Would elite vote for war if their family had to go?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 2008, 12:00am

War has long tested the patriotism of the privileged classes. Those with the most to lose are not always the most willing to risk sacrificing life and limb on active service. Prince Harry's presence among British troops fighting the Taleban in Afghanistan for the past two months is, therefore, a cause for reflection.

The prince was desperate to serve with his regiment, despite official reluctance to expose him to the dangers. He was keen to do the job he has been trained for. But his tour of duty will end earlier than scheduled now that news of his presence in Afghanistan has leaked out. The third in line to succeed to the British throne has ensured that the long tradition of active service among members of the country's royal family - an important source of its legitimacy - continues.

Scions of the elite are not always so keen to head for the front line. In the United States, few have done so since the Vietnam war era. Vice-President Dick Cheney avoided service in that conflict through no less than five deferments of a general call-up. Mr Cheney says he had other priorities. Indeed, few of President George W. Bush's top civilian defence advisers saw military service in Vietnam. Mr Bush's father, former president and second world war pilot George H. W. Bush, was the last of his large family to serve. At a recent count, only five members of the US Congress, and very few of the rich and powerful, had sons or daughters serving in Iraq; the soldiers serving there come overwhelmingly from poor backgrounds. Granted, the use of volunteers rather than conscripts in Iraq amplifies the trend. Nonetheless, an American newspaper has noted that, a generation earlier, 'the children of presidents, bankers and oilmen regularly saw service'.

There are a variety of reasons for the trend. Attitudes to war have changed over the decades - and so has the nature of conflict. The war in Iraq was morally and legally questionable from the start, despite the Bush administration's claims to be fighting for freedom and democracy.

However, it might be better for world peace if members of leading families did participate in such conflicts. If they did, their service might give decision makers some much-needed pause for thought when wars are being contemplated.