Prince Harry plays a video game at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, with fellow Apache pilot Simon Beattie. Photograph: John Stillwell/Reuters
Prince Harry is home from his latest tour of duty as a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan, apparently, and is once again in trouble with the media. In a television interview given while he was still in Helmand province but only broadcast after his return to Britain, he made the huge mistake (a) of admitting that, in the course of his duties, he had had occasion to kill one or more Taliban fighters and (b) of comparing the process of doing so to a video game — one that he had played and that he was rather good at. He thought there might have been some transference of his skill at one to skill at the other. Even the conservative Daily Telegraph thought this more than a little imprudent of him, and the left-wing press went berserk. “Prince Harry might think war is just a game,” thundered Tom Latchem in The Independent “but as a propaganda tool he has [put] his safety, Afghanistan's future, and the lives of British soldiers at risk.”
Come on now, Tom. He didn’t say that war was just a game. That would have been very foolish, besides being an opinion that no sane man could sincerely hold. But then it is presumably part of Mr Latchem’s purpose to call the Prince’s sanity — that is, his ability to distinguish reality from unreality — into question, which is why it is useful to attribute to him a view that he is most unlikely to hold. Yet one may still be sane and recognize that there are some similarities between modern, electronically-aided combat and computer games, for all the obvious differences between them. The key to understanding Mr Latchem’s animadversions is that word “propaganda.” He is worried that Prince Harry’s words might encourage someone, somewhere to take an incorrect view of the British involvement in Afghanistan.
In my review of Zero Dark Thirty, which you can read here, I account for the obloquy heaped on that movie in certain quarters by what I call ideological thinking: that is, the attempt by intellectuals to market a particular version of reality which demands the exclusion of certain things that we know to be real from that classification. Thus, the anti-war ideology now so commonplace on the left demands that we recognize the supposed reality that “torture never works.” Therefore, by presenting us with an example of torture that does work, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie must be damned from here to eternity for falsifying the version of reality that the ideologue has adopted as a matter of faith. His reality has no more room for a successful torturer than it does for a moral one.
Something similar is going on with the attacks on Prince Harry. He is guilty not for the video-game comparison but for not making war look horrible and futile — or, in the words of the headline to a scolding from Jonathan Jones in The Guardian “Prince Harry makes war look more Top Gun than Wilfred Owen.” Now the most pedestrian sort of common sense tells us that war is partly Top Gun and partly Wilfred Owen, partly exciting and adventurous and partly horrible and bloody. But the ideology of the anti-war left, when imposed on that reality, requires that the exciting and adventurous part must be omitted, lest anyone lose sight of the bloody and horrible part. To such people, only the bloody and horrible part deserves the name of “reality,” even though there is nothing obviously more unreal about the excitement and adventure — which is another way of saying that their ideology, their invented system of reality, demands it should be so.
“A century of realism about the cruel truth of conflict has not even made a dent in its appeal to boys, who become men,” writes Mr Jones.
From the poetry of Wilfred Owen to the photographs of Don McCullin, witnesses to war have done the dirt on its bright shining lie, to no avail. Afghanistan is the proof that war triumphs over truth. No war has had a more miserable press — the soldier has never looked so much like a victim, destined to be killed or maimed. But here is Harry, on behalf of every war-fixated boy, acting out chivalrous fantasies that go back to the Black Prince.
Why are “realism” and “truth” reserved for horror and “lies” and “fantasy” for adventure? Because the anti-war ideology requires it. Of course you can argue for anything that way: x is also not-x if you leave the not out. But that’s how ideology always does argue.
Likewise, in The Independent, Joe Glenton complains that “Prince Harry was positively tame when talking about the brutal reality of war in Afghanistan” — by which he means that, not being an ideologue himself, the Prince did not adopt as his own the ideologue’s view of “brutal reality” vs. adventurous fantasy. But then Mr Glenton is himself a former soldier who refused service in Afghanistan on allegedly moral grounds, so you can understand why he might feel he has a personal stake in the exclusivity he would claim for his version of reality. One needn’t begrudge him that to wish that he and his fellow ideologues should not be allowed to expropriate from the common language the useful word “reality” — useful, among other things, for its suggestion that there remains a version of reality — real reality, as we might call it — outside ideology.