A Brief Consideration of Napalm


American Heritage Dictionary

Napalm, incendiary material used in bombs and flame throwers. Developed during World War II, napalm is a mixture of gasoline (sometimes mixed with other petroleum fuels) and a thickening agent. The thickener turns the mixture into a dense jelly that flows under pressure, as when shot from a flame thrower, and sticks to a target as it burns. Earlier Soap thickeners were replaced by polystyrene and similar polymers.


Philip Jones Griffiths, Vietnam, Inc.

NAPALM. The most effective “anti-personnel” weapon, it is euphemistically described as “unfamiliar cooking fluid” by those apologists for American military methods. They automatically attribute all napalm cases to domestic accidents caused by the people using gasoline instead of kerosene in their cooking stoves. Kerosene is far too expensive for the peasants, who normally use charcoal for cooking. The only “cooking fluid” they know is very “unfamiliar” – it is delivered through their roofs by U.S. planes.

Some of its 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.”


Philip Jones Griffiths,  Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides by Christian Appy

There was a napalm ward in the provincial hospital of Quang Ngai where the people were so badly disfigured they could probably never go back into society. Many had been put in there to die. I was there once and saw this kid. He had his eyelids burned off, his nose burned off, and his lips burned off. He was halfway to becoming a skull, but he was still alive. I could hardly look at him—he was so ugly, so frightening, really, really frightening.

So I just glanced at him and turned around. I was photographing someone else and I felt somebody pulling at the back of my shirt. I turned around and it was the boy. He indicated with sign language that he wanted me to take his picture. As I took his picture, I remember thinking that it will never get published but it’s something we should have for the war crimes trial. Of course that never happened.

When I came out of that ward there was an American journalist. She said, “I can’t go in there, it’s too horrible. Can you take my camera and take some pictures for me?”  I said, “No, you go in there. Those people were burned with your taxpayer’s money. Go and see what they did to those people with your money.”


 Thich Nhat Hanh, Interbeing: Commentaries on the Tiep Hien Precepts

Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world.  Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sound. By such means,  awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.

Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Do not invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to life. Select a vocation which helps realize your ideal compassion.

Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and to prevent war.

Respect the property of others but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.

Napalm victim by Philip Jones Griffiths

1 Comment

  1. Suffering…
    Fresh out of novitiate and studying Theology at SLU, I had this “AH HA” moment…I prayed that God would let me know the worlds suffering. the spiritual director I had at the time told me to be careful about what I pray for. I told her I wanted to know the suffering of the world because then I would really be PART of the people of the world. I knew nothing really… I was young idealistic and full of hope. Little did I know how suffering wears one down…how it tears at your heart, how it can make you crazy.

    Shortly there after I sank into a year long depression. I dropped 20 lbs/ could not sleep, drank way too much and pretty much alienated myself from the women I loved in the SSND community. I was suicidal, lonely and felt an empty hollowness inside that scared the shit out of me.

    I remember going to therapy, crying bitterly at the losses that seemed to be mounting daily. Then one day I sat in a little used back staircase on the fourth floor of the Motherhouse. I decided I couldn’t take anymore pain. I couldn’t take any more suffering…then I remember that prayer of wanting to know the suffering of the people of the world. All I could do was say the prayer of St. Ignatius…Take Lord, receive, all my liberties, my memory, understanding, my entire will. Give me only your love and your grace this is enough for me.” It wasn’t as if the depression lifted right then and there. It would be months more of insight into myself before I could get out from under that cloud…but I understood the suffering we face in life is part of the common suffering of all of us…the prisoner, the burn victim, the orphan, the widow…and it was when I finally joined the human family and shared my suffering and accepted that communal suffering, that I could be live.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *