On Robert Neer, Napalm: An American Biography (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013)
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like …victory.”
—Lt. Col.Kilgore, in Francis Ford Coppola’s film, Apocalypse Now
“[W]e’ll fight mercilessly. Flying Fortresses will be dispatched immediately to set the paper cities of Japan on fire… There won’t be any hesitation about bombing civilians.”
Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, November 1941
“Fry ‘em out, burn ‘em out, cook ‘em.”
—Narrator in U.S. documentary film, This Is Korea
“We burned down just about every city in North and South Korea both… we killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes, with the inevitable additional tragedies to ensue.”
—Air Force General Curtis LeMay
“You are committing thousands of people to death. I don’t know how you sleep at night.”
—Citizen Elena Green, 1966
“The generals love napalm. It has a big psychological effect.”
— Iraq War Colonel Randolph Alles, 2003
In the conclusion of his biographical study, Robert Neer writes, “Napalm was conceived in truth, the motto of America’s oldest university, and born in Boston, the cradle of liberty. Its nationality is American. Although it has fought under many flags in most of the world’s major military conflicts in since its invention, it has burned more people, across more of the earth’s surface and over a longer period of time, in the name of the United States than in that of of any other nation.”
While August 6 and 9 are commemorated by some Americans critical of the use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, few in the U.S. remember the effect of napalm used by the U.S. Tor Force on Tokyo on March 9, 1945. Neer reports that “Damage was apocalyptic. A total of fifteen square miles at the center of the one of the world’s largest cities lay in ashes, an area almost four times larger than that later destroyed by the first atomic bomb.” The statistics: 87,000 dead, 40, ooo injured, 1 million homeless. The end of winning the war justified such means. Although the U.S. could claim no comparable victory in Korea, the devastation the Air Force inflicted on Koreans several years later is also little known among Americans.
It took the U.S. invasion of and onslaught of Vietnam in the 1960s for the U.S. citizenry to see napalm for what it was, and to confront the American power that created, deployed, and justified it. One example: in Scarsdale, New York, there was an active “Committee of Responsibility for Treatment in the United States of War-Burned Vietnamese Children.” In an understatement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated that “ This business of burning human beings with napalm … cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.” Power is temporarily enchanted with the rhetoric of justice, then proceeds on with its juggernaut ways.
Reading Neer sent me back to Welsh photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths, who published three riveting works on Vietnam during and after the war. Here’s an excerpt from the first, Vietnam, Inc.: “Some of [napalm’s] finer selling points were explained to me by a pilot in 1966: ‘We sure are pleased with those backroom boys at Dow [Chemical Company]. The original product wasn’t so hot – if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off. So the boys started adding polystyrene – now it sticks like shit to a blanket. But then if the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they started adding Willie Peter (WP – white phosphorous) so’s to make it burn better. It’ll even burn under water now. And just one drop is enough, it’ll keep on burning right down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorous poisoning.’”
Ox cart rolling down the road,
Peasants with a heavy load,
They’re all VC when the bombs explode,
Napalm sticks to kids.
–from a song by 1st Calvary Division, U.S. Army, South Vietnam
The civilized have created the wretched, quite coldly and deliberately, and do not intend to change the status quo; are responsible for their slaughter and enslavement; rain down bombs on defenseless children whenever and wherever they decide that their “vital interests” are menaced, and think nothing of torturing a man to death: these people are not to be taken seriously when they speak of the “sanctity” of human life, or the “conscience” of the civilized world.
—Writer James Baldwin, 1976