The book begins with the story of the iconic 1972 photograph of a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running naked down a road after being severely burned in a napalm attack. Readers expecting a polemic may be pleasantly surprised at this lucid account of the technical, political and ethical features of a notorious symbol of American inhumanity in war.
Neer (History/Columbia Univ.) writes that napalm is a thickening agent mixed with flammable petroleum. An advantage over traditional incendiaries is that the thick gel sticks to its target and burns far longer. Developed by Harvard researchers in 1942, it was soon put to use in flamethrowers against dug-in Japanese troops and in B-29 raids on Japanese cities, which killed far more civilians than the atomic bombs. Although less publicized, even more napalm fell during the Korean War, producing vast devastation and death in North Korean cities. Only mildly controversial at this point, its use against guerillas in Vietnam produced gruesome civilian casualties and international revulsion which persists. A 1980 U.N. treaty banning the use of incendiaries against civilians was quickly adopted by most nations but not the United States. However, in deference to world opinion, military spokesmen no longer used the word. When accused of dropping napalm during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, they denied it, explaining that these were firebombs. President Barack Obama signed the treaty on his first day in office, although it includes a reservation allowing the U.S. to ignore it.
Long superseded by other widely denounced emblems of American exceptionalism (drones, cluster bombs, torture), napalm receives an overdue but thoroughly satisfying history.