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Napalm: An American Biography

Robert M. Neer

(Harvard University Press; US: Mar 2013)

Before “The Big Bang Theory” made science cool—well, cool enough that hipsters could talk about Schrodinger’s Cat and the Chandrasekhar limit and sound brilliant – there was the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), a group of Ivy League and major university research scientists given the task of developing new weapons. Some were veterans, but the vast majority were just boy geniuses, charged with an exciting new proposition: building a new era of American weaponry using the latest and best scientific knowledge.


Using surreptitious monikers like “Anonymous Research No. 4”, NRDC scientists at Harvard and other schools started to work on how to build better weapons of all types to give America and its allies an advantage during World War II. Freed from many of the hassles of normal government bureaucracy, NRDC scientists were allowed to commandeer university facilities, staff and graduate students and focus full-time work on these projects with ample federal and university funding.


So begins the tale of napalm, and Robert M. Neer’s excellent new book, Napalm: An American Biography. The author, an historian at Columbia University, takes on the history of not just napalm, but all manner of fire as a weapon from a 12th century Byzantine battle versus the Greeks to a 1994 Serbian bombing of the Bosnian town of Bihac.


Along the way, Neer takes us on an odyssey of just how far napalm’s effects have been felt – physically, intellectually, emotionally and politically. From the very first page, the author makes sure that the very human consequences of this military lab experiment are vividly felt by the reader as he takes us back to Trang Bang village and the 8 June 1972 napalm attack that left nine-year old Phan Thi Kim Phuc with such severe burns that the fat on her body literally melted. Her suffering, immortalized by Nick Ut’s Pulitzer-prize winning photograph, created an image of the injustice of war that still affects discussion to this day.


Neer also offers an exhaustive discussion of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States with the anti-napalm movement as its centerpiece. We learn, for example, that a Ramparts magazine article with dozens of photographs on the “liquid fire” and its effect on children and women was so horrifying that it motivated the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to become firmly and sincerely more focused on speaking out against the Vietnam War. The author also suggests that once napalm and its destructiveness became public knowledge, it was at least partly responsible for the anti-veteran sentiment of the time, i.e., as the military became associated with napalm, so too did returning veterans, who were shunned as being “baby-burners”.


This book should really appeal to everyone. There is no bias here, no leftist or conservative agenda. This is simply an exhaustive history of napalm, from its beginnings as kind of a scientific puzzle for technocrats to one of the most widely despised symbols of war. This book is historical enough for history buffs, yet laden with enough military and chemistry jargon to make the viewers of the History Channel and Discovery Channel, respectively, go dry-mouthed with anticipation.


Neer has a penchant for making even the most technical and obtuse topic insanely readable. Take, for example, his description of the etymology of the word “napalm”. After repeated experiments to make an incendiary that burned quicker and hotter than others, Harvard’s Louis Fieser was most impressed with the combination of aluminum naphthenate dissolved in gasoline. However, after adding another substance called aluminum palmitate, “a tough and sticky good formed at room temperature … Fieser combined the first two letters of naphthenate with the first four letters of palmitate and christened the mixture ‘napalm.’” Who knew?


Although an excellent read, Napalm suffers from a couple of issues. The first, in my opinion, is that Neer spends very little time discussing the significance of napalm having a “nationality”, in this case American. While the subtitle of the book is “An American Biography”, the author makes only a slight reference to the American-ness of the weapon towards the end of the book. In the epilogue, Neer writes, “Its nationality is American … it has burned more people, across more of the earth’s surface and over a longer period of time, in the name of the United States than in that of any other nation.” This is an angle I would have loved to have seen explored earlier and with more depth.


The second is that while there can be no doubt the significance of films like Apocalypse Now (1979) and bands like Napalm Death in creating more cultural awareness of napalm, Neer swings pretty far into his academic journey of showing just how far-reaching napalm has sunk into popular culture. He tells us about about Napalm Orange hair dye. Or its use in the campy 2008 remake of Death Race. Or worse still, in the vocabulary of John Mayer to describe his sexual encounters?


Should the inventors of napalm be held responsible for the lives that it ruined? Should the bureaucrats who ordered, stocked and delivered it to bases and military personnel be as culpable as the pilots who dropped it? Will a weapon of this type ever be used again in warfare, particularly against civilians, or have we learned anything from history? In the end, these are all questions that we, as an educated populace and in a representative democracy, have an obligation to ask and answer. We should thank Neer for starting the discussion and carrying it forward into the 21st century. The rest is up to us.

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Shyam K. Sriram is a doctoral student in political science with a focus on Asian Pacific American politics. He recently relocated from Georgia to California and is still in a state of shock. He can be reached at shyam_morehouse@live.com .


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