Song of the Day: War in Music (Day Two). “Our Little Army Boy is Coming Home from B.F.P.O …”

Army Dreamers was the third and final single released from Kate Bush’s third album Never for Ever (1980).   The song is about the effects of war and a mother grieving following the death of her young soldier son after he is killed on military manoeuvres.  During the grief process, she wrestles with her guilt over what she could have done to prevent it.

In the song, the acronym “B.F.P.O” stands for “British Forces Post Office”, the postal system for the British armed forces, who deliver the message:  “Our little army boy is coming home, from B.F.P.O”.  Whilst the B.F.P.O are responsible for all manner of post being delivered between soldiers and civilians, they are also responsible for the delivery home of the bodies of soldiers killed in action overseas.  The conflict which Bush refers to in the song is the Northern Ireland conflict, made apparent by the slight Irish inflection in Bush’s voice as she sings and also in performances of the song on television around the time of the song’s release, where she dresses as a housewife and an Irish jig is incorporated as part of the choreography.  At the time of its release, the Northern Ireland conflict was highly relevant.

As the song continues, in the line “Mourning in the aerodrome”, we find “Mammy” waiting for her son’s body to arrive home.  The line “The weather warmer, he is colder” is suggestive that the song is set in either Spring or Summer but despite the change in air temperature, “Mammy’s hero” is cold because he is dead.  The line in the chorus, “But he never had the money for a guitar” is suggestive that the dead soldier was from a poor background and thus, Army Dreamers could be seen as a statement on how the military can take advantage of the lower classes.

The song’s chorus finds the dead soldier’s mother thinks about what her son could have done with his life instead of joining the army, if only he had had the opportunity to do so.  “Should have been a politician , But he never had a proper education”, sings Bush, referring the way in which the Army is often an option for those without a formal education.  The reference to the profession of ‘politician’ is interesting as the dead soldier was taken advantage of by politicians to fight their country’s battles but politicians themselves are usually able to escape fighting in conflicts due to their privileged backgrounds.  Further to this, “Mammy” laments that he “Should have been a father, But he never even made it to his twenties”, a criticism of the army cheating young men out of ordinary lives.

The third verse finds “Mammy” telling of the futility of war whilst weeping over her son’s coffin:  “Tears o’er a tin box, oh, Jesus Christ, he wasn’t to know, Like a chicken with a fox, He couldn’t win the war with ego”.  The fourth verse of the song tells of how the army may have honoured the dead soldier with military medals but no amount of these awards were worth his life:  “Give the kid a pick of pips, And give him all your stripes and ribbons, Now he’s sitting in his hole, He might as well have buttons and bows”.   These verses are key to the subversive nature of the song, which suggests that the army is pointless.  This message had already been seen in the chorus with the words “What a waste”, whilst in these verses, Bush tells of how medals won for bravery and valour have no more significance than buttons and bows and that they are merely shows of ego.

As with all Kate Bush singles, Army Dreamers featured an astounding and memorable promotional video.  The video opens with a close up shot of Bush, dressed in dark green army camouflage and holding a child.  The child represents the mother’s memory of her deceased son.  Bush blinks in time with the sampled gun cocks in the song.  The camera pulls out and shows that Bush has a white-haired child on her lap.  The child walks away and returns in a military combat uniform.  Bush and several soldiers make their way through woodland amongst a series of explosions.  Interestingly, one of the soldiers has ‘KTB’, a monogram that Bush used early in her career, etched on the butt of his rifle.  Later in the video, Bush reaches out for the child soldier, but he disappears.  Finally, one of the soldiers is blown up.  Bush has said of the promotional video for Army Dreamers that it is one of the few times she has been completely satisfied with a promotional video for one of her songs.  In a 1980 interview with Doug Pringle for Profiles in Music, she explained:

“For me, that’s the closest that I’ve got to a little bit of film.  And it was very pleasing for me to watch the ideas I’d thought of actually working beautifully.  Watching it on the screen.  It really was a treat, that one.  I think that’s the first time ever with anything I’ve done I can actually sit back and say, “I liked that”.  That’s the only thing.  Everything else I can sit there going, “Oh, look at that, that’s out of place”.  So I’m very pleased with that one, artistically”.