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Napalm: An American Biography.

Napalm: An American Biography

By Robert M. Neer

Cambridge, MA: Belknap

Press, 2013

352 pages


Dr. Robert Neer, an attorney and core lecturer in the History Department at Columbia University, has written a splendid and important book on the history--one could say the rise and fall--of the incendiary weapon, napalm. The author's specialization in twentieth and twenty-first century US military power is evident in his writing of this extremely well researched and balanced work. The term napalm initially derived from "... the first two letters of naphthenate with the first fours letters of palmitate," (32) but later had no chemical meaning as the composition changed to a different metal-soap and gasoline-gel formula. The fact scientists at Harvard in early World War II undertook the actual composition and weaponization of napalm, and Neer's book was published by a Harvard University Press, seems quite an appropriate way to close the loop on this weaponry saga.

One might ask why a book on napalm is needed. Unbeknownst to many readers, is the stark reality that the fire bombings of Japan in World War II utilizing napalm filled incendiary devices caused far more urban devastation and killed more of the Japanese populace than the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagaski combined. Napalm also represented a deadly workhorse weapon in the island fighting campaigns against Japan and was commonly used against massed North Korean and Chinese attacks in the Korean War, and against guerrillas and infantry targets throughout the Vietnam War. This weapon also saw earlier use in Europe in World War II, against northern urban targets in the Korean War, and has been utilized in other regions throughout the world. Hence napalm, representative of mass-produced industrial-age weapons, played an incredibly important part in America's past wars and deserves to have its story told.

The work is divided into thematic sections entitled Hero, Soldier, and Pariah along with a prologue and epilogue, and notes, acknowledgements, an index, and quite a few historical photos and drawings. Five "hero" chapters exist and cover the need for development of napalm through its use in the island fighting campaigns of World War II and into the mass fire bombing of Japanese cities. The soldier theme comprises four chapters focusing primarily on the use of napalm in Korea and Vietnam along with the increasing criticism of its use in the later war as its unpopularity rose at home. The "pariah" chapters are five in number and chronicle how both US public and international views on napalm have soured and view use of the weapon as tantamount to a war crime.

The many stories woven together and insights provided about the development, history, and use of napalm are not only highly informative but also provide a good read. A compressed weapons systems lifecycle from the entrepreneurial through the institutionalized and later the satirized phases is readily evident: from Harvard tennis players fleeing during the initial field test in July 1942 (entrepreneurial), the Island campaigns and later firebombing of Japan in 1943-1945, its use in the Korean War in 1950-1952, and in Vietnam in 1963-1972 (institutionalized), and the anti-napalm arms control movement that picked up synergy with the infamous photo of a naked nine year old Vietnamese girl--Kim Phuc--burned by napalm and the subsequent "Napalm Sticks to Kids" cadence-song parody (1972), the surreal scenes from the movie "Apocalypse Now" (1979) related to napalm use, and other negative elements promoted by popular culture (satirized).

The book contains many gems of information including highlights of the work of Harvard professor Louis Fieser and his team in developing napalm, the metrics behind testing napalm in both optimizing its weaponization characteristics and its effectiveness in burning down various forms of structures, and discussions and analyses of its battlefield use from mid-World War II into the modern era. The early ill-fated attempt to combine napalm with bats for delivery purposes is also covered along with perspectives on international law and legitimate forms of weaponry--including increased hostility to land mines and cluster munitions--affecting what can now be used in early twenty-first century warfare.

This reviewer very much agrees with the author's contention that no mention of this weapon should be made openly in this day and age and "... napalm violates the spirit of contemporary civilization" (222). Of course, various interpretations and exceptions to the III Protocol of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CWC) still exist concerning the use of incendiary weapons in civilian areas allowing states some flexibility in the munitions that they deploy (222).

During its heyday, napalm was representative of an older style of attrition-based warfare between competing sovereign states. For this reason, Neer's work should be considered both a biography of an important US borne-and-bred weapon as well as a commentary on how war has changed over the last seven decades. In many ways, this time was a much simpler and straightforward one, unlike what Army professionals now face. Today's world is one in which napalm--whose imagery and effects do not play well on global news and social media--has become politically toxic.

In summation, the work is highly readable and informative with few flaws--the location of Pomona College where an anti-napalm sit-in took place in 1967 was misidentified (131), for instance. The author did a great job from the initial research through the book's structure, writing, and editing and has to be commended for his efforts. The work has primary applicability for courses on strategic use of airpower (Pacific theater), close air support (CAS) operations during World War II through Vietnam, and the evolution of incendiary and flame weapons from early "Greek fire," fire pots, and flamethrowers into more modern fuel-air and thermobaric weapons. It also provides us with numerous vignettes into the human costs of war and insights into how contentious the Vietnam era protests were. This book may have some secondary utility for courses on changing perspectives on international law and civil-military relations during times of national duress.

Reviewed by Dr. Robert J. Bunker, Adjunct Research Professor, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, former Minerva Chair and Distinguished Visiting Professor
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Author:Bunker, Robert J.
Date:Dec 22, 2014
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