On the night of 9th March 1945, 339 American bombers took off, heading for Tokyo. Their payload: incendiary bombs filled with a gelatinous mixture of coconut oil soap, aluminium naphthenate and gasoline, developed just a few years before at Harvard University. The B-29 flew in at low altitude, and dropped 690,000 pounds of napalm within an hour. Tokyo’s paper and wood houses were soon engulfed in flames. Explosives merely kill those within the range of the bomb’s impact. Incendiary weapons spread death more widely since their targets provide the fuel for their propagation.
The bombing created a firestorm. Gale-like winds swept through the streets of Tokyo, sending a column of fire 18,000 feet into the sky. Flying high overhead, American airmen could smell the stench of burning flesh. Not a building was left intact over 15 square miles of the city. Probably over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children died that night.
The Tokyo raid was seen as a great success in Washington. For the next ten days, until stocks of napalm ran out, an incendiary bombing campaign ravaged all the major Japanese cities (other than Kyoto). “It was nothing short of wonderful,” a general in charge of the campaign crowed, that the American air force had meted out the greatest damage ever “inflicted on any people in a single eight-day period.” Napalm killed many more Japanese than the atom bombs, and probably did as much, if not more, to destroy their will to keep fighting.
Robert M Neer’s thoughtful history, Napalm: An American Biography (Harvard University Press, £22.95), is divided into three sections: hero, soldier and pariah. These neatly describe the evolution of our attitudes towards the incendiary. During the second world war, few had any objections to its use. Its horror was viewed as an advantage because it frightened opponents. Battle hardened soldiers who resisted conventional attacks soon surrendered after being sprayed with napalm from flamethrowers or from specially adapted tanks. Our atavistic fear of fire made napalm the weapon of choice. “People have this thing about being burned to death,” one soldier explained.
Napalm was also decisive in Korea, proclaimed “the number one weapon” by the New York Herald Tribune. Tactically, it…