A History & Background of U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky” & Why It Is Still Relevant


I do not like Jimmy Fallon. It hasn’t always been this way, but since that infamous night when he let candidate Donald Trump off the hook without asking political questions while having a discussion that made Trump look more “human” than he actually is was the night my opinion of Fallon changed. Then, there was U2’s appearance a couple of weeks ago that did nothing to change my opinion of Fallon, but it was much needed for a show that lacks political backbone catering to viewers who are equally indifferent.

On the other hand, I love U2. Always have, always will. Since the age of 10 when I first heard “Angel of Harlem” from their 1988 album Rattle and Hum, I have been a huge fan. Don’t get me wrong, there have been moments of disappointment like Zooropa and Pop, and even the controversial blight that is Age of Innocence, but I have still remained faithful to Bono and the boys. I have even “unfriended” a person on Facebook for lambasting Bono in a comment thread on a personal post. I know many people poke fun at U2’s egos, but no matter how much you may disagree with or dislike Bono and the band’s political views you have to give them this, their hearts are in the right place and their intentions are noble.

For years they have spoken out against oppression and social injustice, whereas Jimmy Fallon has been ignorantly invading television screens across America by not speaking out against Trump like other late night show hosts have (Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Cobert, Trevor Noah, and Seth Meyers), and U2’s performance of a Trump-centered “Bullet the Blue Sky” was just what was needed and they deserve respect for speaking out against the Demagogue-in-Chief. It is one of U2’s most overtly political songs, and when they perform it live they usually do so in a manner that is heavily critical of political conflicts and violence making the Fallon performance timely.

“Bullet the Blue Sky” is one of my favorite U2 songs. It was the only song that came to mind the night Trump was elected. It was and is what a Trump presidency sounds like to me. Maybe because I knew a little history behind the song, and, now, I think it’s time that more people become educated on the meaning and background of this classic.

During the mid-80s, U2’s political awareness was growing through Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence, preforming relief concerts like Live Aid, and going on trips to Africa and Central America. It was during a trip to El Salvador and Nicaragua that Bono’s political awareness of global social injustice and human rights violations became greatly awakened.

In the years leading up to Bono’s visit to El Salvador, the country had been embroiled in decades of unrest which started after the stock market collapsed in 1929 when the price of coffee drastically dropped. This resulted in landed elite versus the poor scenario. In 1932, the Central American Socialist Party was formed and led an uprising of peasants and indigenous people against the government. In return, the government brutally suppressed the uprising in what is simply known as the “La Matanza” (“The Massacre”), with the military murdering between 10,000 and 40,000 people. La Matanza reinforced the people’s distrust and animosity toward the government, military, and the landed elite.

Fast forward through decades of more unrest and uprisings to the late 1970s when Salvadoran President General Carlos Humberto Romero intimidated voters with machetes during the election causing massive demonstrations to protest the election. On February 28, 1977, a group of demonstrators gathered in downtown San Salvador to protest the election fraud, but were met with security forces that opened fire on both protestors and bystanders. It was estimated that between 200 and 1,500 civilians were killed. The sitting government at the time of this protest blamed it on foreign Communists.

Repression continued after the inauguration of President Romero, declaring a state-of-siege and suspending civil liberties. In the rural areas of El Salvador the landed elites created and funded paramilitary death squads composed of civilians that were autonomous from the Salvadoran military until they were taken over by El Salvador’s military intelligence service led by Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, thus becoming a critical part of the government’s repressive regime murdering thousands of union leaders, activists, students, teachers, and priests.

Sadly, during this tumultuous time, the United States President Jimmy Carter was providing support to the Salvadoran military. Not unaware of the human rights violations and atrocities happening in El Salvador and throughout Central America, Carter continued to approve the funding and support of these dictatorships.

In February 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero, teacher and Catholic priest of liberation theology, published an open letter to President Carter pleading with him to stop the military aid. He warned Carter that the United States’ support would only increase the injustice and repression of groups and people who have been struggling for basic human rights. Then, on March 24, 1980, the Archbishop was shot while giving mass. His assassination came a day after addressing Salvadoran soldiers not to follow their orders to kill civilians.

“In the name of God, then, in the name of this suffering people, who screams and cries mount to heaven, and daily grow louder, I beg you, I entreat you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!”

The next day, President Carter issued a statement condemning the assassination calling it ” a shocking and unconscionable act.”

People from all over the world were so angered by the murder of the Archbishop more than 250,000 mourners attended his funeral mass as a form of protest against the Salvadoran government. During his funeral services it has been said that government security forces were throwing smoke bombs and shooting into the crowd outside of the cathedral killing 40 people and injuring 200. Eight months after the Archbishop’s murder, it was discovered that it had been planned and ordered by Roberto D’Aubuisson.

