Harry's game: the prince and the PR mission
Forget Las Vegas: The third in line to the throne used his Afghan tour to cultivate a very different image. Emily Dugan reports on a royal rebrand
Emily Dugan is social affairs correspondent for The Independent, i and Independent on Sunday. She was previously a news reporter for The Independent on Sunday. Her investigations into human trafficking have twice been awarded Best Investigative Article at the Anti-Slavery Day Media Awards and her human rights journalism was shortlisted for the Gaby Rado Memorial prize at the 2012 Amnesty Media Awards.
Sunday 27 January 2013
The carefully choreographed recasting of Prince Harry as military hero and all-round good lad continued yesterday, as further details of Captain Wales's daily life in Afghanistan were released. The third in line to the throne did the tea round, ate food on a paper plate and watched war films with his fellow Apache pilots.
Just five months ago, Prince Harry was the playboy prince caught on camera cavorting naked in Las Vegas. The latest reports from the 28-year-old's tour of duty in Afghanistan paint him as just another ordinary bloke on the front line.
The prince is followed having dinner in army fatigues with his fellow fighters in the Camp Bastian cookhouse. Queuing up with squaddies to pile up "scoff" on his paper plate, he sits on a collapsible chair to eat a hearty meal of chicken, broccoli and cheesy potatoes with plastic cutlery. Away from the temptations of Vegas – Camp Bastion is an alcohol-free zone – the prince drinks water with his meal. It's all a long way from a life of nightclub indulgence and palace privilege.
Sitting with the other members of the four-man Apache aircrew, he is seen sharing a joke with them in the communal dining room. To keep the scene from appearing too cosy, a collection of SA80 rifles is on show at the end of each table, because rules dictate troops must be within arm's reach of their loaded weapons.
The scenes of the prince dining alongside fellow soldiers of every rank is a further masterstroke in the rebranding of Harry as a military everyman. The cookhouse, known as the D-fac (dining facility), will be familiar to thousands of servicemen and women who have stayed in Camp Bastion during the conflict in Afghanistan.
The prince's working hours as an attack helicopter pilot mean that most of the time he eats at his Very High Readiness (VHR) station, where he and the other pilots wait for a call to scramble. When he does go to the cookhouse, he says, he usually goes late to avoid the crowds who have "a good old gawp".
Phil Hall, a public relations expert, said yesterday the prince's interviews in Afghanistan have been good publicity for him: "This is part of a rebranding of Harry, because people will forgive a hero. As a hero soldier, he's seen as someone putting his neck on the line for the country, which is very good PR."
As well as playing video games in the VHR station, the prince's crew watch war films to unwind. Eschewing escapist fare, their movies of choice are mostly grisly movies such as Platoon; Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Black Hawk Down, the Ridley Scott film which retells the true story of two US helicopters shot down in Somalia in 1993, is also a favourite. Other DVDs stacked next to the crew's television include Daniel Craig's Bond films, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, and the Bourne series starring Matt Damon.
The communal tent, where the crews of two aircraft listen to the radio, eat chocolate and swat away flies, also gives the impression of a prince taking on all the hardships of his fellow serving soldiers. Empty shell cases are used as ashtrays and their benches are propped up on empty ammunition boxes. Shade from the sun comes in the form of a camouflage net and they sit within arm's reach of the "shout" phone, which summons them at a moment's notice to their helicopters.
Familiar food for the pilots is not an issue, with frequent deliveries of British snacks, such as Mars bars, Mini Cheddar biscuits and Rice Krispies Squares. Harry describes how useful British treats can be for trading with American troops in neighbouring Camp Leatherneck. In exchange for Nutri-Grain bars, Kit Kats and similarly British fare, they get freshly ground coffee, Hershey's chocolate and M&Ms.
Harry's aircrew, the 662 Squadron, 3 regiment Army Air Corps, have begun their own mural on the blast-wall of the Apache helicopters' parking position, just as the other crews did before them, as a memento of their time in Afghanistan.
The prince's squadron has not yet completed their work, but so far it is an eerie painting of the Grim Reaper clutching a bloodshot eye, beneath a moonlit sky. Also in the picture are hovering helicopters and the words of the squadron's motto: "Death Dealing Eye".
The publicist Max Clifford said yesterday that the recent footage of Harry's tour in Afghanistan showed the royal family were getting better at dealing with the press. "William and Harry, particularly, have realised the importance of public relations and they're changing the perception of the royal family", he said.
The prince's candid interviews in Afghanistan have not been without incident, however. Controversy erupted last week after he appeared to compare war to playing video games and admitted to having killed Taliban insurgents – "taking them out of the game", as he put it.
Taking his turn at the urn
Being the "Brew Bitch" was another aspect of army life in Afghanistan from which Prince Harry did not shy away. Losing the daily round of Uckers, a traditional military board game, would consign the third in line to the throne to a shift of servitude, where his fellow pilots could ring a bell for his service. "Whoever loses that becomes the Brew Bitch, and then you have to make brews for everybody all day," he said.
He would play the game with his colleagues in the airmen's Very High Readiness tent from where they could be scrambled to the Apache helicopters at any moment. For the purposes of the visiting media, however, the word "bitch" was removed from the white board behind them and replaced with "Brew person".
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