The Platform


There is something deeply unsettling about Prince Harry’s cavalier attitude towards his exploits in Afghanistan.

War, which once meant, dehumanizing your opponent is much more civilized now. While the principle of killing your opponent has not been expunged from the pages of modern war manuals, what is significant is the adoption of some civilizing principles that proscribe any dehumanizing act against your opponent – even after finishing them off.

Thanks to sensitivities surrounding modern values and aesthetics, however, there has evolved greater self-censorship and an emerging official regulatory principle regarding what can and cannot be displayed in the public domain regarding killing during wartime.

But there are exceptions. In the moral universe of Western military intervention, it is not uncommon to encounter soldiers who brag about their exploits. Since the beginning of this warring century – that began in earnest with a military offensive in Afghanistan and continued with a decade-long war in Iraq, and a proxy intervention in Syria, we have been constantly fed with unethical conduct, slippages, and practices.

The horrors surrounding the abuse meted out to Abu Ghraib prisoners by U.S. soldiers will forever remain etched in our memory. So would be the countless atrocities committed against civilians in many of these war settings by Western forces.

This brings us to the most recent admission of a former British soldier. Let us focus on a certain estranged British royal. As a former soldier who served in Afghanistan, Prince Harry has written: “When I found myself plunged in the heat and confusion of combat I didn’t think of those 25 as people [the Taliban combatants]. They were chess pieces removed from the board. Bad people [were] eliminated before they could kill good people.”

Without glorifying the Taliban, one could argue that the statement denies them their humanity and the very cause that forced them onto the battlefield in the first place. The removal of the combatants as mere objects devoid of any purpose wreaks of the disposability and utter meaninglessness of their existence.

In his bio, Prince Harry is described as “a husband, father, humanitarian, military veteran, mental wellness advocate, and environmentalist. He resides in Santa Barbara, California, with his family and three dogs.” Exemplary credentials, indeed. However, if we compare and analyze the sentiment surrounding his killings in Afghanistan with the above credentials, we find ourselves in choppy moral waters. In the first place, ‘humanitarianism’ and ‘killing,’ from a pacifist perspective are problematic. They simply do not gel well. Second, a military veteran does not engage in public pronouncements of his war exploits in public, or for publicity to move copies of one’s book.

This cavalier attitude to killing combatants – even conducted on the battlefield while wearing a uniform – grossly undermines the language and narrative surrounding good and bad, legal, and illegal, and just and unjust in a war setting. Consequently, when Taliban leader Anas Haqqani pronounces “Mr. Harry! The ones you killed were not chess pieces, they were humans; they had families who were waiting for their return…” I can’t help but identify with the sentiments expressed by Haqqani, however horrible and deplorable the Taliban is.

Little wonder that Prince Harry’s comments have also provided much-needed fodder to the Taliban who have always maintained that the two-decade-long war in the country was illegal. Responding to Prince Harry’s battle feats, Bilal Karami, a Taliban spokesman, has accused the international coalition of “committing crimes.” Karami goes on to suggest: “This confession [Prince Harry’s] shows that the forces of all occupying countries have the same criminal stories.”

Further, according to Prince Harry, “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 [the] Taliban and only [the] 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.”

This moral certitude to his combat killings in Afghanistan is suspect when we are struggling with the very fogs of war. This statement is as good as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair defending his ill-conceived war in Iraq which led to countless civilian deaths.

This begs the question: should individual soldiers boast about their bloody exploits in a post-war setting? While the vast majority of soldiers adhere to professional codes of silence a few take exception to that self-imposed moral code. It is these show-offs that denigrate not only the objective of the armed mission but also the very integrity of the uniform they once wore.

The ill-judged admission that should have been kept firmly under wrap, if not for anything else but for sheer professional courtesy, has now tarnished the reputation of the British armed forces and by extension, Western powers that had fought in Afghanistan for what was initially a noble cause.

By the look of it, Prince Harry’s admission has made a dog’s breakfast of anything left of morality and ethics surrounding the conduct of war.

Amalendu Misra is a professor of International Politics at Lancaster University and author of 'Afghanistan: The Labyrinth of Violence'.