Showing an armed Prince Harry scrambling into action, preparing his weapons and relaxing in the mess, the stockpile of images released tonight of Prince Harry at work and play in his desert airbase seem to tick all the boxes for classic war propaganda photography. But in the fading battle for hearts and minds, as the British withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled for next year ticks steadily closer, some may question what purpose these pictures fulfil – and what added dangers they create.
Despite the belated revelation of his frontline duties in 2008 – by a media that had secretly signed up for a collective self-censorship deal, apparently in order to protect the Prince and his colleagues, until the story leaked in the US – information on Prince Harry’s activities has still been relatively limited. Though the press has been fed occasional stories of him “genuinely risking his life” by destroying Taliban targets in “multiple engagements”, or firing a “100lb Hellfire missile,” little of any detail has been published. These pictures will be seen as a pay-off for the press following that discipline.
Although it is widely known that the third-in-line to the throne has been on active service in Afghanistan, for many it has nevertheless been hard to imagine the Prince actually killing people - until now. Whether he’s running into action with a pistol, checking the cannon hanging below his Apache helicopter, or sitting in the cockpit alongside his semi-automatic rifle, Harry is never far from a gun if these pictures are to be believed.
Two weeks ago the former Afghan prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, founder and leader of the Hizb-i-Islamia Party in Afghanistan, said of Harry: "He wants to hunt down Mujahideen with his helicopter's rockets, without any shame.”
There is no hint the young Prince is reckless or bloodthirsty behind his sunglasses, and there is certainly no evidence that Harry kills “innocent Afghans while he is drunk,” as Mr Hekmatyar also alleged. But throw in one of Harry’s more dramatic quotes, and these images - carefully selected by the Ministry of Defence – may begin to look almost as inflammatory and provocative in their own way as the Afghan politician’s words. “Take a life to save a life. That’s what we revolve around, I suppose,” said the Prince. “If there’s people trying to do bad stuff to our guys, then we’ll take them out of the game, I suppose.”
There is a softer side depicted here, as Harry sits back with his comrades in a tent adorned with a union flag. But some will ask what impact will those have in Kabul when placed alongside the pictures of him readying his gunship for its next mission. For many critics in Britain, meanwhile, they will undoubtedly make the reasoning and justification of the previous media blackout seem still more questionable and hypocritical.
The co-operation granted to the Prince appears to have done little to endear him to the media, however. In the official interview accompanying the photographs, he was frank in discussing his dislike of newspapers. "Of course I read them,” he said. “If there's a story and something's been written about me, I want to know what's being said. But all it does is just upset me and anger me that people can get away with writing the stuff they do. Not just about me, but about everything and everybody. My father always says, 'Don't read it'. Everyone says, 'Don't read it, because it's always rubbish'.”