WASHINGTON — The House of Windsor can use all the good PR it can get. A glittering Helen Mirren came through when she accepted the best actress Oscar for her role in “The Queen” and saluted Queen Elizabeth II for all her stodgy stoicism — despite Mirren’s portrayal of the monarch’s stiff upper lip during the trauma of Princess Diana’s death as chilling indifference.

By stroke of luck (or could it be stroke of public-relations genius?) a more uplifting royal tale was unfolding in London just as the red carpets were being rolled out in preparation for the Academy Awards in L.A.: Prince Harry is marching off to war in Iraq.

Having graduated from Royal Military Academy Sandhurst — the equivalent of West Point — the son of Diana and Prince Charles is fulfilling, at his own insistence, a duty to serve on the battlefront with the troops he was trained to command. “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,” the young prince said in a 2005 interview that’s been circulated widely.

It takes no nostalgia for the crown to hear the honor in Harry’s vow — and to wince at the contrast with our own, much larger force in Iraq, from which the sons and daughters of the well-heeled and the well-known are largely absent. Like the United States, Britain has a volunteer military. Unlike the United States, Britain has some vestige of an elite that believes in the notion of noblesse oblige.

While England sends its prince into battle, we are making paupers of our military families.

Many are crushed by debt, financially undone by lost wages from civilian jobs that reservists and National Guard members must abandon for multiple deployments to a war that they could not have anticipated would require them, in effect, to become full-time soldiers. They are divorcing with painful regularity.

Even those injured in the line of duty are subjected to a humiliating and dehumanizing bureaucracy that sometimes leaves them without adequate healthcare and support. The Washington Post reported recently on shameful living conditions and outright incompetence at an outpatient hotel on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. On Sunday, the paper reported on an Army disability review system that seems dedicated to keeping disabled soldiers off the government support system that is meant to provide a cushion when physical wounds and battle-shattered psyches make it impossible for them to function in the civilian workplace.

The veterans’ healthcare system has been underfunded for years and many say it is unprepared for the strain of thousands of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. “When those troops transition to veterans’ status, I am concerned about their ability to get quality health care and benefits in a timely manner from the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Bradley S. Barton, national commander of Disabled American Veterans, said in an e-mail response to questions.

Should Prince Harry — or any other British soldier — be wounded in Iraq, treatment would be given first in a military wing of a private hospital, according to a British embassy spokesman. Any veteran needing longer-term care would get it automatically from England’s national health service.

By what turn of history did a nation founded in rebellion against absolute power wielded by a coddled elite become less concerned with equal treatment and shared sacrifice than the monarchy it overthrew?

If the American upper class were sent to battle — or expected, by tradition, to serve — would soldiers have shipped out to Iraq without proper body armor? Would the Senate now be tied in a political straitjacket, with members agreeing that something must be done to change course in Iraq, but with lawmakers incapable of passing any measure to alter it? Would Vice President Dick Cheney, whose utterances about Iraq have proved to be erroneous or blatantly false, be able to get away with claiming the speaker of the House validates al-Qada’s goals? Would the president even have proposed his misguided troop “surge”?

Of all the eerie but inexact parallels drawn between Iraq and Vietnam, one overriding truth separates the two conflicts. There is now no draft nor threat of it; only a tiny slice of American society bears the military burden. Because of this, our ruling class is proving itself to be more aloof than royalty.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is [email protected].

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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