Following Buffy Sainte-Marie’s concert in Kingston, Willa Thayer reflects on one of the aboriginal singer-songwriter’s best-known tunes, highlighting its relevance to the contemporary struggle for peace.
“Universal Soldier” is no paean to an Everyman soldier, though at first we might think it to be. Buffy Sainte-Marie, singer and writer of the 1964 tune, has done something more startling and nuanced than that.
Her warrior is a living breathing human — his height, age, and religion are known, because “He’s been a soldier for a thousand years,” fighting wars for every country that ever was.
But be warned: Sainte-Marie has not brought her soldier to life to make us sentimentalize him, as a step along the path to venerating war.
Right from her second verse, when she sings “he knows he shouldn’t kill, and he knows he always will,” she deftly upends the idea that soldiers are mere pawns.
Her soldier, then, is fully human because he is endowed with reason, and although we might fear for his safety on the battlefield, we understand, as well, that he is responsible for taking up the call to arms.
“Universal Soldier,” then, acknowledges in an equally authentic way both the soldier’s frailty and his agency, gently rolling out this tension as the song progresses.
Soldiers do follow the powerful into battle, Sainte-Marie sings, because “without him Caesar would have stood alone.”
But it is not just generals who make the decision for war: her soldier’s fighting orders “come from him and you and me and brothers can’t you see/ This is not the way we put an end to war?”
In this way, she shifts from singing to civilians about soldiers to singing to civilians about their own responsibility for war. In a democratic society, then, soldiers don’t make the fighting decision alone.
With “Universal Soldier,” Sainte-Marie not only pushes back against the criticism that peace activists dehumanize soldiers, but unites soldier and civilian in a shared responsibility for peace.
And in doing this, she challenges, head-on, the excuse that a particular war has the power to end all wars, mournfully casting down the idea that armed conflict has the power to bring an everlasting peace.
First released as the United States ramped up its war in Vietnam, “Universal Soldier” took a year after Sainte-Marie put it on an album before it became a hit, when in 1965, Donovan covered the song. Footage of him performing it shows an audience of university-age students, completely rapt as they take in Sainte-Marie’s message, only moving when they burst into applause as Donovan strummed the final chords.
More than 50 years later, the song continues to resonate, gaining new relevance as Canada’s participation in the Middle East wars nears 15 years.
Since late 2001, Canadians have been urged to “support the troops,” a call that implicitly carries with it a request to support Canada’s involvement in those wars.
But “Universal Soldier” shows that decrying war does not mean that we are against the well being of individual soldiers.
Sainte-Marie is not only relevant for her songs of yore. With her 2015 album, Power in the Blood, she sings of hard fought struggles, about justice for aboriginal people, at a time when Canada has begun to address the harm caused by the residential school system and growing aboriginal resistance to the degradation of their land by energy extraction.
He’s five feet 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
He’s been a soldier for a thousand years
He’s a catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jain
A Buddhist and a Baptist and Jew
And he knows he shouldn’t kill and he knows he always will
You’ll for me my friend and me for you
And he’s fighting for Canada, he’s fighting for France
He’s fighting for the usa
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 the 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
But his orders come from far away no more
They come from him and you and me and brothers can’t you see
This is not the way we put an end to war?