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Reviewed by:
  • Napalm: An American Biography by Robert M. Neer
  • Rob Norris, MLA
Napalm: An American Biography, by Robert M. Neer. Cambridge, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013. 352 pp. $29.95 US (cloth).

During the Korean War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill reflected privately on the extensive use of US incendiary bombs across that East Asian peninsula. Demonstrating his knack for research, attorney and Columbia University history lecturer, Robert Neer recounts Churchill’s quiet recollections: [End Page 605] given its ill effects on civilians, “I do not like this napalm bombing at all” (p. 102).

Over time, Churchill’s caution proved prescient. Stitched throughout Neer’s book is a poignant vignette from June 1972. With “political thunder-heads” (p. 134) amassed in the United States, in part over the use of napalm in Southeast Asia, Associated Press photographer Nick Ut captured the grotesque horror associated with this indiscriminate weapon. His Pulitzer Prize-winning frame, “The Terror of War,” depicts nine-year-old Phan Kim Phúc senselessly seared as she runs to escape fighting in Trang Bang, South Vietnam.

Within a day, the worldwide press ran the ghastly photo; it went viral. Neer’s work helps explain that, after years of smouldering in embers of ethical ambiguity, napalm flared in the “court of worldwide public opinion” (p. 222). As the horrific effects of napalm upon Vietnamese civilians, especially children, became understood, the brand turned bad.

This auxology of napalm brims with riveting, if disquieting research, complemented by tightly focused chapters and snappy sentences. Simply, it is an engrossing, sobering work that consolidates knowledge while providing new research and fresh perspectives on the effects of this sickening incendiary gel that is “sticky and burns to an extremely high temperature” (p. 16). Substantively, the book has three inter-related strengths.

First, Neer highlights the origins of napalm. While overlooking key concepts from arms race literature, he still explains concisely that liquid and gel incendiaries have an “ancient provenance” (p. 18). Even prior to the rise of Ancient Greece, fiery weapons terrorized sailors, soldiers and civilians. Indeed, Alexander the Great had an interest in the efficacy of naptha, or petroleum, as a weapon; later, while attacking the city of Samosata, advancing Roman soldiers were repelled by maltha or flaming mud.

Beyond these anecdotes, the monograph explains why, beginning in mid-1200s and lasting for about eight hundred years, liquid incendiaries became less significant strategically: the rise of Chinese gunpowder. While engineers and others worked over centuries to rekindle interest in fire weapons, the paradigm held until World War I. The Great War made it obvious that flamethrowers, modified shells and aerial firebombing were harbingers of lasting change. Indeed, aircraft “restored incendiary weapons to their medieval pride of place” (p. 24). And this combination of airpower and firebombing soon set alight communities in Africa, Europe, and Asia. While the world overlooked incendiary weapons in Ethiopia during the 1930s, the fuse igniting worldwide attention came from Guernica, Spain. On 26 April 1937 the German Condor Legion provided a brutal tutorial in modern fire warfare. Within months, Imperial Japan also set ablaze Shanghai. [End Page 606]

Neer’s second strength details America’s academic, industrial, and military development of napalm during World War II. Interestingly, the book posits that despite Guernica, Shanghai and the onset of World War II, key US government officials were slow to accept this new paradigm: the “return of incendiary bombardment” (p. 26). Even before Pearl Harbor, Harvard’s Dr. Louis Fieser dismissed this indifference; using his scientific expertise and extensive bureaucratic networks, he gained approval for Anonymous Research No. 4, an obscure moniker cloaking nationally-funded incendiary weapons development at Harvard University.

Soon, American industry and public laboratories expanded upon Fieser’s initial research and napalm ushered forth a revolution. While employed extensively in the Pacific, it was first used by US forces during OPERATION HUSKY, the invasion of Sicily. Yet it was on 9 March 1945 that US bombers demonstrated the raw, real destructive capacity of incendiary weapons; that night in Tokyo was among the most deadly of the war. Quite simply, Tokyo was torched. The New York Times reported: “CITY’S HEART GONE: Not a Building Is...


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pp. 605-607
Launched on MUSE
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