Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Prince and the Poppies

In my world, the British Royals are far less interesting than the Kansas City Royals, a team that had its last really good season back when Princess Diana was still alive and Marilyn had "Candle in the Wind" all to herself. I've always considered those Americans obsessed with the Buckingham Palace soap opera to be low-level traitors who should be put in stocks each July 4 so the rest of us can pelt them with red, white, and blue water balloons. Perhaps, I sometimes think, U.S. citizenship should be renewable, like a driver's license, and all applicants should be required to pass a short multiple-choice quiz every five years or so. Anyone who could accurately identify Oliver Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, and Dodi al-Fayed would fail and be required to watch consecutive showings of Mel Gibson's "The Patriot" and sing, karaoke-style, each of the songs from the musical "1776" (I feel fairly confident we can do this now, since torture has more or less been legalized).

Still, it remains impossible to be a sentient creature on either side of the Atlantic and not know more than you ever wanted to about Liz II and her dysfunctional family. For most of my early years, the House of Windsor generated little news. They hid their Nazi sympathizers during the War, King Whatshisface abdicated the throne to marry some chick from Philly, and then they went back to a quiet existence of hunting foxes and opening shopping malls. Back in the 1970s, I could have named the Queen of England, but I would have had trouble identifying her offspring, siblings, or husband. I guess I knew that Ol' Jug-ears was the Crown Prince, which I always imagined would turn someone into Stewie from "Family Guy", whiling away the hours dreaming up new ways to kill off mommy.

All of this ended, of course, with the arrival of Diana Spencer and her marriage to Jug-ears back in 1981. It was like that moment in "The Wizard of Oz" when everything changes from black and white to color. Prince Charles, having sown more wild oats than the guy in the Quaker Hat, approached middle age, realized that he needed to keep the line going, and scoured the countryside in search of a virgin with noble blood. From this unlikely premise, which sounds more like a Monty Python skit ("Bring out your virgins!"), we somehow get the great love story of the late 20th Century, and otherwise sane Americans set their alarm clocks for the pre-dawn hours so they could watch the fairy tale wedding unfold live from London. Popular culture has not been the same since.

So where was I going with this? Oh yeah, I typically avoid TV programs and magazines that are likely to expose me to tales of Charles and Camilla and the two blond boys who look nothing like their father. Once in a while, however, the British Royal Family shows up on the regular news and they become temporarily ubiquitous, the last time being a decade ago when the one-time virgin princess, boyfriend in tow, died in a Parisian auto accident that is now the subject of more conspiratorial speculation than JFK and 9/11 combined. (I'm going with Prince Phillip with the lead pipe in the Conservatory.)

This week came the latest hard news story involving a Royal, with word that Prince Harry, who is in line for the British throne (albeit in the same way that the Secretary of Commerce could theoretically succeed to the presidency), has been secretly wintering in Afghanistan with Her Majesty's Army. Indeed, word has it that Di's second born actually saw combat, though I suppose they might mean that he did so through a pair of especially high-resolution binoculars. The members of his platoon were evidently sworn to silence, though there must have been some awkward moments, what with all the bowing and curtseying. And who hasn’t ever wanted to say, "Is His Royal Highness finally done with the bathroom?"

Now, I understand why people like John McCain, John Kerry, and Al Gore go to war. In each case, their service record figured prominently in their rise to political prominence. But short of a triple murder, there isn't really much Price Harry can do to satisfy any ambitions he might harbor for higher office. It must be tough knowing, while only in your twenties, that your life's path is already set, and that you will never be anything more than a rich jetsetter surrounded by beautiful women and attending fabulous parties. Well, OK, maybe not all that tough, but certainly not something that can be changed by a few months of chasing mullahs around the poppy fields.

And on a more serious note, what if something had happened? Afghanistan is a dangerous country and sometimes you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or was this more of a "Saving Private Ryan" situation, where multiple lives were put at significant risk to make sure that the Chosen One came home safely? Talk about a high-value target.

I know we like to ask our politicians why they don't send their own children to Iraq and Afghanistan, but I think we know the answer. (And, yes, I am aware that John McCain's son did serve in the current war.) Put any president's children in the theater of combat and suddenly they become the sole focus of both sides of the conflict. The enemy will do everything possible to reach them, and the U.S. military, which has more important things to think about, will go to extraordinary lengths to protect them, even if those efforts divert attention from the broader mission. And if anything tragic were to occur, the entire political calculus would change overnight in unpredictable and almost certainly unproductive ways.

Plus, someone might ask Elton John to write another song about it. And nobody wants that.

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