2017 marks 25 years since the end of El Salvador’s civil war. It also marks the 30th anniversary of U2’s groundbreaking album, “The Joshua Tree” (which included hits such as “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “With or Without You“).

U2 and El Salvador? What’s the connection?

People of my generation (“millennials”) will likely know U2 as the “washed up rockers” who have desperately tried to stay relevant in pop culture—it’s hard to forget how the band forced their 2011 album, “Songs of Innocence,” onto everyone’s iPhone (it didn’t go so well).

But for others, U2 was a dominant, innovative rock n’ roll force of the 80s, one soaked in creative guitar-playing and politically charged lyrics. Some of these lyrics were on 1987’s “The Joshua Tree” and were ones which dealt with El Salvador’s civil war.

Civil War

I’ve touched on El Salvador’s civil war in previous blog posts, but for those who are new to this blog or to the subject, the following can offer some context.

joshua-tree
2017 marks the 30th anniversary of U2’s “The Joshua Tree.”

Like other Latin American countries, El Salvador was caught up in a conflict between leftist rebels and the oligarchical (military junta) state. It was a conflict which was a microcosm of a larger proxy war between Cold War combatants. Tensions were high, not just in Latin American, but across the Western World—with the fear that the country could become “another Cuba,” El Salvador’s geopolitical significance was hard to ignore. As a result, the US helped fund and train El Salvador’s army to fight against the guerilla front (the FMLN).

The civil war lasted 12 years, ending in 1992 with a peace treaty between the FMLN and the state. Along the way, horrendous acts were committed by both sides.

Using this as a backdrop, U2 recorded two songs for The Joshua Tree. It was recently announced that the band would be re-touring the album this year to mark its anniversary. U2’s guitarist told Rolling Stone that their decision to revisit the album has much to do with the times we live in today: the Trump election, Brexit…”it feels like we’re right back [in the turbulence of the 1980s] in a way.” If the tour isn’t profitable (which it probably will be), it will be at least poetic.

U2’s El Salvador

The connection between The Joshua Tree and El Salvador’s civil war is inconspicuous at first—what does a band from Ireland have to do with Central American politics? For U2, it was a matter of timing.

The Joshua Tree conceived two songs which were inspired by Bono’s visits to Central American countries, which included El Salvador: “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and “Mothers of the disappeared.”  Both deal with wartime atrocities.

Bullet,” one of U2’s heavier tracks, is based on Bono’s experience as he witnessed the fire-bombing of a nearby village (you can listen to his whole story here). Its lyrics are politically-charged—at one point, Bono becomes critical of US intervention and Ronald Reagan, describing him as a rich, “red-faced” man:

bullet
Lyrics from “Bullet the Blue Sky”

This guy comes up to me
His face red like a rose on 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
And I can see those fighter planes
And I can see those fighter planes
Across the mud huts where the children sleep
Through the alleys of a quiet city street
You take the staircase to the first floor
Turn the key and slowly unlock the door
As a man breathes into a saxophone
And through the walls you hear the city groan
Outside is America
Outside is America

Indeed, with the growing fear of state-sanctioned death squads and disappearances, the overarching mood of Bullet was that US intervention was detrimental to Salvadorans.

On the subject of “disappearances,” U2 wrote Mothers of the Disappeared. Less politically-charged than Bullet, Mothers deals with a common, unfortunate occurrence of the civil war: the disappearance or murder of those perceived as rebel sympathizers. These included human-rights defenders, journalists, and students (Wolfe, 2017, p. 33).

The song was written after Bono and his wife met with members of CoMadres, an organization founded by women who had had lost family members during the civil war (Jobling, 2014, p. 159):

Midnight, our sons and daughters
Cut down, taken from us
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat

In the wind we hear their laughter
In the rain we see their tears
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat

US support for the Salvadoran government only ceased in 1989 after six Jesuit priests and two employees from the Central American University were murdered by the Salvadoran army. The widespread condemnation forced the US to cut military aid (Wolfe, 2017, p. 31).

25 years later, many question if the war accomplished any of the goals the sought out by the FMLN. The economic divide persists. There’s little access to well-paying jobs. Perhaps worst of all, citizens are held hostage by relentless gang activity. Some Salvadorans I’ve spoken with have commented that in spite of the social inequalities pre and post-civil war, they felt the country was in better shape before the war than after it—the logic, they’ve told me, is that despite the shortcomings of the pre-civil war oligarchy, Salvadorans were at least able to roam the streets without worrying about being shaken down by gangs.

I recently picked up Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador by Sonja Wolfe, a research fellow at the Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas in

ronald-reagan
Fearing the threat of communism, Ronald Reagan’s administration provided support to El Salvador’s army throughout the civil war.

Aguascalientes, Mexico. I’ve only scratched its surface (36 out of 237 pages), but in it, she outlines how the failure of current anti-gang policies stem from the flawed creation of the country’s national civil police force. She argues that the same government officials who were heads during the civil war—and who were responsible for atrocities during the war—were the same ones in charge of creating the police force once the country demilitarized. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Does that mean the sky falling? In this whole U2-El Salvador connection, good news exists: after meeting with a delegation comprised of activists and scholars, El Salvador President Sanchez Ceren announced on January 27 that his government would create a National Commission into the disappearance of persons during the civil war. However, given the flip-floppiness of previous administrations, Ceren’s administration should be observed stringently to ensure that it sticks to its word and conducts a thorough investigation.

Coming Full Circle

An interesting (and brief) thought to end.

There’s a theory by some music historians that the popularity of certain music genre fluctuates depending on who’s in the white house. Prominent Canadian music historian and radio personality Alan Cross has made the argument that rockier, edgier, punk-infused music grows in popularity whenever Republicans take Capitol Hill. Conversely, pop music (Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys) reigns when the Democrats are in.

Subscribing to this theory would add yet another similarity between 1987 and 2017.

1987: Violence plagues El Salvador. Republicans are in the White House. Latin American migration is a contentious US-policy issue. U2 tours the Joshua Tree while criticizing the Reagan administration.

2017: Violence plagues El Salvador. Republicans are in the White House. Latin American migration is a contentious US-policy issue. U2 tours the Joshua Tree while criticizing the Trump administration.

An anniversary, indeed. One could hope that the next El Salvador-themed song U2 writes has less to do with violence and more with harmony.

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