Review: 'Napalm: An American Biography'

Published May 4, 2013

Robert Neer chooses the disturbing, iconic 1972 photo of Kim Phuc, a 9-year-old South Vietnamese girl — clothes seared off, "chunks of pink and black flesh … peeling off" her, screaming as she runs toward us on a road — as the horrific opening scene in his gripping, meticulously documented study of a devilish weapon, Napalm: An American Biography.

Neer, a lawyer and lecturer in the history department at Columbia University, traces the origins of liquid fire weapons from ancient times. He informs us that Thucydides, the Greek historian, described a primitive flamethrower used by Boeotian engineers against an Athenian garrison in 424 B.C., during the Peloponnesian War. And Romans experienced a military attack in 69 B.C. when residents of the city of Samosata, in what is now southeastern Turkey, hurled "flaming mud" at them. The burning substance adhered to every solid body that it touched, the author tells us.

Although gasoline or fuel oil was used occasionally in flamethrowers by German, French and British troops in World War I (U.S. engineers developed similar devices), it was not really until America's impending mobilization into World War II in 1941 that the first serious scientific experiments leading to the development of napalm began. These occurred at Harvard University with a $5.2 million (in today's dollars) grant from the federal government to proceed with "Anonymous Research Project No. 4," headed by professor of organic chemistry Louis Fieser, the "Father of Napalm."

Neer's book goes into much detail about the various experiments and combinations of substances that went into developing napalm. On July 4, 1942, Fieser conducted a series of successful tests on the large pond at Harvard's soccer field. Though much more extensive testing was required to prove napalm's worthiness in combat, Neer writes, Fieser's "baby" was indeed born.

The author tells us that although the 1941-42 development of napalm was for strategic bombing purposes, the invention came at a time when any discovery that moved the United States toward victory was welcomed. And that included bats. In a chapter titled "American Kamikazes" Neer details the painstaking, expensive ($24 million in today's dollars) 1942 experiments involving a "plan to turn millions of bats into suicide bombers bearing tiny napalm time bombs" and to have them attack and burn Japanese cities. The project was abandoned when a number of the creatures escaped and burned down Carlsbad Auxiliary Army Base in New Mexico.

In World War II combat operations, the U.S. military used napalm flamethrowers in Sicily and the Pacific Islands. U.S. planes dropped 157,000 gallons of napalm in Normandy in June-August 1944 to facilitate the Allied breakout from the beaches.

By 1945 the Royal Air Force had destroyed the German cities of Hamburg and Dresden with magnesium incendiary bombs that created deadly firestorms and killed tens of thousands of civilians, and Germany had also been generally laid waste by conventional bombing, but Japan's conquest still beckoned. And this, Neer emphasizes, is where napalm's strategic purpose was furiously brought to bear.

On the night of March 9, 1945, Army Air Forces Gen. Curtis "the Cigar" LeMay ordered hundreds of silver B-29 bombers — "in a line that stretched for hundreds of miles back over the sea," wrote French journalist Robert Guillain — to bomb Tokyo with napalm. Thousands of clusters of Standard Oil's M-69 napalm bombs dropped from their bellies, burst as they fell and scattered around a quarter of a million "Molotov flower baskets." They smashed through roofs to splatter blazing napalm. About 690,000 pounds of napalm fell in less than an hour, Neer writes.

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"Winds whipped and combined tens of thousands of fires" into a firestorm. "A supernatural open chimney of flames and smoke rose 18,000 feet over the city. … Pools and ponds vaporized." People boiled. A 13-year-old boy, Seizo Hashimoto, "saw a woman, dressed in a red kimono … perhaps a geisha, seized by the firestorm, whipped and twisted in the air, and ignited: a human torch."

LeMay's firebombing of Tokyo, Neer informs us, may have killed more people than the August 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings combined.

Neer goes on to describe the further use of napalm in the Korean War (1950-53), in smaller conflicts and, most controversially, in the Vietnam War (1964-75). Besides giving us an accurate description of the political and military landscape of the time — the relentless bombing of North Vietnam, the antiwar protests, the endless arguments over the war's morality, the outcries over napalm-producing Dow Chemical's recruiting on campuses — Neer vividly makes clear how napalm earned its satanic reputation as an indiscriminate incinerator of children.

He reminds us in this thought-provoking and heart-rending book of all those hideous news photos of burned children, and he reintroduces us to the now 50-year-old Kim Phuc, the little South Vietnamese girl so severely scorched by napalm in the iconic 1972 news photograph.

"I suffered so much I wanted to die," she says to Neer.

But instead, "I prayed for my enemies who caused my suffering. … The more I prayed … the softer my heart became."

Although it was outlawed by many other nations by then, the United States used napalm in 2003 during the Iraq War. Ultimately, on July 29, 2008, the United States signed International Protocol III outlawing the use of napalm.