During World War II, young Princess Elizabeth, then the heir to the British throne, overcame her father — the king’s — objections and joined the military, where she was trained as a driver and was photographed personally changing the tire on a truck. Her son, Prince Charles, served as a pilot for five years in the Royal Navy. Charles’ brother Prince Andrew saw combat as a helicopter pilot in the Falklands War and made the military his career. The third brother, Prince Edward, was a second lieutenant in the British Marines.

So young Prince Harry, son of Charles and the late Princess Diane, was following family tradition when he volunteered for the grueling training at Sandhurst Military Academy, before being commissioned the equivalent of a second lieutenant. But now Harry, the Queen’s grandson and third in line to the throne, has publicly insisted that he join his fellow soldiers when they are sent to Iraq.

Here is what the young prince said: “There’s no way I’m going to put myself through Sandhurst and then sit on my bum back home while my boys are out fighting for their country.” He added, “That may sound very patriotic, but it’s true.”

The British royal family is usually good for an easy laugh on this side of the pond where Americans ask, “Just what does the Queen actually have in that oversized pocketbook she’s always carrying?” or the fairytale postscript added after Charles’ wedding to Camilla Parker Bowles: “So the divorced prince in a civil ceremony married his longtime mistress, and they lived happily ever after.”

But the American leadership class — the “royalty” of finance, government, sports, entertainment and academia — with only a handful of admirable exceptions have failed to lead by example, as the British royals have so admirably done.

“War,” the conservative scholar Michael Barone has wisely written, “demands equality of sacrifice.” But not in President George W. Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein. One week before the war began, the then-majority leader of the Republican House of Representatives, Tom DeLay of Texas, told a Washington meeting of bankers, “Nothing is more important on the eve of war than cutting taxes.”

This is the first and only war in U.S. history to be fought with no military draft and with six tax cuts.

This is alien to American tradition. The federal income tax and inheritance tax — both of which conservatives now strive to repeal — were passed by the Congress to pay the costs of the Civil War and became law when signed by this nation’s first and greatest Republican president, Abraham Lincoln.

To fight the Spanish-American War, Republican President William McKinley raised federal taxes. So, too, to pay for World War I did Democratic president Woodrow Wilson. Millions of patriotic Americans have proven that there is no moral authority that matches sacrifice.

With the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq now in its fourth year, “patriotism-lite” — the “Support Our Troops ” bumper sticker on the gas-guzzler or the U.S. flag pin prominently placed on the suit-coat lapel — has been the uniform of the day.

The nation’s leadership has asked everything of the brave few — the men and women — who serve and who sacrifice, and their loved ones. From the rest of us, nothing has been asked other than to patriotically accept tax cuts. The leader of the nation’s message to the overwhelming majority of Americans: You will pay no price; you will bear no burden!

The spectacle now on view in our proud democracy is the absolute separation of the privileged in power from the people in peril. How we raise our armies when Americans are asked to fight and to die is how we define what kind of country we are. In a morally balanced and just community, there must be the sharing of risk and the burden of pain and suffering. War is not and cannot be a spectator sport.

For the fawning groupies who flattered him after his successful leadership in the Persian Gulf War, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf used this put-down: “It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.”

By Schwarzkopf’s definition, and by his own example, Prince Harry qualifies as a hero.