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Napalm: An American Biographyby Robert M. Neer
Synopses & Reviews
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.
After World War II, the incendiary held the line against communism in Greece and Korea--Napalm Day led the 1950 counter-attack from Inchon--and fought elsewhere under many flags. Americans generally applauded, until the Vietnam War. Today, napalm lives on as a pariah: a symbol of American cruelty and the misguided use of power, according to anti-war protesters in the 1960s and popular culture from Apocalypse Now to the punk band Napalm Death and British street artist Banksy. Its use by Serbia in 1994 and by the United States in Iraq in 2003 drew condemnation. United Nations delegates judged deployment against concentrations of civilians a war crime in 1980. After thirty-one years, America joined the global consensus, in 2011.
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.
"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. 41 halftones, 1 table. Agents: Sandra Dijkstra and Elise Capron, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Napalm was invented on Valentine's Day 1942 at a secret Harvard war research laboratory. It created an inferno that killed over 87,500 people in Tokyo--more than died in the atomic explosions at Hiroshima or Nagasaki--and went on to incinerate 64 Japanese cities. The Bomb got the press, but napalm did the work. Robert Neer offers the first history.
A Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year, 2013
A Mother Jones Best Book of 2013
About the Author
Robert M. Neer is an attorney and Core Lecturer in the History Department at Columbia University.
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History and Social Science » Military » General