thinking even at the time that there was all the difference in the world between a machine gunner who was trying to hit me and this machine gunner, who was trying to miss me, and would probably have missed me even if I had stood up suddenly straight into the path of the bullets.

He was the best machine gunner in the Australian army and he had devoted all his skill for years on end to making sure that not a single mother's son ever got touched. I was grateful, but it did occur to me that the realistic training was unrealistic in a certain vital respect.

In the army I learned a lot of things that Harry has just learned. If you don't muck in, you will soon be left out. And there is no privacy in the army, for anybody. Sneak off to take a dump and all your mates will find you: it's practically a way of being rescued if you are lost in the desert.

But he learned one thing I know nothing about. He learned for sure how he would behave when the bullets were looking for him.

Prince Harry and girlfriend Chelsy Davy photographed at the cricket World Cup in 2007
With girlfriend Chelsy... this week the press were back on the couple's tail
The minute Harry got home he was in another kind of battle, which one way or another will go on for the rest of his life.

You can tell when people are serious about getting rid of the monarchy because they use the humanitarian argument, the argument that says nobody should be a prisoner of his birth. The royal children are born to be theorised about, and there is no getting out of it. To be subjects of press speculation is their destiny.

It must be a pestilential destiny to have. Suddenly the press was full of armchair military experts who felt qualified to assure us that Harry's presence among the troops had put them in extra danger.

There were suggestions that the whole thing had been a PR stunt on behalf of the Army. Further up the line towards Fayed-style fantasy, there were even suggestions that the Royal Family was trying to improve its image.

It was like reading newspapers more than a century out of date. Back then, during the Zulu war, there was actually a case that fitted all those theories to perfection.

Let's roll the tape back to the year 1879, and examine the case of Napoleon III's son Eugene Louis Jean Joseph Napoleon the Prince Royal, he who might well have become Napoleon IV. For purposes of brevity, we'll call him Eugene.

After his father died in exile, Eugene was keen to establish himself the natural heir to his grandfather's military genius, thus to prove that he was fit to ascend the throne of France, a seat which still looked available.

The new republic was shaky on its base, a fact proved by the press campaigns it was prepared to mount against the pretender's credibility. Eugene, they warned, had no qualifications for the job except his ambition.

Admittedly he gave his critics a lot to go on. With the endorsement of Queen Victoria, Eugene joined the British army, where he soon proved himself to be an unmitigated liability.

He wasn't just a fool - although he was outstandingly that - he was a busy fool, thus exactly fitting the description of the kind of officer who, the first Napoleon had once said, must be got rid of immediately.

Eugene really was a danger to his fellow soldiers. He never got the point that there was no such thing as a single Zulu.

Clive James
There is no privacy in the army, for anybody

When he saw a single Zulu, he galloped off to chase him, invariably registering surprise when the single Zulu led him and his small detachment of troops to a couple of hundred other Zulus hiding behind a hill.

Eugene wasn't unique in his stupidity. Most of the British officers made a point of underestimating the enemy until the battle of Isandlwana turned into a massacre which cost the British expeditionary force 1,300 dead.

The horrified prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, retrieved some of the PR disaster by promoting the immediately subsequent battle of Rorke's Drift as a victory compensating for the previous defeat, but he knew it didn't. Another victory, no matter how small, would have been welcome.

Keen to provide it was none other than Eugene, at the head of a troop of soldiers which he led 22 miles into Zulu country with the intention, apparently, of confusing the foe by having a picnic.

Carefully choosing a position where his men could be approached under cover from all sides, Eugene ordered that the horses be unsaddled so that they could rest. He had an experienced British officer with him but the experienced British officer was a victim of social deference, and didn't like to contradict royalty.

The Zulus had no such inhibitions. Cutting to the chase, we can say that Eugene might have died a more impressive death if he had not last been seen alive riding under his horse, where his hastily buckled saddle had slipped.

His body was recovered with 18 assegai wounds in it. The court of enquiry, which managed to blame everyone except him, never did establish whether 18 Zulus had stabbed him once, or one Zulu had stabbed him 18 times.

It's easy to make fun of him now, but the poor sap was chiefly culpable for having wanted to be there. He was trying to prove himself. Even at the time, there were those, especially those who favoured the French republican cause, who said he was there for political reasons. But it seems more likely that it was personal.

The precedent puts us at liberty to wonder what would have happened if our current warrior prince had been killed or, possibly even worse, captured. God forgive anybody who isn't appalled at the very thought.

Cursed fate

But he wasn't, and his experience has given him an advantage that will serve him in future even better than it will serve the Army.

Eugene Napoleon
Eugene Napoleon also set out to prove himself on the battlefield
Now, he knows. His elder brother William would doubtless like to know too, but a potential direct heir to the throne is faced with the unwritten rule that he may fly, drive, dive and fire weapons only on the understanding that he doesn't fight.

