From 1979’s Armed Forces record, the other Elvis sings about the working class appearing to be the ones doing the fighting in conflicts. It’s a common concern that the military recruits from the disadvantaged, a sort of poverty draft, though some demographic analysis finds the US military with recruits more educated than the population at large.
Nevertheless, the sleeve notes have Costello being inspired on a 1978 trip to Belfast, seeing “mere boys” hanging about in fatigues, and packing weapons, and the impression is generalized in the lyrics to possible similar experiences in other conflict areas.
The exuberant piano playing and catchy melody makes it all sound so much fun, as if young men get excited by imperialist adventures! But Elvis would “rather be anywhere else,” and certainly not a “white nigger” on the “murder mile” (likely the Soviet shooting gallery for easily picking off escapees around the Berlin Wall).
Oliver is assumed to be Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) , who led a revolt against the British crown and seized the throne, as part of the English Civil War. A controversial historical figure sometimes cited as a hero of liberty, Costello is probably referring to his more genocidal activities. Maybe he means that atrocities have been around, maybe always will be, but that he wants no part of it. Don’t join the army, suggests Elvis Costello, and in the video he runs into the ocean, guitar strapped on all the same!