A Review of “Napalm: An American Biography,” by Robert M. Neer. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2013. 352 pages.

Napalm.  The word conjures up images of light, fire, and death. But not just any death; rather, one accompanied by intense heat, melting flesh, and unimaginable pain.

Robert M. Neer’s Napalm chronicles the history of one of the world’s most fearsome weapons from its inception in World War II to its present status as a global pariah.

The story begins in the early 1940s at Harvard University, in the laboratory of Professor Louis Fieser.  The chemist, and his Harvard colleagues, created a new incendiary device that burned extremely hot, resisted flame retardants, could be safely stored and transported, and possessed a gelatinous texture that facilitated its spread over a wide area.

In 1943, before napalm’s adoption for military use, the Army Air Force tested it on mock-ups of German and Japanese homes.  The tests revealed that Japanese homes, which consisted of highly-flammable woods, were especially vulnerable to napalm.

The tests convinced U.S. military leaders of napalm’s potential as a weapon of mass destruction.  In consequence, the Army Air Force deployed napalm around the world, but especially to the Pacific Theater.

On March 9, 1945, the Americans carried out the most devastating napalm attack in history against Tokyo.  General Curtis LeMay, commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific Theater, knew that the raid would kill a large number of Japanese civilians.  Nevertheless, he dismissed any moral concerns about mass civilian casualties by stating, “[T]o worry about the morality of what we were doing – Nuts.”[1]

In order to inflict maximum destruction upon Tokyo, the Americans scheduled the air raid to coincide with gale force winds.  Those high winds would help spread the flames across the target area – an 11.8 square mile zone in the city center.  LeMay also ordered a night raid at low elevation to minimize U.S. aircraft losses and increase target accuracy.

The raid, codenamed “Meetinghouse,” involved 279 B-29 Superfortresses.  When finally airborne, the Japan-bound formation of bombers stretched hundreds of miles long.

In their first hour over Tokyo, the B-29s dropped 690,000 pounds of napalm, resulting in thousands of small fires.  Those fires quickly joined together to form a firestorm that propelled smoke, ash, and flames thousands of feet above the city.  Crews aboard bombers that reached the city after the firestorm had begun recalled the distinct smell of burning human flesh.

The napalm raid destroyed 267,171 buildings, obliterated fifteen square miles of the city center, killed (according to the Tokyo Police Department) 124,711 people (mostly civilians) and made another million people homeless.  Years later, Robert S. McNamara, who worked under LeMay, and who later became Secretary of Defense under JFK and LBJ, admitted that the Tokyo raid had been a war crime.

Professor Fieser later claimed that he held no moral responsibility for the deaths attributable to napalm, including those who died in the Tokyo firestorm.  Fieser asserted that he merely invented the weapon; he wasn’t responsible for how others used it.  Neer begs to differ.  He argues that because the professor actively participated in the napalm tests on replicas of German and Japanese homes “…Fieser knew exactly what napalm did, and how it might be used.”[2]

And yet, as Neer clearly points out, Fieser did not act alone.  Top administrators at Harvard knew of his work, understood its potential military implications, and fully supported the professor’s research on incendiaries by providing him with laboratory space and an outdoor testing ground.  Later, industrial leaders and laborers manufactured the jelly-like mixture, as well as the weapon’s bomb casings, trigger mechanisms, and delivery systems, including flame tanks, flame throwers, and airplanes.  Additionally, the Department of Defense (and its legions of logisticians, technical personnel, and pilots) ensured that the fiery jello reached its intended targets in Europe and Asia.

Neer notes that in the human chain that stretched from Harvard to Tokyo and beyond, only a handful of individuals questioned the morality of using napalm against civilians.  For Neer, the near-total absence of criticism of napalm and its use against civilians represents a massive moral failing and a damning indictment of the United States government and its people.

