[Marxism] Napalm invented at Harvard University
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Thu Feb 21 06:34:52 MST 2013
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Thursday, February 21, 2013
By Peter Monaghan
The Weapon That Sears Flesh
In an iconic 1972 photograph from the Vietnam War, a naked 9-year-old
girl runs screaming from a bombing, her skin burning from the napalm
attack on her village. The image helped rally opposition to the weapon's
use in Vietnam and beyond.
Yet, with all napalm's notoriety, Robert M. Neer's Napalm: An American
Biography, forthcoming from Harvard University Press, is marketed as the
first history of the incendiary gel. It demonstrates that napalm has had
far more severe an effect, and far more curious a life, than is commonly
Napalm, in raining hellfire on Vietnamese villagers, brought the United
States infamy but not victory, Neer writes. And yet few historians have
asked how it emerged and became so terrifying a weapon.
"The most striking thing about my whole project, for me, was the
silence, as I came to call it," says Neer, by phone from New York. So
little has been written about napalm that "basically the best public
source of information at the moment is Wikipedia, I would say, which is
really quite amazing."
Neer had no doubt that napalm's story was worth telling. The author, a
lawyer and core lecturer in history at Columbia University, writes that
the explosive, embraced by U.S. commanders as a means to stop German and
Japanese war efforts dead in their tracks, was "born a hero but lives a
pariah. Its invention is a chronicle of scientific discovery as old as
Yankee ingenuity and as modern as the military-academic complex."
Napalm's history began at Harvard University, where it owed its creation
to Louis Fieser, a brilliant organic chemist who had been entrusted with
a secret war-research project. The first demonstration took place on a
soccer field near Harvard Stadium, on July 4, 1942. Using such tools as
a meat grinder from a Harvard dining hall, Fieser developed a method of
exploding thickened petroleum into 2,100-degree "burning gobs of sticky
gel," as he put it.
The weapon was later tested on life-sized replicas of German and
Japanese houses, and shaved white Cheshire pigs. Fieser and his
colleagues even tried to develop a method of arming Mexican free-tailed
bats with small amounts, putting the animals into clustered containers,
flying them over Japanese cities at night, and then parachuting them
down into warm air, where the bats would awaken, wiggle free, and
explode inside houses. Ultimately the effort failed; the bats just
wouldn't cooperate, and many died even before their release. In one
instance, armed bats blew up a test facility. After many millions of
dollars of expense, the project was called off: "uncertainties involved
in the behavior of the animal," one observer reported.
Throughout their development of napalm, Neer says, Harvard scientists
steered around any discussion of its morality.
The use of incendiary weapons dates back to ancient times: flaming
arrows, fiery mud poured over city walls onto attackers, foxes set
alight and driven into fields of crops, increasingly lethal
flamethrowers. In 1937, German planes devastated the Basque town of
Guernica with incendiary bombs.
In 1945, the U.S. military used napalm, recently perfected and far more
sophisticated and lethal than earlier incendiary devices, to kill about
90,000 citizens of Tokyo and to incinerate 64 other Japanese cities.
Neer notes that Gen. Curtis LeMay, who directed the incineration of
Tokyo and the atomic-bomb attacks later that year, wrote after the war
that his forces had "scorched and boiled and baked to death more people
in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapor at Hiroshima
and Nagasaki combined."
The United States gave Greece napalm so it could bomb Communist
positions in 1948, and American forces used it during the Korean War.
Many other deployments followed before its infamous use in Vietnam.
The Weapon That Sears Flesh
Harvard's role resulted from an innovation in weapons development. In
1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up the National Defense
Research Committee to coordinate collaborations among military,
industrial, and academic personnel. It was, says Neer, the beginning of
the military-industrial-academic "complex," providing many thousands of
scientists with virtually unlimited funds for the atomic bomb and other
Louis Fieser's boss and, earlier, instructor at Harvard was by then the
university's president, James B. Conant, who nurtured Harvard's
prominent role in the new approach. He described it as "the beginning of
a revolution" that would transform the relationship of the university to
the federal government.
Conant had the stomach for napalm's effects. Late in his career, he
mused that he did not see "why tearing a man's guts out by a
high-explosive shell is to be preferred to maiming him by attacking his
lungs or skin," and that civilian casualties were "not only a necessary
consequence of bombing, but one might almost say an objective."
Neer believes that the paucity of scholarly analysis of napalm may be
due to its fading as a continuing or immediate threat to the West,
particularly by comparison with nuclear weapons. That diminished danger
was cited in 1980, when United Nations delegates nonetheless outlawed
napalm's deployment against civilians as part of the Convention on
Certain Conventional Weapons. The need for such an agreement became
apparent when Serbian forces used napalm in 1994, as did the United
States in Iraq in 2003, according to Neer. (The U.S. military's denials
of that use depend on ignoring the generic definition of napalm as any
kind of "thickened incendiary," he says.) U.S. officials did not sign
the U.N.'s napalm provision until 2009.
Neer considers the U.N. agreement an optimistic sign: "A global
consensus has been produced that even the mighty United States, after
decades of trying to avoid the issue, has finally, at least to some
degree, accepted." he says. "The consensus of the world is that napalm
should not be used against concentrations of civilians."
When Neer took napalm as his subject, primary sources, including
military, industrial, and scientific documents, proved easy to find.
They included Fieser's memoir, The Scientific Method: A Personal Account
of Unusual Projects in War and in Peace (1964), out of print but
available in research libraries. Neer's biggest challenge, he says, was
to frame his analysis and narrative because so little scholarly
interpretation of the history existed.
The subject appealed to him in part because he felt a personal
connection to the events: The lab where Fieser did his first experiments
with napalm, near Harvard Square, "was a block away from the lab where
my mom worked as a biochemist at Harvard Medical School," he says. "I
literally grew up going to the library a block away."
He also knew, of course, that napalm figured commonly in movies, songs,
and other works of popular culture, particularly in video games, as an
emblem of destructive power. In the minds of creators of such works, as
in the experience of napalm's millions of targets, the weapon had become
"a worldwide synonym for American brutality."
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