Burning bodies so perfectly assume. Nothing
Can change that; she is burned behind my eyes
And not your good love and not the rain-swept air
And not the jungle green
Pasture unfolding before us can deny it.
– Bruce Weigl
“Song of Napalm”
Napalm: a highly flammable sticky jelly used in incendiary bombs and flamethrowers, consisting of gasoline thickened with special soaps.
Napalm is not an unfamiliar word. I would venture to guess that virtually anyone you asked would answer some semblance of the common dictionary definition. As with most words, we can engage in a semantic discussion about what Napalm means. Do people mean to refer to Louis Fieser’s benzene, sawdust, aluminum napthinate, and aluminum palminate concoction, know as napalm-B? (The substance used in Vietnam.) Are they talking about the gasoline and rubber compounds used in the Pacific theater by the United States in World War II? Or perhaps the white phosphorus incendiaries used by the United States in the late twentieth century? Truthfully, I think people mean all of them. Napalm has become a blanket term for all incendiaries. The introduction of mass media on the battlefield saw to the dispersion of Napalm’s horrific usage in war — images that have been imprinted on the public’s memory.
This is not a new conversation. In general, historians have recognized the roles of the media, the public, corporations, and scientists/engineers in Napalm’s story. The most recent work is Robert Neer’s Napalm: An American Biography. In this book he follows Napalm, its usage, and legacy until 2013. In my opinion, it is a brilliant addition to Cold War history; if I am able to teach, I will most certainly use this book as a case study.
However, I feel like there is still more to be said or at least better ways of exploring and explaining Napalm. I have begun to use basic word searches to provide easier ways to visualize the change in usage over time. (These images are from the Google Ngram Tool. They are not completely representative, but they still may provide useful information.)
I think Napalm by itself does exactly what you might expect. It was “invented” in 1943, talked about in the Korean and Vietnam War eras and then it begins to resurface in the literature about twentieth century warfare. But what happens when the weapon is compared to weapons with similar narratives?
“Atomic Bomb” was certainly used more often than Napalm and has much more “baggage.” (We do have the nuclear age and not the incendiary age…)
This graph is curious because white phosphorus devices continued to be used after the Convention on the Prohibition of Certain Conventional Weapons (1983). White phosphorus might also have connections to the creation of chemical engineering in the 1920s. Is this a useful plot? White phosphorus has connotations outside of weapons production unlike Napalm, yet it is just as dangerous and has the potential to be even more dangerous.
In this final graph, Napalm is compared to other incendiaries (naptha is a tar based substance, often thought to be the primary ingredient to the quasi-mythical Greek Fire; thermite is a “dry” incendiary agent developed in late nineteenth century Germany and used in the first “fire bombs.”) In some ways this graph makes perfect sense, particularly the WMD category. Why is Naptha higher than white phosphorus and thermite? What questions can be anwered by the meandering pattern of the history of incendiary weapons? Did they really go in and out of fashion so quickly and dramatically? Or is this a result of a change in the literature written about war? (namely journalism, diplomatic history, and military history). And of course, why is Napalm above incendiary? Should it not fall under incendiary?
Again this is just a preliminary idea of what I want to do with my larger project this semester. I want to find a way to tell the story of Napalm to a wider audience and I think some of the tools we have learned from the field of Digital Humanities could be helpful. (Also, I should say I do not think that the Ngram is the greatest tool we have learned but it is easy to use. I hope to be able to work with more complex systems as I am able.) Thank you for your time.
Just a point of interest, how would you define Napalm?