Because the U.S. public, along with U.S. military and political leaders, viewed napalm as one of the “heroes” of World War II, the weapon found a prominent place in the American arsenal during the Korean War. Within hours after that war began on June 25, 1950, the U.S. Air Force deployed the flesh-consuming fire against North Korean troops racing down the Korean Peninsula.

But the Americans did not just deploy napalm against Communist troops.  U.S. aircraft dropped napalm on cities, towns, and villages in both North and South Korea.  During a Congressional hearing in 1951, General Douglas MacArthur admitted that the Korean Peninsula had been laid waste by U.S. firepower.  General LeMay, never one to mince words, acknowledged that with napalm “We burned down just about every city in North Korea and South Korea both…we killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes….”[3] In hindsight, it is surprising LeMay confessed to killing a million civilians and destroying much of the Korean Peninsula.  Undoubtedly, LeMay felt like he could be so bluntly honest because he knew that both the U.S. public and the country’s leaders supported his barbarity.

Since napalm had been instrumental in bringing Japan to its knees and had stopped the North Koreans and Chinese from overrunning the Korean Peninsula, the Pentagon deployed the weapon to Vietnam.

In Vietnam, according to Neer, napalm became symbolic of both American military defeat and American brutality toward Asians.

But the weapon represented far more than American defeat and barbarism.  Napalm’s widespread use in Vietnam revealed America’s moral collapse, collective insanity, racism, and devotion to a capitalist economic order irrespective of the cost in human suffering.

The book falls short in its analysis of why the Vietnam War turned so many Americans against napalm.  For example, the high number of civilians killed by the incendiary gel, which included a disproportionate number of women, children, and the elderly; plus the images of some of those victims on television and in the print media, persuaded millions of Americans of the weapon’s barbarity.  In addition, the American public became aware over time of napalm’s role in: 1) the destruction of thousands of hamlets across South Vietnam; 2) the forced de-population of the South Vietnamese countryside; 3) the American terror campaign against the Vietcong’s sympathizers in the South and the Communists in the North; and 4) the U.S. destruction of crops, forests, and cultural sites across Indochina.

By war’s end, napalm had become synonymous with the U.S.’s indiscriminate slaughter of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians and the ruin of much of Indochina’s agricultural sector, natural environment, and cultural heritage.  Napalm also represented the disjuncture between U.S. means (napalm) and professed ends (an equitable, just, socially stable South Vietnam).

Global efforts to ban the use of napalm began in earnest in the 1970s.  Predictably, the U.S. opposed those efforts.  In 1980, a group of nations agreed to Protocol III to the Geneva Convention, which prohibited the use of napalm against civilians.  Although P3 seemed like a no brainer, the United States refused to be a signatory.  The Americans wanted the option of being able to use the weapon against military targets located within civilian population centers.  This had been the same justification for the weapon’s use against Tokyo, Pyongyang, and thousands of South Vietnamese hamlets.  In other words, the Americans opposed P3 because they wanted to be able to use napalm the way they had always used it.

In the 1980s, 1990s, and first decade of the 21st century, the U.S. remained the world’s most prominent opponent of P3.  Jesse Helms, Dick Cheney, and John Bolton ensured the U.S. remained outside of the protocol.  Democrats played a part too, including President Bill Clinton.

Finally, in 2009, the United States agreed to be a signatory to the protocol.  However, President Barak Obama’s acceptance of the provisions of P3 actually meant very little.  The U.S. still insisted that it reserved the right to employ napalm at its own discretion.  And if the U.S. deemed it necessary to burn to the ground another Tokyo, it would do so regardless of P3.

Napalm’s present status is ambiguous, which is the way the United States wants it.  Ambiguity provides the U.S. military with flexibility; it also acts as a form of deterrence, since the U.S.’s enemies are kept guessing whether the U.S. will use the weapon against them at some future date.

So napalm now lies in wait – a weapon of mass destruction ready to be dusted-off and employed in America’s next big war.

_______________

Endnotes

[1] Neer, Napalm, 74.

[2] Ibid., 226.

[3] Ibid., 100.

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