Harried #1: Soldiering on.
The response to Prince Harry's leaked reflections on his deployments in Afghanistan is symptomatic of a broken media and a diseased society.
This is part one of a multi-part series on coverage of Prince Harry’s memoir Spare. I understand some people will think I should look at other things — and I will — but the media’s obsession with this book and its author can’t be ignored, especially as I purport to be a media critic.
Previously: Condemned to Witchell | Dissecting a BBC Breakfast appearance by the corporation's Royal Correspondent reveals familiar problems with "impartiality".
It would be easy to start with louder (and weirder) noises — Chris Ship quote tweeting the Taliban, Jan Moir arguing William was right to hit Harry, The Sun and Daily Mirror framing him as a traitor, or The Daily Express comparing him to Henry VIII — but in the cacophony of coverage of the Spare leaks, it was an almost whispered part that struck me first. A news story from The Times headlined Prince Harry’s claim of 25 Taliban kills raises security fear begins:
The Duke of Sussex may have increased the risk of being targeted by Islamist terrorists by describing how he killed 25 Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
In his memoir, Harry said he regarded his victims as “chess pieces” and was neither proud nor ashamed of the killings. The prince, who trained as an army Apache helicopter pilot, said in his memoir that he flew on six missions that resulted in the “taking of human lives”.
The assertion in the first paragraph, complete with that old weasel word “may”, is not supported by quotes in the piece — though former military figures have made similar claims in subsequent stories published by The Times and other papers — but it’s the use of “victims” and “killings” that’s most interesting.
In the 21 years since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, I’m willing to bet The Times has never before described Taliban fighters killed in combat by a British soldier as “victims”. In 2013, when the media asked Harry whether he had killed people during his deployment, Times’ Royal Correspondent, Valentine ‘all time’ Low wrote:
Prince Harry has confirmed he killed Taleban insurgents during his tour of Afghanistan as an Apache helicopter pilot.
As the Prince returned from Camp Bastion at the end of his 20-week posting, he admitted that he took enemy fighters “out of the game”.
Asked if he had killed enemy fighters during his first tour of duty as a co-pilot gunner the Prince, who arrived back in the UK today, said: “Yeah, so lots of people have.”
The “chess piece” metaphor chosen by Harry (and his ghostwriter J.R. Moehringer) in Spare echoes his words at the time:
In an interview notable for its matter-of-fact tone, he added: “The squadron’s been out here. Everyone’s fired a certain amount.
“Take a life to save a life. That’s what we revolve around, I suppose.
“If there’s people trying to do bad stuff to our guys, then we’ll take them out of the game, I suppose.”
Were Harry still on side with the British media, there is no chance The Times would describe the Taliban he killed as “his victims”; he would still be heroic Captain Henry Wales. In that Valentine Low story from 2013, the Taliban are referred to as “the enemy” and “insurgents”.
In that alternate universe, it’s also unlikely that MailOnline would have solicited quotes from the Taliban. While the Mail’s piece talks about Harry “prompting an angry Taliban response”, it was MailOnline that literally prompted a response by calling them up:
The Taliban have branded Prince Harry a ‘big mouth loser’ after he revealed he killed 25 of their fighters while serving in Afghanistan in his new tell-all memoir Spare.
Speaking to MailOnline, the militants taunted the Duke of Sussex - who wrote that he viewed their fighters as 'chess pieces' - saying they had had the last laugh over the West after recapturing the country in 2021.
The Taliban claimed while their fighters are the ultimate victors of the conflict, Harry had 'fled to his grandmother's palace' and is now struggling to maintain a place in the Royal Family.
So keen is the Mail to bolster its attack on Harry that it’s running undiluted Taliban propaganda. The language used — “fighters” and “militants” — is noticeably softer than the way the Mail titles usually refer to the Taliban regime. On December 26 2022, the Mail published a news story about “a terrifying Taliban crackdown” that has led to “a wave of revenge killings and beatings under Afghanistan’s new hardline rulers”. On January 6 2023, it relied on those same Taliban leaders for quotes about Harry.
The Daily Telegraph also quoted a “senior Taliban official” in a piece headlined Taliban says Prince Harry should face ‘international court’ after ‘proudly confessing’ to killing 25. The report doesn’t provide any context for readers on the current activities of the Taliban. Like the Mail, it makes selective use of the passages in Spare (which may not be accurately transcribed either given that many newspapers are relying on translations of the Spanish translation). It quotes Harry as saying:
I made it my purpose from day one to never go to bed with any doubt whether I had done the right thing… whether I had shot at Taliban and only Taliban, without civilians in the vicinity.
