This song was written with the intent of making people think about the absurdity of war and to deepen the responsibility of conflicts which we too often hide from, “It’s about individual responsibility for war and how the old feudal thinking kills us all” says the author of ‘Universal Soldier’, Buffy Sainte-Marie. The Canadian writer and singer, who first released the song on her debut album ‘It’s My Way!‘ in 1964, sold the song’s rights to a man at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village for just 1$, signing the contract on a napkin, and buying it back ten years later for 25,000$.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song didn’t hit the public as it deed when Philip Leitch, known as the Scottish folk singer Donovan, covered it a year later, first in an UK EP, reaching #5 in the charts, and then as a single in the United States.
At the time of Donovan’s success, ‘Universal Soldier’ became an anthem for the activist movement against Vietnam war, but the song itself was written a couple of years prior to the entry on the scene of the US, therefore it doesn’t refer only to the american soldiers, but, as the title suggets, to all the soldiers worldwide, to the universal soldier, because no matter in what time or place he is the one who will have to risk his life and take away the one of some other human being.
“Because we can’t blame just the soldier for the war, or just the career military officer, or just the politician. We have to blame ourselves too since we are living in an era where we actually elect our politicians.”
[Buffy Sainte-Marie, abridged from an article in the Hamilton Spectator by Graham Rockingham, June 2009.]
The words of Buffy Sainte-Marie perfectly describe the feeling behind the lyrics: THE soldier can be of any religion, of any age, can come from any country , can fight in whatever name he has to, but in the end, without him, politicians could not declare war, actually they could not win or loose those wars.
Interesting fact is that there are different opinions on a particular verse in the song, in the original version, Sainte-Marie says : “But without him / How would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau?” referring to the firts Nazi concentration camp built in Germany in 1933 (some critics stated that she even says: “How would Hitler have condemned them at Dacau”), but in Donovan’s version the reference is made at Liebau, the German name of the Polish town of Lubawka, where a training and recreation center was placed for the Hitler-Jugend (Hitler Youth), this choice was probably made to highlight the importance of the right education of young people to make a world a better and safer place.
In the end, Donovan’s version of ‘Universal Soldier’ remains one of the most significant anti-war songs of the ’60s, and it’s not unusual to compare him to Bob Dylan, they were their mutual alter-ego, “Dylan was the crude realist, Donovan was the daydreamer; Dylan belonged to a historical period, Donovan lived in a transcendent eden; Dylan was the crusader vowed to epic missions, Donovan was the hermit overwhelmed by nature; Dylan was the visionary prophet, Donovan was a humble friar.” (Piero Scaruffi).
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,
He’s been a soldier for a thousand years.
He’a 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 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 Labau?
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 an end to war.