The same was true for his father. Andrew was allowed to fight in the Falklands but Charles, if he had adopted an assumed name and tried to go, would probably have got no further than the airport.

One can safely assume that Charles must have cursed his fate, because there could have been no sharper reminder that he was its prisoner. He has learned to live with such disappointments, and his capacity to do that will make him a good king one day.

One of the things I want to do in this series is ask whether, in this new era of perpetual alteration, it might not be wiser to cherish those institutions that work. I believe that the Royal Family is one that does, but at a harsh price for those born into it. They are bound by duties they didn't choose, whereas the rest of us choose ours.

For just a little while, young Harry chose his. Should he have gone to Afghanistan? Now that he's back safely it's easy to say yes. If things had turned out otherwise, saying yes would have been a lot harder. But he knew that things might have turned out otherwise, and he went anyway.

He might have written a five-act history play instead, but Britain has other people who can do that, or at any rate it used to.

Here is a selection of your commens.

Oh for goodness sake! Harry, although I respect him for going to war, is not the poor mis-treated youth Clive makes him out to be. He is well educated and extremely rich, thanks to the taxes from the population. If he wished to serve his country as a royal why doesn't he - or indeed any others in the family - spend a month in a rundown estate living on £20 a week or less. Perhaps then he would appreciate everything he has been given and also understand some of the trials and tribulations that some British residents have to endure every day, like how are they going to afford food and heating for the family. I'm surprised by Clive this week, I thought he'd be more objective in his views instead of being so pro-royalist.
Stephen, Caerphilly

What choice to the rest of us have? We have no choice but to work 5 days a week, sometimes more. The royals can choose whether or not to work, should they choose to work they can select any field they want or, on a whim, sail around the Caribbean for a couple of weeks advocating environmentalism. It must be tough.
Olly, London, UK

A good article. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I think it's a shame that Harry could not finish his tour. I think anyone who wants to sign up and head out should have the ability and right to serve. A real politician would be the one who leads a battalion through battle, comes home, changes into a suit, and enters the board room.
Julian, Singapore

"They [the Royal Family] are bound by duties they didn't choose, whereas the rest of us choose ours." All the rest of us? Really? Children growing up in semi-derelict high-rises with drug-addicted parents can choose their destiny and therefore require less sympathy than the scions of an enormously wealthy dynasty? Come off it, Clive! You¿re a brilliant, brilliant man and your broadcasts are usually wonderful, but any time you turn your attention to the Royal family your brain turns to mush.
Andrew, Glasgow

I strongly disagree that the monarchy works; its a relic of the past and only serves to strengthen the idea of a class society. Its pure double speak to suggest it has anything to do with being constitutional. I have little sympathy for people who have had grown up with a silver spoon in their yogurt and who then seem to act hard done by with how restricted their lives are. If we are ever going to approach anything near a meritocracy, we need to start by casting away of the chains of our countries checkered past. And in that very respect, I believe the Russians had the correct idea of what do with Royalty. I'll save our current Lords that fate, but none the less they don't deserve their position. I constantly hear the word democracy buffeted around the world and how we should all cherish it. Well, I agree, but Clive what is democratic about a Monarchy? I suppose we are hardly likely to anything but praise from the BBC for the Monarchy; you chaps after all just act as their PR unit.
Paul Davies, Manchester

An institution that works? This may be your view Mr James, but not one I would share. Glad to see that your radical fire still burns so bright when you feel able to write such fawning nonsense about our over paid and over valued royal family. Some day it is my belief that we will have a republic in this country and if our American or Australian cousins are so keen on the current royal family they can have them. Somehow I don't think the clamour to uptake the offer will be too loud.
James R, London

I'm sick of all the Harry-bashing. By all accounts he's a capable officer much like and respected by his men who through an accident of birth is prevented from following the career he wants. It's ironic that the one man in the army who WANTS to be in Hellmand isn't allowed to be. Incidentally I went through the same "live fire" training as Clive. It certainly focuses the mind when bullets whizz 10" above your backside!
Peter, Nottingham

Who cares what members of the royal family get up to? Get rid of them and make them earn a living (for their whole lives, not just ten weeks playing at soldiers) just like the rest of us.
Ian, Marseille

It must be terrible being "bound by duties they didn't choose". I'm not quite sure what world Mr James is living in but I don't really see quite a large percentage of people in the UK, or world for that matter, having the luxury of being able to "choose" their duties. Maybe some have that luxury, others have to just survive - trying to do what it takes to feed themselves and their families in areas of the world where war is just the thing that is going on around them while they are in the way. Shame on a world which puts one persons "duties" before another's life.
Campbell Foster, Bangor

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