War has always been a savage undertaking. From the days of lining up in a field and hacking each other apart with swords and axes to its more modern incarnation of blowing each other apart with missiles sent from distant drones, warfare has a habit of bringing out the very darkest in humanity.
Whether you can ever really capture the true horror of war in film or photography is debatable, but from time to time, a single image emerges that defines, not just a single conflict but the chaotic act of bloodshed itself and the horrifying effect it has on the innocent.
The image in question was taken on 8th June 1972 and has become iconic in its representation of the war in Vietnam – fought between the Northern Viet Cong and the Southern Vietnamese along with their American allies.
The picture, taken by Nick Ut a photographer working for the Associated Press, shows a group of children running down a road and away from an enormous explosion still billowing up behind them. In the center of the image is a young girl, completely naked and screaming in agony, her arms outstretched desperately searching for help.
It is, quite simply, one of the most harrowing images of war ever to emerge and has long come to define the war in Vietnam in all its brutality and senselessness. But there is much more to the image than simply meets the eye. The young girl, Kim Phuc, had been injured not as a result of traditional ordinance, but rather a relatively new form of weaponry that had been introduced during World War II, and greatly improved upon during the Vietnam War. It was a deadly mixture of naphthenic and aliphatic carboxylic acids, which was then mixed with gasoline or other flammable liquids to produce what we know as Napalm.
With the image circulating the globe, focusing the world’s attention on events in Vietnam more than ever, the name Napalm became closely associated with the horrors emerging from South-East Asia. In the coming years, it would see further use around the world, but this is one weapon that has been considered almost too terrible for use and was widely banned in the 1990s.
But, of course, things have been far from straightforward and the story of Napalm isn’t quite finished yet
War has a habit of pushing ingenuity to greater heights than ever thought possible. Perhaps there is something about impending annihilation that spurs humans on, and World War II was a perfect example as the great showdown between good and evil disgorged countless technological advances, from rocketry to nuclear weapons.
The use of fire in war goes back millennia. The Byzantine Empire used what was described as ‘Greek Fire’ as early as 672 BC, a weapon that can only really be described as a primitive flamethrower. The actual composition of the flammable liquid is still keenly debated, but probably used a combination of pine resin, naphtha, quicklime, calcium phosphide, sulfur, or niter.
There were some attempts to use flamethrowers in World War I, but they were far from convincing. These rudimentary devices used standard flammable liquid which couldn’t stick to targets in the same way Napalm later could.
During World War II, the allies began working on jellied gasoline mixtures that included latex, though this quickly ran into problems as natural rubber became scarce after the Japanese swept through South-East Asia.
This led to the creation of artificial rubber through a collaboration between US chemical companies, including DuPont and Standard Oil, and researchers at Harvard University. By early 1942, the first synthetic Napalm had emerged, a brown powder that when mixed with gasoline created an incredibly sticky highly-flammable substance that would cling to just about everything it touched.
In July 1942, at a site near Havard Business School, the first major trials involving Napalm took place, followed by larger tests at the Dugway Proving Ground near Salt Lake City, which included buildings that were said to resemble German and Japanese homes. This hellish new weapon proved to be devastatingly effective and it wasn’t long until it was used on real homes.
There have been several versions of Napalm that have appeared over the years, but almost all follow the same rough outline, with various degrees of destruction.
Napalm is essentially a firebomb fuel gel mixture, also referred to as a type of aluminum soap, that acts as a gelling agent for compatible volatile petrochemicals, such as gasoline, kerosene, or diesel fuel. The name Napalm comes from two substances included in the early version, aluminum naphthenate and aluminum salts of coconut fatty acid, commonly known as aluminum palmitate.
To make things a little confusing, the word Napalm is often used to refer to the substance before and after another petrochemical has been added. In the earliest forms, the X-104 soap, which was developed by Harvard researchers, needed to be mixed with its flammable partner before it could be used.
We’ll shortly be coming to the first real-world examples of Napalm use and how it developed over the decades, but I can say right now, this is a shocking weapon. Napalm is not simply about destruction and is far less destructive than most traditional bombs. It is however its unique ability to stick to whatever lies in its path and then burn straight through that makes it stand out.
