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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Soldier Harry brings pride to the Brits.

Aimless hedonism - or pride and duty? Harry and Britain face a fateful choice

A warrior prince! Cry God for Harry, England (or maybe Wales) and St George!

With the pictures of Prince Harry on front-line combat duty in Afghanistan filling acres of newsprint, something deep and long-stifled in the British psyche has stirred.

Overnight, the image of Prince Charles's wayward younger son has been transformed from a dissolute nightclub reveller to a heroic soldier putting his life on the line for his country.

At the weekend, he was pictured returning unwillingly from the war after the media blackout of his presence was broken.

The past few days have been dominated by pictures of his everyday life in Afghanistan - calling in air strikes, kicking around a home-made football, eating disgusting-looking Army rations - and interviews about his experiences.

This blanket coverage was the quid pro quo for the media's silence over his deployment, without which he would never have been able to see action at all.

Presenting as it did so vividly the exemplary conduct of British troops in Afghanistan through both the words and images of a brave and thoroughly decent young soldier, the coverage amounted to a quite stunning PR coup for the Army.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that Prince Harry's Army service was engineered not for the benefit of the Army - whose soldiers were put at greater risk by his presence - but for the Prince himself.

Originally told he couldn't serve in Iraq because of the likely danger to both himself and other troops, the Prince had been devastated.

Hedonistic Harry stumbles: Will he still be the party Prince after serving in Afghanistan?

Now that he has so abruptly returned from the Afghan front, what leaps out is how sad it is that he has to leave his own country and go to a place he describes as "the middle of nowhere" to feel comfortable inside his own skin.

Despite all the privations of army life, he says those few weeks in Afghanistan were the happiest time of his life.

It was where he could at long last feel ordinary. "It's very nice to be a normal person for once," he said. "I think this is about as normal as I'm ever going to get."

In such a poignant longing to be "normal", it is hard not to hear the voice of the wounded boy whose world shattered when his parents divorced, and who then had to endure both the histrionics of his mother's later life and, most traumatic of all, her shocking death.

He also is said to believe that the behaviour of the media, which he holds responsible in no small measure for hounding his mother to her untimely end, makes a normal life for himself and Prince William altogether impossible.

That is surely what Harry means when he says he "doesn't like England" and that if he can't return to Afghanistan for another tour of duty he will go and live in Africa instead.

To which one might react, however, not just with sympathy but with a measure of impatience. Sympathy, of course, because of that troubled family background. On the other hand, as the third in line to the throne, how can HRH Prince Harry ever expect to live a normal or ordinary life?

Moreover, if you regularly stumble out of Boujis or other nightclubs in the wee small hours having spent the evening getting legless on "crackberry" cocktails, running up huge bar bills and then flailing drunkenly at photographers, you can hardly expect anything other than merciless and accelerating scrutiny.

Now we wait to see whether he will return to his wild Boujis ways, and the Afghan interlude fade into but a distant memory of a more noble side to the princely character.

And here surely is precisely where the real significance of this transformation lies, and why the country is so gripped by these Army images and is so intensely on the side of Cornet Wales.

For in both his Boujis incarnation on the one hand and as a brave soldier on the other, Prince Harry is an emblem of what has happened to this country and of the hopes and fears that lie deep in people's hearts.

What those images of soldier Wales stirred in people was the recognition of qualities that once made them proud to be British but which they fear might have been lost for ever.

Qualities of courage, stoicism and honour. Of deep patriotism and love of one's country to the extent that one would lay down one's life for it.

Of leadership, selfless service and a sense of duty and loyalty both to the people under one's command and to the nation.

Of pride in Britain's armed forces - a historic global byword for character and excellence. And of fighting and dying for a noble cause.

In recent decades, all these virtues have come under such sustained assault and erosion that they have all but disappeared from view.

The armed services, the last bastion of such characteristics, have come to be seen as an embarrassment in a nation which now despises war along with its own historic identity.

With rampant drunkenness, drug abuse and crime, decadence is the defining motif of our age.

Libertinism, hedonism and selfishness are the order of the day. Patriotism, authority and morality have become dirty words, while cynicism is so rampant that the worst is thought of people as a kind of reflex mechanism.

Prince Harry may be only the "spare" to Prince William's "heir", but as scions of the monarchy they both embody Britain.

That's why the Boujis Harry has caused so much public dismay - and why Cornet Wales has provoked the kind of astounded delight that might be displayed by relatives mounting a hopeless vigil at the bedside of a loved one in a coma who suddenly opens his eyes and smiles.

It has not just made people feel better about the Army or even the war in Afghanistan.

It has made them feel better about being British; it has made them feel better about themselves. It has given them hope that the country they love may not be lost to them after all.

When Prince Harry says he doesn't like England, people might well sympathise because there's an England they don't like either.

But they must nevertheless wonder precisely which England Harry himself represents.

Is it the kingdom of courage, honour, duty, loyalty and strength - or the kingdom of self-centredness, fickleness, decadence, fragmentation and weakness?

Which kingdom Prince Harry really represents will help determine which Britain our children and grandchildren will inherit.

Some may find it dismaying that a country appears to find the highest virtue in war.

But it is in the greatest adversity, as represented by a just war, that the best is brought out of people as individuals and as a nation.

And the fact remains that this country is in just such a war. It is therefore entirely right that Prince Harry should be on the front line in the service of his country, in the defence of whose values subjects of the crown are fighting and dying.

He should therefore return to active front-line service as soon as practicable.

Through shedding his playboy image once and for all and risking his life for his country, he will be a role model for a rediscovered national sense of purpose, as well as creating one of his own.