Napalm: An American Biography

Robert M Neer, Author
Robert M. Neer. Harvard Univ., $29.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-674-07301-2
Ebook - 352 pages - 978-0-674-07545-0
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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. (Apr.)
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