Emma Cowing: Hitting the wrong target

I INTERVIEWED an Apache helicopter pilot once. Awfully nice chap, although I never did learn his name.

Nor, indeed, what he looked like. This is because throughout our conversation, he insisted on keeping his helmet on, a hi-tech contraption that includes a jet black visor which completely covers the top half of the wearer’s face. It was like interrogating a bee with its eyes closed.

The pilot, however, had good reason to keep his identity secret. Our chat took place on the helicopter base of Camp Bastion, the sprawling compound in the middle of the Afghan desert from which Britain’s fleet of Apache helicopter gunships fly their deadly missions, attacking insurgents with expert precision using a highly sophisticated technology system. The pilot informed me he was conducting the interview anonymously because he did not want his family and friends knowing what he did for a living. He wasn’t too keen on the Taleban having an ID on him either. At the time this struck me as eminently sensible.

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Prince Harry never had the option of keeping his identity secret during the round of media interviews he did in Afghanistan just before Christmas. The most high-profile Apache pilot the British Army has ever had, he was put up in front of the cameras as the result of a deal struck before he was deployed. The press would keep stum about his being sent to theatre, on the proviso that he would sit down for a cosy chat at some point during his tour.

That Harry did this under duress was never in question. A world-weariness dogged his demeanour throughout the on-camera interview, as he laid into the press – particularly tabloid newspapers – for their treatment of him, his brother and his sister in law. It is worth remembering that this interview would have taken place not long after the Duchess of Cambridge’s stay in hospital for hyperemesis – a move which led to her having to reveal her pregnancy at a point where most women would not even have told their families – and then to the horrific episode whereby a nurse at the hospital the Duchess had been treated at took her own life after being the subject of a prank call by two Australian radio DJs. That Harry would have been affected by this, and angry about it, can, I think, be taken as read.

But none of this goes any way to explaining why Harry went out of his way to inform the nation that he had, during his tour, killed Taleban fighters.

The 28-year-old Apache helicopter co-pilot said he had taken insurgents “out of the game” during his 20-week tour of duty, which ended this week. As the crew member in charge of the aircraft’s weapons system, the Prince had his finger on the trigger of its rockets, Hellfire missiles and 30mm cannon, flying scores of missions to destroy Taleban targets and protect British servicemen on the ground.

He went on to describe his job as “a joy... because I’m one of those people who loves playing PlayStation and Xbox, so with my thumbs I like to think that I’m probably quite useful”.

It is not, of course, shocking in and of itself that Harry, in his role as an Apache co-pilot, has been killing Taleban fighters. I mean really, what did we think he was doing out there with his finger on the trigger of a helicopter gunship – scattering magnolia seedlings?

When soldiers go to war, they are expected to kill the enemy. It is their job. If they did not, and indeed if Harry had got up in front of the TV cameras and said: “No, no, I didn’t kill anyone, I don’t feel that would be right somehow’, he would be rightly derided as being a very poor co-pilot gunner indeed. The clue is in the job title.

But there is a difference in being good at your job and bragging about it, particularly when your job is to kill members of an insurgency with international terrorist connections who are hell-bent on killing as many British and allied forces as they can, and your grandmother is the head of the British Armed Forces.

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His comments have come at a critical time in the West’s relationship with al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The horrors of last week’s Algerian hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas complex have demonstrated that British citizens are vulnerable to attack when abroad, and that al Qaeda is in the midst of an extensive post-bin Laden regrouping.

David Cameron said on Sunday that Britain was now in a “generational struggle” against “an ideology which is an extreme distortion of the Islamic faith, and which holds that mass murder and terror are not only acceptable but necessary”.

Against this background it was, perhaps, foolish of his PR team, who would no doubt have had final say on what was aired, to let his remarks go unchecked. Harry has always been a Taleban target, that’s why there has been so much secrecy around both of his Afghanistan deployments, and why he was swiftly yanked out after only ten weeks the first time round when his cover was blown. A TV drama was even made speculating on what would happen if he was captured by the Taleban (plot spoiler: not good things).

Now of course, Harry is home and dry, so perhaps the thinking is he should be able to say what he likes. But it seems irresponsible in the extreme to let his remarks about killing insurgents air when we still have so many boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Although he points out how safe Apache pilots generally are from enemy fire, the same cannot be said for the guys in forward operating bases going out on regular patrols and engaging in firefights with the Taleban. I do not for a moment think that Harry made any of these comments because he wished to put any of his military colleagues in the line of fire. The problem is that it probably never even occurred to him that they might.

It is this, I think, rather than the playing strip billiards and drinking his weight in beer in a Las Vegas hotel room that makes Harry what he self-confessedly described as “too much Army and not enough Prince”: the dogged desire to be viewed by those outside the military as just a normal soldier, and to be bullishly arrogant enough to expect everyone to go along with it. Sorry Harry, but you’re third in line to the throne. It ain’t going to happen.

All this would be more understandable if he were just a young lad. But Harry is 28. He’s had a lifetime to get used to being Royal – not to mention enjoy all the trappings of immense wealth and privilege that go along with it (how many Olympic events did he attend again?).

While I have some sympathy for someone who has been forever in the public eye and whose every move is scrutinised, I cannot help but feel that it’s about time he accepted his lot in life.

Harry needs to realise that when he opens his trap, he will always be a member of the Royal family, even if he is sitting on standby in an Afghan Army base in his fatigues four months in to a five month deployment. His comments will always carry both weight and consequence. That’s just the way it is.

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And really, there are worse lots in life. 5,300 soldiers found out yesterday they were losing their jobs in the latest round of defence cuts. As Harry freely admitted in his interview yesterday, he has another “job”, and one that he is lucky enough to have for life – something very few of us can say these days and which many of those soon-to-be-jobless soldiers would give their eye teeth for.

What Harry needs is a bit more Prince – and a lot more common sense.