Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
Rabbits, partridges, deer, wild boar, the Taliban. An account of sex and drugs and the Spice Girls, Prince Harry’s memoir Spare also reads like a leather-bound game book which keeps a record of what was shot when.
It’s also a five-star riveting page-turner, haunted not only by the late Diana, Princess of Wales, but also by occasional offerings of Harry’s otherwise deft ghost-writer.
Laurens van der Post, for example, is “the irascible intellectual acolyte of Carl Jung”, a description which seems unlikely to come from the prince, even if an Apache helicopter’s fabled rockets, missiles, and 30mm cannon were drawn from his imagination.
From mountains made out of the molehills of broken necklaces, smashed dog-bowls, bridesmaids’ frocks, tiffs over tiaras, and the rights and wrongs of sharing lip-gloss – pettiness which can summed up as his family not being as crazy in love with his Duchess as Harry himself is – to actual mountains (the Hindu Kush), it has it all.
Future historians of Britain’s fourth Afghan War might well be turning to Spare as a primary source. It could also feature in accounts of the United States’ first Afghan War (2001-21) or in peer-reviewed journal articles, along the lines of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires and the Construction of Narrative.
Prince Hal of Helmand was there – unlike most of his critics. He did two tours of duty; a ten-week stint in 2007-08 (cut short by overseas’ media reports) and four months in 2012-13.
Talcum-powder sand; Camp Bastian coming under attack; days of hanging around at Very High Readiness, playing FIFA and flicking through Loaded; the three seriously wounded comrades who were medivacked out and, on his plane home in 2008, awakened him to the plight of injured service personnel.
Reading Spare, few can doubt Harry’s commitment either to military service or to the mission in Afghanistan. The question Spare raises – and it’s the £27.7 billion question – is what exactly was that mission?
Captain Wales is clear: it’s bound up with the al-Qaeda attack on 9/11. All those responsible for it, “along with their sympathisers and enablers, their allies and successors, were not just our enemies but the enemies of humanity.” Fighting in Afghanistan meant “avenging one of the most heinous crimes in world history and preventing it from ever happening again.”
While this might be applauded by the American public, the public here was sold an enhanced British military intervention in Helmand from 2006 on a very different basis. The 3,500 troops initially deployed to the province were meant to help a NATO-ISAF (International Stabilisation and Assistance Force) reconstruction effort and bring security to the country.
As John Reid, then New Labour’s Defence Secretary, declared: “We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot.”
This woeful miscalculation, expensive in both blood and treasure, was surely based on intelligence as dubious as that which had informed the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003.
But with Afghanistan not inspiring the same furious public opposition, we are unlikely to find out. Successive governments have avoided a public inquiry into the eight-year conflict which claimed the lives of British 457 service personnel.
Mission creep away from reconstruction to combat – within days – was reflected by calling into service Apache attack helicopters. Harry was a crew member in late 2012 (some 18 months after Osama bin Laden was despatched in Pakistan by US Special Forces) flying low enough that Afghan children could throw rocks at the gunship.
Spare suggests the Army talked a lot about winning Afghan hearts and minds. It seems only the Gurkhas followed through, buying goats and chickens from the locals, then bantering with them about recipes.
During the First World War, soldiers sang “We’re Here Because We’re Here”. Something similar happened in Afghanistan. By late 2012,what was the UK’s strategy, other than trying to wipe out the Bads (them) who were attacking the Goods (us)?
As Harry was told by his commanding officer, in Helmand, the Taliban was everywhere and nowhere. Today the Taliban are back in Kabul and control of the Afghan government. They had long warned the West: “You have the watches; we have the time.”
In this context, the prince’s admission of his kill-rate in Helmand is startling.
In Spare, the Taliban tally of 25 is indeed downplayed rather than bragged about, a misrepresentation that has grated: “The most dangerous lie that they have told is that I somehow boasted about the number of people I killed in Afghanistan,” he told CBS’s Stephen Colbert last week.
The dead Taliban are chess pieces: apparently “an unavoidable part of soldiering” was to learn detachment and “other-ise”. Since Homer’s Iliad, a warrior’s honour is bound up with respecting the enemy war dead. (“A show of respect for the slain, an act of communion by the slayer,” says Prince Henry of Wales – describing getting blooded in Balmoral after shooting his first stag.)
Spare offers a British soldier’s-eye view of one of the two major war-fighting operations in the early 21st Century. With no inquiry and no official history, Harry is filling a vacuum.
After 2001, the British Army spent 20 years in Afghanistan, deploying more than 100,000 personnel on five different missions. The scuttle ahead of the Taliban advance in August 2021 said something about the West as well as global Britain. We should start listening.