The British Army’s decision last week not to send Prince Harry to Iraq is unfortunate on at least three counts. It is a personal blow for the prince himself, who despite his off-duty antics is by all accounts a highly professional young officer eager to share the perils faced by his comrades. It will do nothing for British morale, already damaged by the humiliation of their naval hostages by Iran. Most importantly, the decision is a propaganda coup for the Islamist terrorists. Britain’s reluctance to commit the third-in-line to its throne to battle makes the West in general look weak. In doing so it places all coalition troops at greater risk.
Why, then, did General Sir Richard Dannatt, the chief of the British general staff, reverse his announcement only three weeks ago that the prince would be deployed? The answer is: Iran. British forces in Basra and the provinces bordering Iran lost twelve soldier in April—a higher casualty rate in proportion to their numbers (about 7,000) than those suffered by the much larger American forces. These heavier losses are attributed by the British to Iranian agents, who are supplying sophisticated weaponry and intelligence to the local insurgency. According to American Special Forces, they are doing the same for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Islamist websites have been threatening to target Prince Harry ever since his deployment was—most unwisely—made public in February. The kidnapping of three U.S. soldiers two weeks ago will have added to the credibility of these threats.
In the light of new intelligence about ever-bolder Iranian activity in Iraq, General Dannatt found himself between a rock and a hard place. If he had stuck to his guns and sent Harry into action, not only the prince but those under his command would be vulnerable. Thanks to ubiquitous media coverage, which the British authorities had initially encouraged, the terrorists knew both where the prince could be found and even what type of vehicle he would use. Iran would almost certainly have put a price on his head to encourage assassins to try their luck. To kill such a high-profile “crusader” would be portrayed as a great victory by Islamists everywhere. To capture him would create the mother of all hostage crises. Militarily, Harry would be more trouble than he was worth. (Politically, too, his deployment had become a liability for the incoming administration of Gordon Brown.)
Discretion may often be the better part of valor, but this affair has been handled with indiscretion. Only a mind no longer confident of ultimate victory would have made such a hash of it. Just as the British navy mishandled the abduction of sailors and marines by the Iranians, so the British army has mishandled what ought to have been an operational decision.
And General Dannatt has a record of indiscretion. Last year he gave an interview in which he claimed that the British presence in Iraq was “exacerbating” instability. The general beat a hasty retreat, but not fast enough to dispel he impression that he was at odds with his government. Now he has again been forced to countermand his original decision. As the French military proverb has it: order, counter-order, disorder.
The vacillation over Prince Harry is all the more regrettable because British royalty has an admirable tradition of taking their places in the firing line. No British monarch has led his troops into battle since George II at Dettingen in 1743, but lesser members of the royal family have often seen combat, most recently in the Falklands war. As anyone who has seen The Queen will know, the young Princess Elizabeth served (at her own insistence) as a driver in the armed forces at the end of the Second World War. In those days, Shakespeare’s Henry V was still the model for soldiers going into battle: “Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!” Iraq may not be Agincourt, but even modern armies need their officers to set them an example of courage. Prince Harry should not have been denied the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his forefathers.