I wanted to return to Great Britain with all my limbs, but more than that I wanted to get home with my conscience intact. So my number is 25. It’s not a number that fills me with satisfaction, but nor does it embarrass me.
It’s likely that former military figures, including Colonel Richard Kemp — a regular contributor to GB News, The Daily Telegraph, and Breitbart News, who has been consistently described as simply “an ex-commander” — and Colonel Tim Collins are being asked by newspapers and broadcasters to respond to that passage alone.
[Harry] suggests that the British Army trained him and other soldiers to see the enemy in that way. And he said it’s not possible to kill someone that you see as human beings, which is, of course, complete nonsense.
And it’s wrong, it gives the wrong impression to say that the British Army taught their soldiers to or teach their soldiers to see Taliban or any other enemy as subhuman. They don’t.
Without even going back to the British Army’s actions in Northern Ireland — Kemp has often attacked investigations into killings during the Troubles — it was only in December 2022 that the UK government announced an investigation into allegations that an SAS unit killed 54 people in Afghanistan in suspicious circumstances. In 2020, the Brereton Report concluded that Australian special forces covered up the murder of 39 civilians and prisoners.
Kemp’s own book Attack State Red1 (written with Daily Mirror defence correspondent Chris Hughes) features multiple examples of the number of enemy combatants killed (for example, p.35 “They had killed at least 22 enemy fighters…”, p.71 “… engaged and killed six Taliban…”, p.84 “Lance Corporal James Ryan, had killed the three-man Taliban group…”). It’s by no mean an isolated example in the genre of war books written to sit forgotten beside the downstairs toilet.
The faux-shock expressed by ex-soldiers, generals and politicians like former Labour Defence Secretary Lord John Hutton brings the words of Bill Hicks from his routine ‘Gays In The Military’ drifting back into my mind:
I've been watching all these Congressional hearings and all these military guys and all the pundits going, "The esprit de corps will be affected, and we are such a mora …" Excuse me, but aren't you all a bunch of fucking hired killers?
The worst commentary on “the number” comes not from a right-wing outlet though but from the plastic centrist periodical The New Statesman. Martin Fletcher, a former foreign editor of The Times, writes:
Harry (or his ghostwriter) states coldly of killing more than two dozen of his fellow human beings: “It’s not a number that fills me with satisfaction, but nor does it embarrass me.” He regards those he killed not as people but as “chess pieces”. He sees them as “bad guys eliminated before they could kill good guys”. The army had “trained me to ‘other’ them and they had trained me well”.
...The point is that Harry cannot have it both ways. He cannot present himself as one who has rejected the formal, old-fashioned, deeply conservative stiff-upper-lippery of the royal family in favour of a much more progressive, liberal, unbuttoned lifestyle – yet simultaneously seem to speak so coldly, callously and insensitively of the tragedy and brutality of war.
Fletcher is working from shaky quotes to deliver confident conclusions. And even then he is discussing only part of the leaks so far.
Even relying on translated-from-a-translation quotes out there, it’s clear Spare is not glib about what Harry did in Afghanistan. Another quote, usually and deliberately missing from the stories condemning him for discussing how many people he killed, suggests he’s thought deeply about those events:
Most soldiers don’t know exactly how many kills they have to their credit. Under battle conditions, you often fire indiscriminately. However, in the age of Apaches and laptops, everything I did in the course of two tours of duty was recorded and time-stamped… I could always tell exactly how many enemy combatants I had killed. And it seemed essential for me not to be afraid of that figure. Among the many things I learned in the Armed Forces, one of the most important was to be accountable for my own actions.
Just as his family don’t want Harry to talk about how Monarchy works and particularly how it works with the media, military talking heads would rather he was an easy avatar for the Armed Forces, doling out simple slogans about “the blokes” and mental health.
British society tends to want veterans to be stoic, “inspirational” or dead. Prince Harry was fine when he amplified the emotional stories of Invictus athletes and talked in generalised terms about “mental health” and how we should treat “the blokes”2 a little better. But now he’s put a number on the people he killed in Afghanistan and talked about the effect that had on him, it’s a problem.
The world of veterans charities and organisations is full of chancers and charlatans; generals who in retirement make ‘amends’ with cheap gestures and glib reassurance. What Britain as a country asks of service people is grotesque and how we leave them when they’re finished is criminal. That’s why the blunt prose presented by Harry and his ghostwriter has prompted such a vigorous response; people with blood on their hands would rather we didn’t pay such close attention.
For more on this topic, I heartily recommend Veteranhood: Rage and Hope in British Ex-Military Life by Joe Glenton.
I purchased a copy purely to check this. That’s £7.99 I won’t get back. Please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.