11/11/2012 03:12 GMT

Remembrance Day 2012: Poppy Appeal 'Risks Glossing Over The Horrors Of War' Insists Ted Harrison

Remembrance Day risks becoming a divisive issue which "sugars over the horrors of war", an author and former BBC reporter has claimed.

Ted Harrison, a former BBC religious affairs correspondent, says the celebrity endorsement of the Poppy Appeal risks dumbing down the reality of war.

"Remembrance is a much more complicated thing than simply wearing your poppy with pride," he told the Huffington Post UK.

"Pinning a poppy to your lapel has got to be tempered with feelings of shame. That we as human beings are still resorting to killing each other when we disagree.


Lest we forget: Ted Harrison calls for a return to the original meaning of remembrance

"That’s what war is all about. You can be proud that one of your forbears acted well and did their duty well, but to oversimplify pride in what troops did in the past gets away from the realities of conflict."

Harrison has called for significant changes to be made to the way Remembrance Day is marked in his book Remembrance Today: Poppies, Grief and Heroism.

alesha dixon

Alesha Dixon performs at the poppy appeal concert in Trafalgar Square this year

Calling for a return to the original purposes of remembrance "both for sharing in grief and rededicating oneself to peace," he said the Royal British Legion's charity appeal with its "sugary and sentimental atmosphere" and celebrity endorsement risked dumbing down the reality of war.

Far from raising awareness, these risked causing damage to remembrance.

"It doesnt make people aware of what war is about, it’s just a sugar coating on the top of a charity appeal.

"There is a strong argument to say these tactics get as much money as possible to help young men and young women who have been damaged by war. That is absolutely right.

"But if you want to really make sure that wars do not happen in the future then you need to make the next generation actually understand what war is all about. The best way of honouring the past dead is to make sure that the current troops don’t ever need to prove that they are heroes in battle."

afghanistan war

It is important to convey the realities of war in the remembrance service, Dr Harrison argues

He said there was a risk that young people being given misleading messages about war.

"We now have a generation that has never experienced war and what they think about it is almost entirely what they've learnt.

"If they think there was something glamorous or glorious about war, and some generations are told this, they are more likely to be prepared if it ever came to it to go to war.

poppy divisive

The poppy appeal has become divisive, rather than being a united force

He said while he understood why charities such as "Help For Heroes" had attracted such a large amount of support, promoting the image of the soldier was a sensitive issue.

"It's a way of saying whatever the politicians ask you to do we will stand by you, that’s the motive behind it, but to overuse the word hero is something to be careful of.

"Its not a good thing if somebody joins up in order to become a hero. You should go to war in a democracy reluctantly and if anything is done to promote that idea of a hero that is worrying, because that is the sort of thing that enables politicians to lead people to war.

"I think people have to be careful how people build up the image of a soldier. The best way of honouring the past dead is to make sure that the current troops don’t ever need to prove that they are heroes in battle.

He suggested the stark reality of war could be made much more real if every poppy was given a corresponding number from 1 to 1000. These numbers could then be matched up with the life story of real soldier. The poppy wearer could then go to a website or booklet and find the story behind that poppy.

"Maybe it will be somebody who was killed in the trenches, maybe it was somebody in the RAF in the Second World War, maybe it was somebody who was blown up by a landmine in Afghanistan.

“But you would see a photograph of the person, you would hear their story, what were they were in civilian life and what happened to their families after their death.

He said it was important not to sugar coat these stories, and called for the inclusion of "the exact circumstance of their death, not leaving out any nasty bits, because most of these deaths were particularly gruesome, especially in the First World War."

Remembrance could also be re-focused by removing politicians from the remembrance service. He said: "Politicians have far more of a responsibility to remember because its their pride and their mistakes that lead to war.

"However at the moment when politicians line up at the cenotaph it's part of polishing their egos.

"They need to be reminded they are on the periphery, they can watch, but but they should not be given honour or glory by taking part in the cenotaph service."

afhganistan war

Civilian deaths should also be incorporated in remembrance, Harrison claims

He said there was a danger the image of war could be manipulated for political reasons.

"I think the government should stay well out of it. One of the worries I have about the centenary of the first world war is because the government will put a slant on it.

"The government or politicians dont by and large want people to know too much about the horrors of war.

"It's not for recruitment. If politicians want to flex their muscles and go to war at some stage, then to have a whole nation that knows too much about what war's like is not favourable."


Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband at the cenotaph in 2011

The changing nature of war also demanded a different type of remembrance.

“In the first world war it was troops that were killed, now in the era of the drone and the landmine and the terrorist attack, civilians are much much more likely to be killed.

"Frequently utterly innocents are killed, particularly children and we need to find ways of incorporating them within remembrance. I suggest a new tradition of tolling bells because I think modern warfare is such that civivilans need to be recalled much more."

Dr Harrison said he was aware he was "sticking his head above the parapet" by raising these questions around the emotive issue of remembrance, but said it was important they were addressed.

"I have been very wary because I do not want to hurt people’s feelings or families, but then again, I think the greatest honour one can actually pay those who have died in the past, and the greatest comfort to those who are living in grief, is to ensure that future generations themselves are not called upon to die heroically or otherwise in battle."