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The personal column

Coercion, objection, desertion

Jeff Cloves reflects on desertion's representation in popular music

ImageLately I have been thinking – once again – about desertion from the military. This time, I’ve been prompted by reading a review (not the book) of Deserter: The Last Untold Story of the Second World War by Charles Glass (HarperPress, 2013, £25). The review reveals that ‘as many as 100,000 British and 50,000 US Servicemen are believed to have deserted at some point’. I hope to return to this book about ‘the final taboo’ in a future PN.

But taboo? Well, that’s as maybe but certainly songwriters have always written about desertion or claim to have. I write ‘claim’ because the songs I’ve encountered are more to do with conscientious objection and moral principle, while the motives for desertion may be other.

For example, the French anarchist film-maker, novelist, poet, musician and songwriter, Boris Vian, wrote ‘Le Déserteur’ (1954) at the time France was fighting – and losing – its colonial war in Indochina. The song was banned from sale and broadcast until 1962 and the right to conscientious wasn’t granted until 1963.

The following three verses (out of twelve) puts the moral case for refusing to fight, and the song was in Joan Baez’s repertoire – and many others – during the Vietnam war:

I’ve just received
my call-up papers
to leave for the front
before Wednesday night.

Mr president
I do not want to go
I am not on this earth
to kill wretched people.

It’s not to make you mad
I must tell you
my decision is made
I am going to desert.

A different song of desertion is sung by Sandy Denny on Fairport Convention’s magnificent album Liege and Lief (1969). ‘The Deserter’ – also known as ‘Radcliffe Highway’ – is Victorian, seemingly, and tells the tale of a press gang conscript. The three verses (out of six) printed here tell a different story with a different motive:

As I was a-walking down Radcliffe highway
a recruiting party came a-beating my way
they enlisted me and treated me till I did not know
And to the queen’s barracks they forced me to go

When first I deserted, I thought myself free
until my cruel comrade informed against me
I was quickly followed after and brought back with speed
I was handcuffed and guarded, heavy irons put on me

Court martial, court martial, they held upon me
and the sentence passed upon me, three hundred and three
may the Lord have mercy on them for their sad cruelty
for now the queen’s duty lies heavy on me

There are loads of anti-war songs – more than pro-war songs I’d guess – but few deal directly and specifically with desertion. But how about this excerpt from ‘Deserter’s Song’ by Radical Face released in 2010. You can see and hear it on YouTube, and it deserves greater currency: 

My eyes locked with a boy on the other side
hands dropped, he stood defenseless
but he wasn’t frightened
his face was accepting
but I couldn’t pull
I couldn’t pull, I couldn’t pull

And I could see it clear
to fall was not my fear
to make one fall was

And the chaos returned, I backed into the trees
left my guns on the ground, wiped the mud from my knees
and I knew in my heart that my old life was gone
that, in walking away, my name was undone
so I might as well run

My own recurring nightmare is to be in a war from which I am desperate to run but cannot move. This is a powerful work and – no matter their motives – I am instinctively on the side of all deserters.

In the early ’80s, I was writer-in-residence in Waltham Forest, and met a young writer who told me his dad was a Second World War deserter.

When he was called-up, he and his friend who were travelling by rail to their muster camp, spontaneously jumped train at a rural station and disappeared into the night. His father was on the run for the rest of the war and wasn’t captured until it was over.  His prison term, as I recall, was a year or less, and he reunited with his family.

His only explanation to his family was: ‘I couldn’t do it.’