Book review: Napalm, by Robert Neer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 4:31pm

Napalm: An American Biography

by Robert Neer

Belknap Press

It's one of the most notorious weapons of the 20th century, yet beyond its role in the Vietnam war, napalm is little known - both in its origins and nature, and in its use in warzones before and since that decade-long conflict.

In Napalm, Robert Neer has created the first comprehensive history of napalm, meticulously charting the early years when the weapon - developed by scientists at a secret war research laboratory at Harvard - was treated as a glorious new instrument of war at the tail-end of the second world war, to its controversial image in the aftermath of Vietnam and the protest movements that grew around it.

Napalm is an easily manufactured incendiary gel that devastates everything it lands on and, at its peak in 1968, 5,900 tonnes of it was dropped on Vietnam every month.

One Vietnam-era American pilot quoted in the book easily sums up the awesome power of the weapon, both in terms of overall destruction and psychologically: "People have this thing about being burned to death."

Starting with the infamous image of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running down the street with her clothes burnt off by a napalm strike, the book guides readers through the substance's development - trials on the football fields of Harvard, attempts to use bombs tied to bats to spread mayhem across Japan, and one of its first controversial uses: the mass napalm bombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945, that created a firestorm estimated to have killed 87,500 people ("the deadliest night in war's long history", Neer writes, resulting in more casualties than the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki or Hiroshima).

Napalm's use by the US military during the Korean war was likewise devastating, with most of the country's cities flattened by napalm strikes over the course of the war. It was also used in Greece, Cuba, Israel, Peru, Bolivia and many other nations, but despite this it remained firmly an American weapon.

A large part of Neer's book concentrates on the growth of resistance against the use of napalm. In the 1960s, with the increasing awareness of the effects of napalm on civilians in Vietnam, notably children, protests began to break out across the US, especially on university campuses and in areas where napalm was being produced.

Manufacturers were boycotted, and soon movies, songs, artworks and countless newspaper articles were condemning its use, although with little actual result. In fact, despite years of international treaties attempting to control or even outright ban the use of napalm and other incendiaries it was still being used during the early days of the Iraq invasion in 2003, albeit under a different name and a slightly tweaked chemical composition.

Neer doesn't hold back his punches in describing the nightmarish scenes following napalm strikes, quoting heavily from accounts of those caught underneath and journalists who arrived on the scenes soon after.

At times the book relies too heavily on American and newspaper points of view, and the author barely mentions the still ongoing long-term health issues and lawsuits from Vietnam-era victims. Yet, despite this, there is no question that Neer has done a masterful job of writing a compelling history of one of the major villains of the 20th century.