Burning Questions

Napalm bombs explode during a live-fire exercise, 1984.
Napalm bombs explode during a live-fire exercise, 1984.

“At 5,000 feet you could smell the flesh burning.”

The bomber crews that dropped napalm on Tokyo on the night of March 9, 1945, “gagged and vomited” in the sky over the burning city. The paint on the bottoms of their planes blistered from the heat.

On the ground, families ran for ponds that “vaporized” and canals that boiled. Those who reached larger bodies of water were often no more fortunate: The fires consumed oxygen, and swimmers suffocated with their heads above water. Steel bridges pulled heat from the air and burned fleeing civilians who grabbed at railings in an attempt to leap into rivers. Winds from the hot air “combined tens of thousands of fires,” building them into flames that “began to coalesce in a rare event: a man-made fire hurricane, or firestorm.” People combusted as they ran, “whipped and twisted in the air,” thrown helplessly and burned alive. A survivor, Chiyoko Sakamoto, watched a pregnant neighbor go into labor as bombs fell and splashed her body with flaming gel. “Halfway through the birth process she began to die.” Her child was brought into a burning world from a dead mother, and was also burned on the face at birth.

The devastation was “apocalyptic” in its scope: “A total of fifteen square miles at the center of 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.” Estimates of the dead from that single night cluster around the figure of ninety thousand, higher than the immediate death toll from the nuclear bombs dropped on either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

It was a beginning, not a climax. “After Tokyo, American bombers attacked Japan’s largest cities with napalm for ten days,” then paused to restock, then went on dropping napalm through the end of the war. Thirty-three million pounds of napalm “laid waste to 106 square miles in Japan’s six largest cities, and destroyed or damaged 169 square miles in sixty of its largest metropolises.”

The effect of napalm on Japanese cities wasn’t an accident: American researchers had very carefully tested the new product on precisely modeled German and Japanese homes, the latter so meticulously re-created on a bombing range in Utah that they were furnished with “traditional tatami straw mat flooring” that had been collected from “temples and private homes” on the Pacific coast. Houses, and the people inside them, were always an intended target. Consultants from a fire-insurance company helped to re-create particularly realistic German bedrooms, to see how the furniture would burn.

Robert M. Neer, a lawyer and historian who teaches at Columbia University, connects these pieces of history with a brilliant eye for the horrible detail. He has written a third of an extraordinary book and two-thirds of an adequate one, though the quality of the first third is more important than the limits of the later portions. Writing the first complete American history of napalm, Neer nevertheless tells a familiar story about war, science, and the paradoxes of progress. In the 2001 book War and Nature, for example, the historian Edmund Russell described the parallel development of commercial pesticides and poison military gases, briefly discussing the birth of napalm along the way.

In the cases of both fire and poison, progress and regression muddled together. Neer works in a brief but important early section on the very old uses of fire as a weapon: burning fluids poured onto Roman warriors in 69 BC, a “Byzantine incendiary attack in 1103 on a Pisan fleet near Rhodes,” “blazing tubs” of fire hurled against crusaders with something like a trebuchet in 1250. The twentieth century took a path backward through the age of gunpowder, rediscovering the terrifying effects of fire as a weapon. “Airplanes,” Neer concludes, “restored incendiary weapons to their medieval pride of place.” Knowledge advances, so we go back to an old weapon; science and industry restore the Middle Ages.

Similarly clouding a popular story of progress, the development of napalm took place in the corporate university, emerging from the wartime marriage of government, business, and academia. The weapon that would soon devastate Tokyo was first tested on a Harvard soccer field by chemists who didn’t bother to clear the neighboring tennis courts before they triggered the initial explosion. (Later tests on the athletic fields next to Harvard Stadium were filmed, in footage that sometimes caught the images of the neighborhood children who gathered nearby to watch.)

