Prince Harry has accused some journalists of spreading a "dangerous lie" that he boasted about killing 25 Taliban fighters. The Duke of Sussex told a US interviewer that the British press had "stripped away" the context in its coverage of his new memoir Spare.
"Without a doubt, the most dangerous lie that they have told is that I somehow boasted about the number of people I killed in Afghanistan," he told Stephen Colbert on The Late Show. "If I heard anyone boasting about that kind of thing, I would be angry. But it's a lie. It's really troubling and very disturbing that they can get away with it."
Journalists including Talk TV's Piers Morgan have repeatedly criticised Harry for "boasting" about the number of Taliban soldiers he killed while serving in Afghanistan. But others have said that this is a misleading characterisation.
In the book Harry writes: "Afghanistan was a war of mistakes, a war of enormous collateral damage — thousands of innocents killed and maimed and that always haunted us. So my goal from the day I arrived was never to go to bed doubting that I'd done the right thing, that my targets had been correct, that I was firing on Taliban and only Taliban, no civilians nearby. I wanted to return to Britain with all my limbs, but more, I wanted to go home with my conscience intact. Which meant being aware of what I was doing, and why I was doing it, at all times.
"Most soldiers can't tell you precisely how much death is on their ledger. In battle conditions, there's often a great deal of indiscriminate firing. But in the age of Apaches and laptops, everything I did in the course of two combat tours was recorded, time-stamped. I could always say precisely how many enemy combatants I'd killed. And I felt it vital never to shy away from that number. Among the many things I learned in the Army, accountability was near the top of the list."
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The passage continues: "So, my number: Twenty-five. It wasn't a number that gave me any satisfaction. But neither was it a number that made me feel ashamed. Naturally, I'd have preferred not to have that number on my military CV, on my mind, but by the same token I'd have preferred to live in a world in which there was no Taliban, a world without war. Even for an occasional practitioner of magical thinking like me, however, some realities just can't be changed.
"While in the heat and fog of combat, I didn't think of those twenty-five as people. 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 recognise this learned detachment as problematic. But I also saw it as an unavoidable part of soldiering. Another reality that couldn't be changed."
Former BBC royal correspondent Peter Hunt publicly questioned one of the BBC's articles (headlined: "Harry has turned against military, says ex-commander"). Mr Hunt tweeted: "Should BBC News take this page down? The headline — and the comments of the former military people — are based on reactions to a leaked quote and not the full text."
The BBC article — which says the broadcaster obtained a copy of the book after it was put on sale early in Spain — includes comments from retired commanding officer Colonel Tim Collins, who condemned Spare as a "tragic money-making scam" and added: "Harry has now turned against the other family, the military, that once embraced him having trashed his birth family."
Speaking about Harry's revelation that he killed 25 enemy fighters, Col Collins said: "That's not how you behave in the Army; it's not how we think. He has badly let the side down. We don't do notches on the rifle butt. We never did."
Anthony Loyd, a foreign correspondent for The Times, tweeted the relevant passage from the book. He posted: "Here’s the context of what Prince Harry wrote — which I doubt many of the ex-commanders condemning him will have read. I doubt, in their rush to condemn him, they remember the endemic scalp count culture in much of the army either."
In his Late Show interview Harry said: "My words are not dangerous but the spin of my words are very dangerous to my family. That is a choice they [the British press] have made." He told Mr Colbert that he had wanted to be honest about his experience in Afghanistan to help other veterans share theirs "without any shame". Harry added: "My whole goal and my attempt with sharing that detail is to reduce the number of [veteran] suicides."
Piers Morgan, who was sacked by the Mirror in 2004 after the newspaper mistakenly used fake photos showing British soldiers abusing an Iraqi, tweeted: "He didn’t use that excuse in the book. So he’s now exploiting the suicides of military veterans to defend his Taliban kill boasting — which is contemptible."
The backlash against the quotes from Harry's book was not just about accusations of "boasting". Ex-army officer Col Richard Kemp, who commanded forces in Afghanistan, told the BBC he did not have a problem with Harry revealing his kill number but said that likening killed Taliban insurgents to chess pieces could give "propaganda to the enemy".
He added that the remarks could compromise Harry's security. "They're always looking to radicalise people and to recruit people and we've already seen how the Taliban has capitalised on it," said Col Kemp.
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