In Napalm: An American Biography, Robert Neer tells the history of napalm, the modern-day version of petroleum-based incendiary devices, in three parts: Hero, Soldier, and Pariah. The first section of the book deals with the wartime discovery of napalm and its use in World War II. The second examines its use after World War II and through Vietnam, while the last section of the book explains the [End Page 329] circuitous route napalm took from war weapon to war crime. Neer puts napalm front and center, from its origins as a secret wartime experiment developed by Harvard chemistry professor Louis Fieser and his team of graduate students, to its use as a cultural metaphor today. His work contributes to the fields of military history, international law and justice, and the history of science.
In using napalm as the lens by which to examine America and Americans, Neer recovers several forgotten episodes of the history of napalm. Although napalm was used in the European theater, its most impressive results occurred in the Pacific. One plan, literally, envisioned using bats as trigger systems in napalm incendiaries. The plan was abandoned after escaping bats burned down the Carlsbad Auxiliary Air Field in New Mexico in 1943. General Curtis LeMay’s decision to firebomb Tokyo in March 1945 provided one of the most striking examples of the simplicity and horrific effectiveness of this incendiary bomb. Japanese leaders identified the firebombing of the cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka as one of the major reasons for ending the war. A comparison of development costs as measured by Japanese city destroyed shows $83,000 for napalm as contrasted with $13.5 billion for atomic weapons. As Neer concludes, “The Bomb got the press, but napalm did the work” (p. 86).
The next two sections focus on the various conflicts in which napalm was used up to the Vietnam War and the growing opposition to the use of napalm incendiaries. Here, Neer broadens his focus to include American antiwar demonstrations that made napalm a symbol of all that was wrong about the American intervention in Southeast Asia. Neer examines the napalm protests from their start in Redwood City, California, through the various student protests against Dow Chemical Company, the sole provider of napalm to the United States military. The final section of Neer’s biography examines the ways napalm has become a cultural metaphor for American hubris and its imperial role in causing global suffering through war. It details the reluctance with which the United States government finally committed to the international position that the use of napalm incendiaries [End Page 330] represented a war crime, and the ways it found other names by which to call incendiary weapons to protect their continued use.
Neer skillfully mines official military histories, and even more poignantly, survivors’ accounts, in writing the history of napalm. At times, however, his lens may be too narrow, as he does not completely connect the ways napalm’s discovery, development, and use reveal something particular about America in the last half of the twentieth century. The forgotten story of napalm needs to be told, if only in hopes of keeping nations honest in rejecting its use, and for the most part Neer does a brilliant job in the telling. He begins and ends his tale with the story and words of Kim Phúc, the young South Vietnamese girl napalmed while trying to escape a U.S. bombing mission and captured on film. Putting her words at the heart of his exploration of napalm’s biography helps remind us all of the horrors of an amazingly simple weapon of war, one used too often.
Amy M. Hay teaches history at the University of Texas-Pan American. Her current research examines protests against the use of Agent Orange herbicides during and after the Vietnam War.