There's a reason that most antiquated of institutions, the British royal family, manages to survive in spite of all its problems. And the reason is that it's able to regenerate itself, regaining endangered legitimacy. Proof of its regenerative capacity is found in the willingness of Prince Charles' two sons of to join the British Army during wartime. Prince William, 23, and Prince Harry, 21, stepped forward to put on their country's uniform, putting themselves in harm's way. That's good news for the House of Windsor -- and provides a lesson for other would-be dynasts.
Proving leadership by leading troops into battle is the oldest trick in the book. Except that it's not a trick -- it's real and it works. The motto of the Palmach, the legendary military unit in Israel's 1947-48 War of Independence, was aharay, "follow me!" Historically, one of the strongest rationales for kingship was the monarch's presumed military effectiveness. So in the modern era, as kings fell out of the habit of leading armies, their political power fell away, too.
The last English monarch to lead troops into battle was George II, at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743. Yet even as England's kings and queens became "constitutionalized," they still served. The future George VI was a midshipman aboard the HMS Collingwood at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, during which more than 6000 Britons died; a generation later, as king, he famously refused to leave Buckingham Palace during the Blitz of 1940. (After one of several hits on the Palace, the Queen Consort, the future beloved "Queen Mum," confided, "Now I feel I can look the East End in the face.") The feeling, of course, was mutual; the sense of shared sacrifice is the steel that binds leaders and followers. Indeed, during that same World War Two, the King's brother, the Duke of Kent, died while flying for the RAF.
So even though the royal family had lost its political power, it still felt the obligation to serve the country over which it reigned. Prince Charles did a tour in the Navy; his brother Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, was a front-line helicopter pilot during the 1982 Falklands War.
But then in the 80s and 90s came the endless bad press for Charles, mostly associated with his messy divorce from Diana. Some even speculated that the end of the British monarchy might be near; after all, who needed such an antique thing as a crown in the 90s era of "Cool Britannia"? And their younger son, Harry, got off to an even worse start in the public eye, foolishly letting himself be photographed at a party in January 2005 wearing a Nazi armband.
Nobody today wants a monarchy if the monarchs are nothing more adulterers and fascist play-actors. But the Windsors seemed to have sensed their vulnerability, as a family and as a dynasty, and so in the new century, they fell back upon an ancient and reliable pattern: Prove your worth by doing something worthy. And the times provided them with a somberly perfect opportunity; 9/11, and then 7/7, reminded Britons that there's a war out there, and, no matter what they did, their islands were not safe.
So both William and Harry joined the Army. Moreover, both made it clear that they expect to go into action with their units, in Iraq or Afghanistan, where more than 100 British troops have been killed in action. As Harry said last September, "The last thing I said was there's no way I'm going to put myself through Sandhurst and then sit on my arse back home while my boys are out fighting for their country. That may sound very patriotic, but it's true." Actually, it sounds pretty good.
It's safe to assume that press agents and spin doctors had a hand in getting this information out to the public, but so what? If it's real, it's real. Reality is the rock upon which spin shatters. Besides, the media saturation that William and Harry receive will cut both ways: Yes, they are stars, but being a star in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan -- where the terrorists are tuned in, too -- is risky. Stardom could turn into martyrdom.
In the words of The Daily Mail, "If they share the fear and bear themselves well, they, the country and the monarchy will all be stronger for it." Whatever one thinks of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it's impossible not to admire those who answer their country's call.
So there's the lesson for today: Shared sacrifice is the key to legitimacy. As Shakespeare's Henry V trumpeted at Agincourt, "For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother." That's the brotherhood that keeps nations together and keeps dynasties in power.
Oh, and by the way, the same lesson applies to other dynasties, too. The moment that members of a powerful family seem to have insulated themselves from the fortunes of a nation, their value to that nation is finished. So all those families, rich in fortune, political as well as economic, are on notice: Either they give something back, or they risk being bypassed in the future -- at least at the ballot box.
The war in Afghanistan is popular enough, albeit obscure. The war in Iraq is unpopular. But here's a prediction, based on history from both sides of the Atlantic: In the future, the most powerful political leaders on national-security matters will be drawn from those who went Over There and did their bit. Those future leaders may be hawkish, or they may be dovish, but if they stepped forward and said, "Send me," they will be heard with respect in the years ahead.
Times have changed, as they always do, but some verities of political leadership never change. A nation, be it a monarchy or a republic, will always most admire those who serve their people selflessly -- and riskily.
Interestingly enough, as of now, the officially titled British ruling class is acquitting itself better than the officially meritocratic American ruling class.
James Pinkerton is TCS Daily's Media Critic and a fellow at the New America Foundation.