One of the most horrifying events of the Salvadoran Civil War occurred in 1981 when the government ordered that the countryside be swept for left-wing guerrillas. Over a three day period in December, approximately 1,000 people, almost the whole village of Mozote, were tortured and killed by the Salvadoran army’s Atlacatl Battalion who were trained for counter-insurgency warfare. It was the first unit of its kind in the Salvadoran military and trained by the United States. Men, women, and children were separated into groups and locked in churches, the convent, and various houses in the village. The soldiers interrogated, tortured, and executed men in various locations. Women and older girls were separated from their children, raped, and shot. Girls as young as 10 were raped, and children as young as two years old had their throats slit and were hanged from trees. After killing most of the village, the soldiers set fire to buildings. All of this courtesy of the United States government, who was aware of the carnage and human rights violations, but did not care because it was all in the name of stopping the perceived threat of Communism.

The Salvadoran Civil War ended on January 16, 1992, lasting more than 12 years with violence from both sides. Throughout those years there were an unknown amount of people who disappeared, and the United Nations report that more than 75,000 people were killed. This mass killing was supported by the American dollars and military aid given during both the Carter and Regan administrations.

The United Nations estimated that the guerrillas were responsible for only 5% of civilian deaths, whereas 85% of civilians murdered were killed by the Salvadoran military and death squads.

In the Washington Post Foreign Service, Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan reported Ronald Regan “funneled $1 million a day to a repressive and often brutal Salvadoran government whose thugs and death squads killed thousands of people.” And, this cruel Salvadoran regime and civil war was not the only one funded and supported by the United States. In Nicaragua, the United States organized the contra guerrillas who fought the Sandinista regime. According to Sullivan and Jordan, “the United States spent $1 billion on them; the fighting in Nicaragua killed as many as 50,000 people.”

The reasons for the United States’ heavy involvement in Central American conflicts and civil wars was 1.) economics (bananas, coffee, etc.) and 2.) Communism. Regan explained that United States involvement was an effort to stop the influence of Communism.  As a result, the United States spent more than $4 billion in economic and military aid to the Salvadoran Civil War.

And, because of the unrest in Central America, Bono visited El Salvador and Nicaragua. It was during his trip to an El Salvadoran countryside that became a war zone that caused Bono to become upset on both spiritual and human levels. As he discussed in The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s “Louder Than Words: Rock, Power, and Politics” exhibit, “it upset me as a person who read the Scriptures, to think that Christians in America were supporting this kind of thing, this kind of proxy war because of these Communists.” He also went on to say that he was interested in liberation theology at that time. But, I disagree with his explanation of liberation theology. In actuality, liberation theology is a Roman Catholic movement embraced in Latin America for its beliefs and scriptural teachings that applies religion by helping, supporting, and educating the poor and oppressed through political and civic affairs.

Having a difficult time expressing his thoughts about what he had been through in El Salvador, Bono spoke to Edge about putting his experience into song. The result was “Bullet the Blue Sky” and Edge’s Jimi Hendrix-esque guitar that perfectly puts the fear of war into the hearts of anyone who listens. And, it is that missile-firing guitar and the driving bass lines that enhance and intensify the lyrics that sound as if they could be found in both the Old and New Testaments.

“In the howling wind comes a stinging rain
See it driving nails
Into the souls in the tree of pain
From a firefly, a red orange glow
See the face of fear
Running scared on the valley below
Bullet the blue sky”

Then, Bono sings,

“Jacob wrestled the angel
And the angel was overcome” (Genesis 32:25).

Bono’s usage of this scripture and the Bible story of Jacob and the angel was important and smart. In Genesis 32:22-32, Jacob wrestles with an angel and won, and because Jacob won the angel changed his name from “Jacob” which means “supplanter, schemer, trickster, swindler” to “Israel” which means “contender with God” or “he who struggles with God”. While in El Salvador and Nicaragua, Bono who as a nonviolent person had a violent reaction to what was happening there, so I believe that Bono may not have only struggled with those “violent” feelings, but also struggled with God like the people in Central America were doing during that time.

In a 1987 interview with Rolling Stone, Bono told David Breskin:

“I am Christian, but at times I feel very removed from Christianity. The Jesus Christ I believe in was the man who turned over the tables in the temple and threw the money-changers out…There is a radical side to Christianity that I am attracted to. And I think without a commitment to social justice, it is empty…Why are people left on the side of the road in the United States? Why, in the West, do we spend so much money on extending the arms race instead of wiping out malaria, which could be eradicated given ten minutes’ worth of the world’s arms budget? To me, we are living in the most un-Christian times.”

And, when Breskin asked Bono about liberation theology, he replied:

“I think the danger of liberation theology is that it can become a very material ethic, too material. But I am really inspired by it…If you are not committed to the poor, what is religion?”

The very question of why we spend so much money to extend the arms race and supporting governments and groups that brutalize people is personified in “Bullet the Blue Sky” with the semi-realistic caricature of Ronald Regan, who sent money to the repressive regimes and cruel groups in Central America in the name of Capitalism.