In the urgency of the Second World War, dozens of organizations rushed toward the same goals. The National Defense Research Committee commissioned work on the napalm project from Harvard University, which turned to American Cyanamid, Harshaw Chemical Company, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, Armour and Company, Nuodex Products, and the New Jersey chemical engineering firm Metasap, with “manufacturing assistance from Noblitt-Sparks Industries in Columbus, Indiana,” to develop a flaming gel packed in casings that could be delivered in canisters designed by Standard Oil, all under the watchful eye of the Chemical Warfare Service. Professors and corporate executives, funded from the same pools of government money, huddled around the same projects and problems, working toward the same violent ends. This is not the story the modern university tells itself.

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. To be sure, any war story that describes the suffering of Germans and Japanese has to take care to avoid what the historian Charles Maier has called “Bitburg history.” No matter the horror of the Tokyo firebombing, the Japanese weren’t victims of World War II, a war brutally waged, in the Pacific, over Japan’s desire to control Asian economic resources. Even in a story that focuses on American action, Neer avoids the trap, noting the Japanese and German practice of “area bombing,” with incendiaries as well as explosives, in urban settlements. The firebombing of cities was part of a shared descent into madness triggered by Axis aggression. Of course, this contextualization doesn’t do much for a burned child born to a dead mother in a firebombed city.

Neer is less successful with the thematically important later chapters of the book, which are written in a strangely perfunctory manner. Examining the political activism that made napalm a “pariah” in international law, he shifts from the rich and detailed writing of his early pages to the narrative style of a legal brief or a corporate primer: “Some experts called for a complete prohibition on incendiary weapons and napalm. Others urged proscription of ‘indiscriminate attacks against civilian population centres.’ A final group recommended that laws control specific weapons, rather than assert broad principles.” Individual names and personal motivations fade away, and the story goes oddly faceless: “the experts advised,” “group members discussed,” “a Canadian expert described,” “other experts attacked,” “opponents of regulation advanced arguments.” Whole paragraphs are almost entirely taken up with long quotations from government reports, suggesting that much of the latter section of Napalm was written in a hurry.

Particularly with greater detail, these chapters could have served as a road map for activists who might wish to restrain the current use of armed military drones by the American government, if such a thing is still permissible in the age of morally obtuse Obama worship. But the historical material cries out for closer examination, and in Neer’s account it doesn’t reveal as much as it might.

In a particularly curious omission, Neer spends many pages describing “a national movement against the Dow Chemical Corporation, the largest manufacturer of the gel,” but offers little to no insight into the related politics of the executive and legislative branches of government and their critics. For long stretches of the book, Dow Chemical appears to be firebombing Vietnam. A corporate arm of a vague and decontextualized military, the company apparently makes napalm because it feels like it, and no elected officials are anywhere in sight. The “Johnson administration” sends “truth teams” out to explain the war in Vietnam, for example, and the whole event is fully disconnected from any identifiable human being: An unnamed “representative of the Defense Department” is asked about napalm while visiting the University of Wisconsin, then a hotbed of antiwar activism, and he admits that it “burns people.” Who was he? Who, exactly, sent him? Why? What report did he make to his superiors when he returned? What was the discussion within the administration that led to “truth teams,” and did anyone in the room disagree with the decision?

Some future writer will advance this story by carefully describing the precise intentions, particular decisions, and personal directives of Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon (not to mention Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger), figures who make no more than brief appearances here. Neer bizarrely overlooks the democratic politics of state violence in an extended study of a horrifying weapon of modern mass war. Americans fight the arms industry, not the government that buys its products and uses them on other human beings. Corporations are culpable; the state is merely present.

This decision to downplay the main source of policy thinking and funding behind the napalm scourge is especially glaring in light of the book’s earlier chapters, which demonstrate a deep attention to significant moral and political questions. Readers can only come away from Napalm hoping that Neer will have more to say on the crucial subject of state violence in the future.

Chris Bray is an adjunct assistant professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, California.