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Above us only sky

In his famous song, John Lennon invites us to imagine a world without religion, capitalism and nationalism. If we stop perceiving the sky as heaven, we loose a mythical place to long for. Yet, we also liberate ourselves from the threat of hell.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky [1]

In every culture, the sky is a special place; often linked to the sun, the moon, the stars. This article, however, is about the sky in itself, the mere space above us. The current perceptions of the sky across societies are very different. In a globalizing world which grows together faster than ever, this is not only a cultural phenomenon. I argue that the way people perceive the sky is of political importance – today; especially crucial in the US drone program in Asia.

In the past, the sky was in the hands of gods. The greatest gods of the European antiquity, Zeus, Jupiter, later Thor in the north, were responsible for everything happening in the air. As humans were not able to influence thunder, rain and the wind, these were unaffected expression of the gods. The same can be said for the various forms of monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). The tale of Icarus in ancient Greek mythology is representative for most pre-modern views on the sky. Icarus, attempting to escape from an island, using wings built by his father, flew too high in the sky. His wings decomposed and without auxiliary means, there was no legitimacy for him to be above the ground. [2]

From the 18th century onwards, our species conquered the sky. The invention of balloons followed the general pattern of human inventions which can be summed up in the following steps:

1. Somebody has a problem.
2. Somebody invents something to solve that problem.
3. Somebody thinks of a way to kill somebody else with this invention.

It took only until 1849 until Austrian Lieutenant Uchatius got to step three and tried to use balloons for bombing Venice. [3] Interestingly, those balloons were unmanned and hence also constitute the first drones in history.

In the twentieth century, especially during the Second World War and the Vietnam War, the sky became a danger zone. It was the US with their overwhelming industrial power which controlled that zone. In the sixties, they dropped more bombs on Vietnam than all bombs in World War II together and – as a positive example, at least for a German – managed to maintain the Berlin Air Lift for an astonishingly long time.

With the fall of USSR around 1990, America became the undisputed master of the sky, just as Great Britain dominated the sea 200 years ago. It is with this overwhelming US power over the sky that America (and, partially its NATO allies) departed from the rest of the world with its perception of the sky. The sky was now in their absolute control, for example in the gulf war. The impact of nine-eleven can hardly be overestimated. For most Americans, this attack did not only come out of nothing, but also from a space which they believed was in their absolute control. The new One World Trade Centre is extremely political. It had to be higher than the two former towers, to deliver the message that the US still claims the sky for itself.

The involvement of the US in many conflicts, particular in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, opens the latest chapter in the cultural history of the sky. Waking up, many Pakistanis check the sky hoping that it is cloudy or misty. Because of the US drone strikes, for the first time in history, humans fear the clear sky more than they would fear storm and thunder. After nine-eleven, Americans had to re value the formerly harmless airplanes. Pakistanis, in contrast, now have to re value the clear blank blue sky – psychologically, this is much more difficult. The former place of gods is now, so it seems to many, in the hands of the US and their invisible weapons.

The drone strategy has obviously many advantages for the Obama administration. They are comparably cheap, drones do not create such bad publicity in the media back home when they kill many civilians [4] and for the pilots, killing becomes an impersonal task, not far from playing computer games.

What the US currently does not take enough into account is the enormous psychological effect. If the clear blue sky is not safe, how can a person believe that anything is safe? If, in the eyes of many civilians, the US is responsible for making the sky the place of evil, how can anything be right in a world where heaven and hell are upside-down? For US nationalists, the sky is the place of revenge for nine eleven, e.g. in the form of drone strikes or the killing of Bin Laden in which helicopters were used. For civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, now in Syria and Iraq, used by terrorists as human shields or just threatened by US carelessness, the sky indicates unsafety. The current perception of the sky in those countries in the last years not only became very different from the Western perception, but it also developed into one of the most effective recruiters for terrorism.

[1] John Lennon: Imagine, 1971.

[2] Yes, I know that they were made out of wax which then melted because of the sun and so on. Above, I put the story in more abstract words. Yet, I always wondered, why the Greeks told that story this way. By climbing mountains, they must have known that the higher you go, the colder it gets. If you, as a storyteller, want Icarus to die, than it would make much more sense to say that Icarus’ arms froze or that he asphyxiated.


[4] Please note that for the purpose of this article, the political question about guilt and responsibilities for the high numbers of civilians among casualties is not relevant.

Gunnar Take

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