Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), the American poet and writer, supported the black civil rights movement in the US and was the first white man to be honored by the NAACP with their Silver Plaque Award, proclaiming him to be a “major prophet of civil rights in our time.” Before that, in 1936 Sandburg had his poem, “The People, Yes,” published. In this extract Sandburg foresaw the potential devastation of a second and possibly a third world war:
The First World War came and its cost was laid on the people.
The second world war — the third — what will be the cost.
And will it repay the people for what they pay?
The little girl saw her first troop parade and asked,
‘What are those?’
‘What are soldiers?’
‘They are for war. They fight and each tries to kill as many of the other side as he can.’
The girl held still and studied.
‘Do you know … I know something?’
‘Yes, what is it you know?’
‘Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.’
In 1963, 27 years and many wars later, Buffy Sainte-Marie, who was a star of the emerging folk scene in the 60s, wrote “Universal Soldier” after witnessing wounded American soldiers returning from Vietnam. Donovan had a hit with the song in Britain in 1965 and it became an anthem of the movement for peace in Vietnam. She said that the song was “About individual responsibility for war and how the old feudal thinking kills us all.”
He’s five foot two and he’s six feet four
He fights with missiles and with spears
He’s all of thirty-one and he’s only seventeen
Been a soldier for a thousand years
He’s a Catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jain
A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew
And he knows he shouldn’t kill and he knows he always will
Kill you for me my friend and me for you
And he’s fighting for Canada
He’s fighting for France, he’s fighting for the U.S.A.
And he’s fighting for the Russians
And he’s fighting for Japan
And he thinks we’ll put an end to war this way
And he’s fighting for Democracy, he’s fighting for the Reds
He says “It’s for the peace of all”
He’s the one who must decide, who’s to live and who’s to die
And he never sees the writing on the wall
But without him,
how would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone
He’s the one who gives his body as a weapon of the war
And without him all this killing can’t go on
He’s the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame
His orders come from far away no more
They come from here and there and you and me
And brothers can’t you see
This is not the way we put the end to war
Buffy Sainte-Marie is a Cree Indian and many of her songs, like “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” promote a Native American point of view. When I was serving in West Germany in the 60s I bought her “It’s My Way” album, which contained the tracks “Universal Soldier” and “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone.” I took the LP with me when I was posted back to Tidworth and I used to play the “Universal Soldier” track as loud as I could inside our barracks. The song lives on and Jake Bugg now does a great version of it.
Buffy Sainte-Marie talked about her motivation for writing Universal Soldier: “I wanted it to get people out of their classrooms and onto their feet. But certain things I have to say are pitched at too high a level to bring any lasting benefit to as many people as I would like to bring it to. If I have something of myself that gets me off, that’s brought me through hard times and that refreshes and nourishes me, what good does it do if I’m not smart enough to get it to the people? And I don’t mean only the people who are like me, I mean all the people. That’s communication. There’s no sense being a closet genius. It doesn’t do me any good to keep the medicine in the bottle.”
Aly Renwick served with the British Army in Thailand during the War in Vietnam. He is now a member of VFP UK. If you have a review of an anti-war song please send it in to firstname.lastname@example.org