Napalm was perhaps most famously used during the Vietnam War as a way of destroying large tracts of land, which the Americans hoped would force the Viet Cong out into the open, where they could be killed quickly and easily by the immense firepower at hand. This never really materialized but the effects of Napalm on the human body soon become horrifyingly apparent.
When Napalm comes into contact with human skin the results can be catastrophic as the substance clings to the skin like glue, while simultaneously burning through it. The young girl in the image that we discussed at the start of the video wasn’t crying out because she had been injured by a bomb, she was screaming in agony because she was covered in Napalm that was slowly eating away at her body.
But that’s not all this horror weapon does. When Napalm disperses it immediately creates carbon monoxide, while simultaneously reducing the amount of oxygen in the air. This means that a bombed site might reach 20% carbon monoxide and deaths through asphyxiation are common.
And I’m sorry to say but we’re still not quite done. When Napalm burns it can reach temperatures of 2,760 C (5,000 F) which is hot enough to liquefy much of what it comes into contact with. Even water itself can become deadly and there have been instances of humans boiling alive in rivers after they were hit with Napalm.
World War II
Now, we have jumped along a little in the story of Napalm, so we need to backtrack to the Second World War when this weapon was first used. To begin with, Napalm was typically used to flush out enemy soldiers, often on small Pacific islands where the Japanese had dug in well. Used with flamethrowers, it could be particularly devasting against bunkers, foxholes, and trenches, but its use quickly expanded to terrifying proportions.
What most people don’t realize is the extent and damage that Napalm did towards the end of World War II. The uproar that greeted its use in the Vietnam War was pivotal to its eventual banning, but the hard truth is that Napalm was used to hellish effect during the second major conflict of the 20th Century and killed enormous numbers of people.
And to give you a good idea of these numbers, it’s thought that around 140,000 people were killed in Hiroshima when the U.S dropped the first nuclear weapon on the city in September 1945, but as many as 100,000 died in Tokyo on the night that straddled the 9th and 10th March 1945, when the U.S dropped 1,667 tons of napalm-filled incendiary bombs on the Japanese capital – burning to the ground an area measuring roughly 5 square miles (39 square kilometers).
With numbers like these, and considering that was just a single night, it’s almost certain that the numbers who died because of Napalm far exceeded those killed during both nuclear attacks. In total, the U.S dropped over 40,000 tons of AN-M69s – small incendiary napalm bomblet nicknamed “Tokyo calling cards” – on Japanese cities during the war.
On the other side of the world, German cities received the same kind of treatment, with Dresden receiving a near apocalyptical pummeling. Between the 13th and 15th March 1945, 3,900 tons of incendiary devices fell on the city – half of which were thought to have been napalm-based.
Less than two months later, Germany surrendered, followed by Japan four months later. The most terrible war the world had ever seen was over, but one of the worst weapons to emerge from it was just getting started.
If Napalm had still been somewhat experimental during World War II, the Korean War was where the United States fine-tuned this deadly weapon.
A total of 32,357 tons of Napalm was dropped over Korea during the war – around twice as much as in the Pacific during World War II – with the rather twisted irony being that much of it had been produced in Japan, now a firm ally of the United States.
With U.S ground troops often vastly outnumbered by Chinese and Korean soldiers, and at times completely surrounded, Napalm proved vital in keeping American troops alive, while killing thousands at the same time.
A new type of Napalm emerged known as Napalm B, also rather ominously referred to as ‘super-Napalm’. It was made of 33% gasoline, 21% benzene, and 46% polystyrene, making it even more destructive than earlier variations.
Napalm B is often referred to as being much safer than X-104 soap because it’s much harder to ignite, decreasing the odds of accidental ignition. Napalm B usually came with a purpose fuse and a good dollop of thermite, a chemical mixture that burns at very high temperatures. Of course, this simply makes it safer for those dropping the Napalm on whoever is below, while vastly increasing the carnage below. For those on the receiving end of Napalm B ‘safer’ probably isn’t how they would describe it.
Elsewhere in South-East Asia, Vietnam was already experiencing what Napalm could do, over ten years before American involvement in the country. As the French began to lose control of their overseas territory known Indochina, they reacted with bloody force, and Napalm was often used for close air support of ground operations. The region proved just as torrid for the French as it later would be for the United States, and in 1954 a ceasefire was signed that partitioned Vietnam into the North, controlled by the Viet Minh and the South controlled by Emperor Bảo Đại.
