Nick Turse / The San Francisco Chronicle – 2013-03-29 01:33:42
Napalm: An American Biography
By Robert M. Neer
(The Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press; 310 pages; $29.95)
Reviewed by Nick Turse / The San Francisco Chronicle
(March 24, 2013) — Sometimes their faces looked scorched. Other times it appeared as if they had literally melted. Often, decades later, it was the skin around the eyes that gave away just what they’d been through. I talked to them up and down the length of what had been South Vietnam.
Each had been burned by napalm dropped on their villages by American or allied South Vietnamese forces, and they told me about what it was like. They talked about the heat and the pain and the years of living with the consequences.
Not long after, I spent a year at Harvard University, just blocks — as Robert M. Neer expertly recounts in his latest book — from the college soccer field where napalm was born in 1942. I can’t even count the number of times that I passed that infamous site without realizing its significance.
Neer’s “Napalm: An American Biography” is a meticulously researched and vitally important academic study of one of the most terrible weapons to emerge from a century that produced a seemingly endless supply of terrible weapons.
An incendiary gel that sticks to skin and burns to the bone, napalm was, from its earliest days, tested with civilian targets in mind. In early trials, as Neer notes, researchers experimented not on mock-ups of enemy weapons systems, vehicles or even armaments factories, but “full-scale replica German houses” — complete with furnishings. They even scoured the West Coast for “traditional tatami straw mat flooring” to outfit similar Japanese model homes.
The test results were unambiguous — uncontrollable fires erupted in more than one-third of mock-up German homes and more than two-thirds of “Japanese” houses. And when, during a windstorm on March 9, 1945, almost 700,000 pounds of napalm fell on Tokyo in less than an hour, it created a fire hurricane.
Many civilians were burned to death. Still others suffocated. Some were even boiled alive when they sought refuge in superheated rivers and canals.
Estimates of the dead reached almost 125,000, and more than 1 million were left homeless. By the end of the war, Neer tells us, 42 percent of urban, industrial Japan had been burned, and 330,000 civilians had been killed.
While it was devastating to noncombatants, napalm was nonetheless hailed as a wonder weapon during and after the war and was used even more extensively during the Korean conflict. An estimated 32,000 tons were dropped on the peninsula with horrific results.
As Curtis LeMay, the architect of the firebombing of Japan who went on to head US Strategic Air Command, put it: “We burned down just about every city in North Korea and South Korea. … We killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes, with the inevitable additional tragedies bound to ensue.”
Korea was no aberration. Napalm came to be employed the world over. Neer’s chronicle of its use by American allies and client regimes against opponents in the Philippines, Greece, Cuba, Egypt, Peru, Bolivia, Cyprus, Tunisia, Algeria, Kenya and Angola, among other nations, is a revelation and one of the most enlightening portions of “Napalm.”
After exploring the incendiary’s lost decade, Neer turns to the Vietnam War, during which 388,000 tons of napalm bombs were unleashed on Southeast Asia. Analyzing American press coverage (including three influential 1967 articles that concluded that napalm was a “diabolically cruel, child-seeking-killer”) as well as shifts in popular opinion, he details how the “modern marvel” of World War II soon became a pariah weapon and the target of antiwar sentiment in the United States.
Not surprisingly, Neer recounts the story of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, who was immortalized — as she ran down a road, her clothes incinerated, her skin burning from a napalm strike — in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by the Associated Press’ Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut. (He also begins and ends the book with the world’s most famous napalm victim.)
It’s a shame, however, that Neer, a lecturer in the history department at Columbia University, didn’t interview other napalm survivors. Toward the end of the book, the author veers into discussions of how napalm was addressed by artists, how punk bands appropriated the word, and how the name has been used to sell everything from hair dye to a “fat loss” skin cream.
One can’t help but wish that Neer had instead — especially after telling us in just how many countries across the globe people have been attacked with the incendiary — shared firsthand accounts of survivors of napalm attacks that we’ve never heard from before.
While Neer does offer some previously published testimony, readers will likely come away with a much better understanding of Americans who created napalm and those who protested against its use than the untold number of Vietnamese, Koreans, Filipinos and Cubans or, in the years after the Vietnam War, combatants and noncombatants in Angola, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and El Salvador, who know the effects of napalm more fully and intimately than anyone else.
That said, “Napalm: An American Biography” is a fascinating and long-overdue study of one of modern warfare’s signature weapons. Neer has provided a valuable book that fills in historical gaps and sheds much-needed light on a history that many would rather forget.
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam” (Metropolitan Books). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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