At first I thought it was just my imagination. Every day it seemed William and Harry were on the TV, firing guns or flying helicopters. The press releases from the Prince of Wales’ media office however, confirmed my observations as true.
Prince William is now in the ‘second phase’ of his time in the military. Initially his role was to gain experience out of the media spotlight as a young officer. But after his period of regimental service, it was announced that the future head of the armed forces was to broaden his focus to the RAF and Navy - and do so in a much more public way. The result has been a stream of news stories and photo opportunities.
And there is no doubt that this new persona suits the military down to the ground troops. The steady trickle of tales of both Wills and Harry’s exploits which makes up the new PR offensive has been accompanied by a high-profile recruitment campaign. If successful, even the £162,000 for William’s flight training will seem a small investment.
The future Supreme Governor of the Church of England must be considered a God-send following the collateral damage to the military image over Iraq. And last month the Prince of Wales’ media machine sprung into action again around an open-air ‘extravaganza’ which the Prince was to attend outside St Paul’s Cathedral. Hosted by petrol head and Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, the ‘efforts of the country's military heroes’ as the Telegraph put it ‘were honoured on the steps…by a spectacle of pomp, ceremony and music’.
But the event symbolically brought into sharp relief a conflict between William’s future military and church roles. For whether from a ‘just war’ or a ‘pacifist’ perspective, the armed forces are always a regrettable (if necessary) part of life - not something to be celebrated or glamorised.
But this is what the high-profile involvement of both Princes is clearly doing. Excitement is growing about Wills Miami Vice style mission fighting the ‘cocaine war’ in the Caribbean. The news comes hot on the heals of his daring RAF exploits - including flying a Chinook helicopter to a stag do on the Isle of Wight, and landing in girlfriend Kate Middleton's back garden.
As with all royalty, the justification for their military activities (and indiscretions) has been the good that they are doing in their new roles to help worthy causes. They have, quite rightly, thrown themselves into supporting service personnel and their families who have been injured or killed in the line of duty. But of course they don’t have to be involved in the armed forces themselves, to do so.
As the recent focus on the growing death toll in Afghanistan brings into sharp relief, the best way to honour those affected by the disfigurement, maiming and killing which accompanies all wars, is not to rebrand those who do it. Rather it is to try to find new ways of dealing with conflict and making peace, which avoid the need for military involvement in the first place. And given the unique diplomatic position that Prince William will one day hold, the time, effort and money spent on his military training would surely be better spent on equipping him with the skills that would work towards making his job as head of the armed forces, obsolete.
(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia and author of Faith and Politics After Christendom (Paternoster, 2006). This article is adapted from a recent column in the Church Times newspaper, with acknowledgments.