The criticism Harry has faced about his comments on Afghanistan is an opportunity to dig deeper and take on the dominant narratives in our society about war more broadly.
In the wake of Prince Harry’s new book Spare, leaked excerpts that he had killed 25 people in the war in Afghanistan shocked readers. He reflected on what it’s like to take a life in war: “You can't kill people if you think of them as people. You can't really harm people if you think of them as people. They were chess pieces removed from the board. Bads taken away before they could kill Goods. I'd been trained to ‘other-ize’ them, trained well. On some level I recognized this learned detachment as problematic. But I also saw it as an unavoidable part of soldiering.”
There was deep anger over Prince Harry’s admission. One British Army colonel told The Independent, “That’s not how you behave in the army.” But we shouldn’t be angry that he told the truth about the dehumanization inherent in warfare. We should be angry that the truth isn’t told more often.
On the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Prince Harry said he revealed these details about his time in Afghanistan to address the very real crisis of high veteran suicides. "I made a choice to share it because having spent nearly two decades working with veterans all around the world, I think the most important thing is to be honest and be able to give space to others to be able to share their experiences without any shame," he told Colbert.
The Costs of War Project, an organization with which we consult, found that at least four times as many active-duty personnel and war veterans of post-9/11 conflicts have died of suicide (30,177) than in combat (7,057). It’s laudable that Prince Harry is seeking to support other veterans. And the criticism he’s facing about his comments on Afghanistan is an opportunity to dig deeper and take on the dominant narratives in our society about war more broadly.
As Americans, we are often warned against critiquing or opposing war in the name of our patriotic duty. We watch movies that glorify war, and are taught at a young age that the causes of U.S. wars are always just or well-intentioned, and that any damage done is simply the price of protecting our freedoms.
Here’s what we’re not told: Nearly a million people have died in the post-9/11 wars, an overwhelming number of whom were civilians. The disproportionate impacts of these wars have been born by Muslims and people of color; nearly all of the 85 countries in which U.S. counterterrorism operations have occurred are in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The dehumanization that Prince Harry describes stems in part from the systemic racism that undergirds militarism.
"Working to chip away at the dominant narrative that sanitizes war could be Harry's most powerful legacy of all."
What’s more, the New York Timesreported that there are more militant groups operating now than when we embarked on these wars 20 years ago. The post-9/11 wars have actually been a main driver of conflict and recruitment in places such as Burkina Faso and Somalia.
We also aren’t told that War is big business, subsidized by taxpayers.
As the U.S. military budget tops $850 billion, other countries spend a fraction of what we do on their militaries. In fact, the U.S. spends more on war than the next nine countries combined. Spending on affordable housing, education, and healthcare in the U.S. are deprioritized by congressional leaders in favor of funding war.
But who actually gets the money we allot to the Pentagon? Costs of War has noted that nearly half of the Pentagon’s spending goes to military contractors, and a large portion of these contracts have gone to just five major corporations: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman.
It should be no surprise then that weapons makers have spent $2.5 billion on lobbying since 9/11, employing, on average, over 700 lobbyists per year—more than one for every member of Congress.
It’s not just K Street where the industry shines. National security pundits on TV news too often have undisclosed ties to the weapons industry, ensuring that the media narrative serves the interest of militarism, not true peace and security.
As Prince Harry told Stephen Colbert, context is everything. We must acknowledge not only the full toll that our wars take, but also, the systemic motivations behind them.
Although a prince, Harry was a young man when he served in Afghanistan as an army officer. Now, he’s older than his mother was when she died, and has built a platform to “drive systemic cultural change,” according to the website of the Archewell Foundation, which he and Megan Markle founded.
He can take this PR firestorm and create real cultural change when it comes to understanding the full impact of and systemic reasons for militarism. Working to chip away at the dominant narrative that sanitizes war could be Harry's most powerful legacy of all.