Napalm, An American Biography in five minutes


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December 31, 2012 · 6:50 pm

Jon Stewart got it wrong: U.S. MK-77s carry real napalm

Jon Stewart on 3 September 2013:

Now, back in the early 80s, we knew Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran and were likely to use them again. Not only did we not attack them we supported Iraq, we supported Iraq in doing that and of course, we still get to use bunker-busters, cluster bombs and mark-77, which is not, not filled with napalm, technically.

Oh, but it is filled with napalm, technically. “Napalm” means any thickened petroleum incendiary weapon: there can be new napalms and old ones, effective ones and less effective ones. Oxford English Dictionary: napalm is “A thixotropic gel consisting of petrol and this thickening agent (or some similar agent), used in flame-throwers and incendiary bombs; jellied petrol.”

As to the U.S. MK-77 firebombs: “Mk 77 Mod 5 firebomb uses kerosene-based jet fuel” GlobalSecurity.org reports. And kerosene is, of course, a petroleum distilate. QED.

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Reviews: “Meticulously researched and vitally important”

A passel of evaluations:

  • Nick Turse in the San Francisco Chronicle: a “meticulously researched and vitally important academic study.”
  • Brian Bethune in Macleans: hero of World War II to a war criminal on probation.
  • Karl Helicher in Library Journal: “a slice of hell seared into the American psyche” — “This concise, often fascinating, story of this weapon’s place in warfare and American popular culture will appeal to informed general readers and specialists in modern U.S. history.”
  • Warren Wilkins in Vietnam Magazine: “Neer recounts in rich detail the extraordinary evolution of napalm from hero in the gilded age of post-WWII American power to pariah in the aftermath of Vietnam… Neer ultimately moves beyond the protests to examine how antiwar grassroots activism, art, journalism and politics during and immediately after the Vietnam War radically reshaped cultural attitudes about napalm and the United States.”
  • Chris Bray in Bookforum: “[Neer has] a brilliant eye for the horrible detail… Neer constructs this early narrative with exceptional skill and intelligence, vividly tracing the path that connects gleeful scientists on Cambridge soccer fields to streets and basements choked with human ash in Europe and Asia.”

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Available for pre-order on Amazon

Informed sources report volumes are expected to begin shipping next week. Current rankings: #22 in Books > Law > Foreign & International Law, #97 in Books > History > Military > Weapons & Warfare > Conventional … and, um, #98,942 in Books overall. Pre-order here.

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Free excerpts on Google Books

Google Books Read free excerpts from the book, wonder at the copyrighted images not displayed (available at your local bookstore) and browse the extensive notes from the comfort of your browser.

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Chronicle: “Far more severe an effect, and far more curious a life, than is commonly known”

ImagePeter Monaghan writes in “The Weapon That Sears Flesh” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on 18 February 2013, “Napalm’s history began at Harvard University, where it owed its creation to Louis Fieser, a brilliant organic chemist who had been entrusted with a secret war-research project.”

In an iconic 1972 photograph from the Vietnam War, a naked 9-year-old girl runs screaming from a bombing, her skin burning from the napalm attack on her village. The image helped rally opposition to the weapon’s use in Vietnam and beyond.

Yet, with all napalm’s notoriety, Robert M. Neer’s Napalm: An American Biography, forthcoming from Harvard University Press, is marketed as the first history of the incendiary gel. It demonstrates that napalm has had far more severe an effect, and far more curious a life, than is commonly known.

Napalm, in raining hellfire on Vietnamese villagers, brought the United States infamy but not victory, Neer writes. And yet few historians have asked how it emerged and became so terrifying a weapon.

“The most striking thing about my whole project, for me, was the silence, as I came to call it,” says Neer, by phone from New York. So little has been written about napalm that “basically the best public source of information at the moment is Wikipedia, I would say, which is really quite amazing.”

Neer had no doubt that napalm’s story was worth telling. The author, a lawyer and core lecturer in history at Columbia University, writes that the explosive, embraced by U.S. commanders as a means to stop German and Japanese war efforts dead in their tracks, was “born a hero but lives a pariah. Its invention is a chronicle of scientific discovery as old as Yankee ingenuity and as modern as the military-academic complex.”

Read the whole article here. For other work by Peter Monaghan, click here.

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Harvard releases official book flyer

Fine work from Michael Higgins, the Marketing and Promotions Coordinator at Harvard University Press. Download and print it to your heart’s content:

Napalm Book Flyer

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January 28, 2013 · 2:49 pm

Publishers Weekly: “a thought-provoking lesson on evolving attitudes toward military means and ends”

Publisher’s Weekly,  “the bible of the book business,” reviewed Napalm on January 14, 2013:

In this engrossing study, historian Neer recounts the prodigious youth and reviled old age of an iconic weapon. He follows the career of napalm—an incendiary jellied gasoline that sticks to everything and is almost inextinguishable—from its clever design by idealistic Harvard chemists during WWII, a time when any contrivance in the furtherance of victory seemed justified. (Experiments with napalm-armed bats fizzled after the critters escaped and burned down an army base.) The results, Neer shows, were both potent and horrific. American napalm did far more damage to Japan than did the atomic bombs, but the mass incineration of civilians raised persistent moral qualms. During the Vietnam War, napalm became a symbol of American military-industrial cruelty; photographs of napalm-ravaged children became a fixture at antiwar demonstrations, and recruiters for its manufacturer, Dow Chemical, were hounded from campuses. The author brings the story up to the present, when napalm has become a cultural signifier of extremist mayhem while international conventions place ever-tighter restrictions on its use. Neer’s thoroughly researched, well-written account mixes lucid discussions of chemical engineering and the law of war with gut-wrenching depictions of napalm’s nightmarish effects. More than that, it furnishes a thought-provoking lesson on evolving attitudes toward military means and ends.

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