The Vietnam War
By the time U.S combat operations began in Vietnam in 1965, Napalm had already been in use for 20 years in different parts of the world, but it was its deployment in the Asian country over the next seven years, that everybody remembers most.
The figures here are astonishing with a reported 388,000 tons of U.S. napalm bombs dropped on Vietnam during the war – which is more than 23 times what fell on Japan during World War II.
It became a psychological weapon as much as a physical one. In the earliest stages, it was often used with flamethrowers, to either flush out the Viet Cong from underground bunkers, or to completely destroy villages – which may have been assisting the enemy, but then again, may well not have – it wasn’t often virtually impossible to be sure.
But as the war began heading to the bruising stalemate that it would become, the use of Napalm became much more widespread. Video footage of aircrafts dropping Napalm bombs is strangely transfixing because of the astonishing amount of fire on the ground. A single Napalm bomb could create 2090 sq meters (2,500 square yards) of raging fire – which is just under half the size of an American football pitch – and its psychological effects could be shattering.
It’s a testament to the tenacity of the Vietnamese people that despite having a quantity of Napalm dumped on their country equal in weight to nearly half the Golden Gate Bridge, they refused to yield. While the war would drag on for a further two years after the last U.S troops left in 1973, it had provided a shocking example to the world of just how destructive Napalm could be.
We have focused heavily on the U.S use of Napalm because, well, they did create it, use it the most and then export it, but they were far from the only military using it. We have examples of the Rhodesian government using it during the Bush Wars during the 60s and 70s, the South African government using it during the Angolan Civil War, and even by the Greek government just after World War II.
There’s too much to go into everything, but take your pick from the Algerian War between 1954 and 1962, Turkey’s use of it in Cyprus in 1964, Israel’s use of Napalm during the Six-Day War in 1967, The Moroccans deployed during the Western Sahara War between 1975 and 1991 – while Argentina, Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Yugoslavia have all seen Napalm used in some way or another over the last forty years or so.
But while the use of Napalm has dragged on, often in parts of the world that receive considerably less attention than others, the dark specter it created in Vietnam had emboldened anti-war activists who soon targetted those producing Napalm.
The first high-profile case came with protests and boycotts against Dow Chemicals that began in the mid to late 1960s. This led to widespread student demonstrations, while employees of the company were frequently targeted. This led to the rather ridiculous attempt at a PR makeover, with Dow Chemicals publishing a newsletter titled ‘Napalm News’ which was distributed to all employees as a rather feeble attempt to sway opinion. It didn’t work, and the company eventually stopped making Napalm in 1969.
In 1980, the United Nations signed the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which included Protocol III on the prohibition of the use of incendiary weapons against civilians. This was a wide-ranging convention that included five separate protocols in total, and it was up to individual countries as to which they signed up for.
As you might imagine, there were plenty of holdouts over the years, with the good old U.S of A not signing up until Brack Obama’s first day in office in 2009 – nearly 30 years after it was introduced at the U.N. And even here, there’s said to be a small asterisk next to it, which says that the treaty can be ignored if it would save civilian lives – make of that what you will.
The good news is that as of today, nearly every major nation has signed up to Protocol III of the convention, effectively banning the use of Napalm across the world. However, it’s important to caveat this. The banning of Napalm in 1980 certainly didn’t stem the tide of its use and at times the line between its use against civilians and militaries has become blurred, to say the least.
Some believe that the U.S used Napalm in both Iraq and Afghanistan, while others claim it wasn’t actually Napalm but rather ‘other’ weapons that have incendiary qualities, such as white phosphorus and the Mark 77 firebombs which carry a remarkably similar effect to Napalm.
When it comes to the use of Napalm, we may now be talking about semantics. What we know as Napalm, in its old form at least, has pretty much become obsolete as a weapon anyway. Large amounts of U.S stockpiles were destroyed in the early 2000s, but some do remain, kept in stock for scientific research and development.
But just because the world appears to have turned a page on that particular hellish weapon, and the name Napalm is on the verge of becoming extinct, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t something even worse coming through.
If a Mark 77 firebomb lands on your village, it isn’t technically a Napalm attack, but the effects are eerily similar. The name Napalm may well be on the way out, but our capability to produce weapons of death and destruction remains greater than ever, just repackaged under different names.