“This guy comes up to me
His face red like a rose in a thorn bush
Like all the colors of a royal flush
And he’s peeling off those dollar bills
Slapping them down
One hundred, two hundred”

If you have made it this far, then you’re probably asking yourself, “Why was U2’s performance of ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’ on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon so remarkable?”

Well, like I wrote earlier, it was an overtly anti-Trump performance on a show that usually panders to those without a political spine. Also, it’s a slightly different song with completely different dancers. The United States still place a lot of importance on the military and national security, but that importance was increased by Trump’s $603 billion request for the defense budget, and just recently emphasized by the Senate’s approval of $700 billion for military spending, and all of this will happen at the expense of our most vulnerable citizens — the poor and disabled. But, not only is military spending important, America and Trump are bandstanding and showboating to create what feels like an imminent nuclear war with North Korea to cover up the Russia investigation as well as his insecurities as an inept president. So, this performance was U2’s call to react and act. “Bullet the Blue Sky” was a song originally written to raise awareness about oppression and violence and that still holds true today and was updated to hold its truth that night on Fallon.

On this particular performance, U2 changes the lyrics to allude to Trump’s warmongering, greed, xenophobia, nationalism, inexperience, and detrimental policies. The lyrics focus heavily on the building tension between North Korea and United States, but Bono also makes an allusion to Trump’s xenophobia, racism, immigration policy, and white nationalism with “Lalalalala America”, a nod to West Side Story‘s “America”, and in my mind, some connection to their song “Refugee”.

Below are the revamped lyrics of “Bullet the Blue Sky”:

“Suit and tie comes up to me
Face orange like a rose on a thorn bush
Skin as thin as orange crush
Peeling off them dollar bills
One hundred
Two hundred

I can see those fighter planes

I can see those fighter planes

WMD in their veins

Ah, the ground shakes but the children can’t weep
Vaporized in a single tweet
The emperor rises from his golden throne
Never knowing, never BEING known
The lights are on president’s home
Oh my God, I never felt so alone
Outside is America
Outside is America

Lalalalalala America

In a far off palace in a far-fetched land
Another baby plays a baby grand
Fingers on the keys of a siren song
Finger on the button of oblivion

And all I can think of is my son
All I can think of is my son
He misses his ma, misses his da
And he runs
And he runs
And he runs
Into the arms of America”

As I listened to this version, I just shiver. It’s a song that is just as frightening now as it was when it was written. The fear these lyrics create is real. The lyric that really, and I mean, REALLY strikes me is, “Finger on the button of oblivion/All I can think of is my son.” Nothing could be truer. Everything Trump is setting into motion will not only affect Americans and the world now, but the future generations. I can’t help but think about my own son and the world he will inherit, and that scares me to death…I’m getting anxiety just thinking about it…And, the question I ask myself all the time, “Will Trump and the war obsessed, might-is-always-right U.S. government going to eventually require compulsory service for my son?” Or, “Will there be a world left with nuclear war an option on the table with Trump?”

I just hope people pay attention and realize that Donald Trump, his faux administration, and the repulsive Republicans in office are DANGEROUS! And, quickly find that their brand of nationalism and military power frightening.

To end, I would like to leave you with a couple of passages from authors and theologians whose words are more profound and intelligent than mine could ever be. The first is from theologian Robert McAfee Brown’s book, Liberation Theology:

“Our problem today is not that we as a people do not believe in God, but that we as a people have many gods from whom to choose; this lack of a true ‘center’ is one reason for our plight. Idolatry, or the worship of false gods, is perhaps the sin to which the Bible most often calls attention, particularly within the Hebrew Scriptures. If we do try to name the chief idol in our national pantheon, it is undoubtedly some form of ‘nationalism.’ What has at times been a healthy pride in our heritage and its contributions to the entire human venture has degenerated into a crabbed insistence not only that because of our heritage we behave better than any other nation but that we also have a right to determine how other nations shall behave…

If other nations refuse to accept our agenda for their future, we bash them — verbally or militarily. The often unspoken but deeply held assumption to which we feel we must cling is that we are always right; any nation can be bashed save us. In order to assume unchallenged preeminence in the bashing department, we create inordinately expensive (and increasingly superfluous) weapon systems, at the cost of the decay of our schools, our social services, our infrastructure, and, increasingly, our environment. It is a policy under which everyone loses.

As long as the god of nationalism continues to rule us we can only anticipate more of the same: false (even unstated) goals, neglect of the needy, disregard for the truth, and lack of directions for the present, let alone the future. Only through the dethronement of the false god, and our liberation from its control over lives, can we begin to turn the tide. Perhaps the greatest gift third world Christians could give us would be to share their concept of deity…rather than a god of national self-aggrandizement, a God of love and justice. The distance between the two gods is the distance between replicating a past that delivered ‘liberty and justice for some,’ and creating a future that provides ‘liberty and justice for all‘” (Brown 110-111)

And, the last quote is from Archbishop Oscar Romero, “…either we believe in a God of life, or we serve the idols of death.”

Which will it be?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s