Once More Unto the Breach for Britain

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LONDON -- It has been tempting this past week to recall the Battle of Agincourt between the French and English armies, not because of any looming anniversary -- the 600th is not due until 2015 -- but because some things never seem to change.

Once more, England has a royal warrior called Harry, although he is a prince of the realm and a helicopter pilot, not the equestrian king immortalized by Shakespeare in "Henry V."

And, as Prime Minister David Cameron's effort to redefine his land's relationship with the European Union seemed to show, the nation still harbors old ambitions to mold events in the vast Continent separated from it by a narrow band of sometimes fog-bound water and by large dollops of mutual incomprehension.

"In all history," the columnist Simon Jenkins observed in The Guardian, "the conundrum of Britain's relationship with the rest of Europe has never been resolved."

But one function of that tangled past is to hold up what the historian Barbara W. Tuchman called a distant mirror to the present, and so it was last week when Prince Harry returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Almost immediately, he was ensnared by a public dispute that a medieval monarch would have found quite baffling.

When Prince Harry acknowledged in interviews that he had opened fire on the Taliban insurgents -- what else would the gunner of an Apache attack helicopter in Afghanistan be expected to do? -- he inspired a media frenzy that seemed to reflect a degree of doubt about whether the nation wanted its royal warrior to be quite so warlike, or, at least, to talk about the realities of war in a way that other royals on military duty, like his brother, uncle, father and grandfather, have not.

"We fire when we have to, take a life to save a life," Prince Harry said, stirring Taliban ire by ascribing his aptitude as a gunner to his prowess as a player of video games.

As the younger son of Diana, Princess of Wales, who had her own fraught relationship with the paparazzi and the press, the 28-year-old prince should perhaps have understood that discretion is sometimes the better part of valor.

"Never in her 86 years has the queen been a fraction as indiscreet as Prince Harry was in his interview," the author Harry Mount wrote in The Daily Telegraph.

"Royal service is not a pick-and-mix game. You can't just pull out the plums -- the money, the girls, the servants, the palaces, the private jets." The prince, he said, would do well "to button his lip."

The furor raised the same questions of privacy and privilege as have clung to Harry through a catalog of missteps and nurtured his ever greater acrimony toward the media.

The episodes include being photographed naked playing strip snooker in a Las Vegas hotel room last year -- "probably a classic example of me probably being too much army, not enough prince," he said in his post-Afghanistan musings on the struggle to compartmentalize life between private, military and public moments -- in other words, between the normal and the extraordinary.

War in Afghanistan, Harry lamented, is "as normal as it's going to get."

Arguably, though, the response to his remarks showed a broader ambiguity in a post-imperial Britain wrestling with diminished status on the global stage that it cannot quite accept or seem to reverse.

Before an audience in London, Mr. Cameron projected his land as doughty and resilient. "We have the character of an island nation -- independent, forthright, passionate in defense of our sovereignty," he said as he promised a referendum within five years on membership in the European Union if he is re-elected in 2015.

(The qualities resembled those listed by President Charles de Gaulle of France in vetoing Britain's entry into the forerunner of the European Union 50 years ago this month, concluding that by its very nature Britain differed "profoundly" from the Continental Europeans.) A day later, speaking to business leaders in Davos, Mr. Cameron expanded the definition. "We are a global nation, with global interests and global reach."

That seemed to echo his calls for a robust response to a newly perceived threat in what he has called the "ungoverned space" of North Africa after the Algerian hostage crisis. But it also came as Britain announced new military cuts.

"It looks a little odd to be thinking about a developing situation in a very difficult part of the world when you're making your defense capability smaller," said Gen. Richard Dannatt, the former head of the British Army.

Compared with such uncertainties, the English triumph at Agincourt was a model of decisiveness, but it was not the only marker.

In the Bordeaux-based Sud-Ouest newspaper, the columnist Bruno Dive preferred to cite the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745 as an example of Gallic guile trumping British maneuvers. "Every day that passes," he went on to say, "shows that General de Gaulle was right" in 1963 to block British ambitions at Calais.

Plus ça change....

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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