Friday, April 5, 2013

Napalm: An American Biography by Robert Neer

Napalm. We think we know what it is. We know that, whatever the exact chemical ingredients it contains, napalm burns; human flesh, buildings, trees…everything. A hot, sticky goo that’s impossible to put out.

Sure, you know about napalm. You’ve probably seen Apocalypse Now. But how did we get ahold of this powerful substance? Why was it once considered appropriate for war but now condemned? What are the societal and political implications of napalm and the horrors it has reaped? Robert Neer (Barack Obama For Beginners) answers these difficult to process questions in Napalm: An American Biography.

“Napalm, incendiary gel that sticks to skin and burns to the bone, came into the world on Valentine’s Day 1942 at a secret Harvard war research laboratory. On March 9, 1945, it created an inferno that killed over 87,500 people in Tokyo—more than died in the atomic explosions at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. It went on to incinerate sixty-four of Japan’s largest cities. The Bomb got the press, but napalm did the work.”

"Robert Neer has written the first history of napalm, from its inaugural test on the Harvard College soccer field, to a Marine Corps plan to attack Japan with millions of bats armed with tiny napalm time bombs, to the reflections of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, a girl who knew firsthand about its power and its morality." 

Napalm, which is the first ever history on this terrifyingly powerful substance, debuted in March. Within the book Neer explains the history of napalm, the uses, the horrors, and societal views regarding napalm and its use in war.
Neer explains how the makers of napalm intended for the substance to burn things not people. Despite this, napalm has been used in just about every war since WWII, including Iraq. Neer explores how napalm, once a respected weapon, became the target of outrage and protest during the Vietnam War. Who can forget the horrific photo of Kim Phuc, pure terror on her face, running naked down a Vietnamese street? The photo is too horrific for me to post but a simple Google search should suffice. “Today there is an international consensus against the use of napalm anywhere near civilians, but it’s still part of military arsenals.” 

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Neer explains how the Vietnam War transformed society’s view on napalm:
“Two things happened with Vietnam. For one thing, the United States lost the war, and since napalm had become for the protest movement a symbol of our misguided actions in Vietnam, this loss had profound consequences for the way people perceived the weapon. And the second thing was that coverage of the Vietnam War and specifically descriptions of the effect of napalm on civilians were far more dramatic and extensive than in World War II. In World War II, much of napalm’s impact was in Japan, where there wasn’t much opportunity for correspondents to report on what was happening at the time, because they couldn’t go there.”

“Fieser said that he never imagined napalm would be used against people. He thought it would be used to target things. And he devoted his entire life to medicines and chemicals that could help people. He helped synthesize Vitamin K. He was a beloved teacher to students at Harvard. He was part of team that determined smoking was a cause of death. So he’s a complex person. But with respect to his assertion that he never thought napalm would be used against people, it’s a little bit hard to completely credit that, since many of the tests that they did with the gel that they invented were on residential buildings, specifically on models of German and Japanese houses. The man was a genius, so it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t see the obvious implications of how it would be used.”

Neer has given us a much needed history on this powerful weapon. Napalm is something we think we understand with its many cultural references from Apocalypse Now to video games. But Neer's book provides us with a much deeper, more useful background.

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