"Penetrating history"

Mark Philip Bradley from the University of Chicago in the Journal of American History of the Organization of American Historians, June 2014:

In this expansive and beautifully written narrative, Neer offers a penetrating history of the cultural politics that created napalm, shaped its use by the American military in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars and, more recently, contributed to its pariah status in the international laws of war. Like scholars who have innovatively built their accounts of global economic his- tory around sugar, cotton, coffee, or cod, Neer approaches napalm in the same creative ways to simultaneously craft a richly textured account of napalm and deeply embed its larger meanings in the troubling ways the United States has waged war since the mid-twentieth century. …

By tracing the biographical arc of napalm across time and space … he marvelously captures the quotidian and utilitarian understandings that underlay its military uses by the American state and the broader humanitarian impulses through which those practices rightly came to be seen as crimes of war.

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"A first-rate book"


David Kinkela from the State University of New York at Fredonia in the American Historical Association's American Historical Review, April 2014:

Neer’s comprehensive biography reveals a complex story, one shaped by scientific innovation, changing military strategies, popular culture, and the shifting rules of war. It focuses on the American development and deployment of napalm. As Neer writes, napalm “has burned more people, across more of the earth’s surface and over a longer period of time, in the name of the United States than in that of any other nation” (p. 223). While Neer provides a detailed account of the weapon’s history, his insightful analysis underscores a more profound issue, namely the morality of deploying incendiary weapons against civilian populations. Thus, his book is more than a history of napalm; it is a thought- provoking study of how Americans have justified the killing of civilians in times of war. … Neer offers an insightful perspective on the state of modern warfare. … [A] first-rate book.

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"Excellent and eloquent"

Martijn Lak from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, The Netherlands as one of two reviewers for The Journal of Military History, January 2014: 

[A]s Robert M. Neer shows in his great, chilling, very well-written Napalm: An American Biography, the weapon did not always have such a terrible image and press, quite the contrary. For a long time, it was applauded for its fierce effectiveness and the fear it instilled in America’s enemies. Developed in a secret Harvard University war research laboratory, it was in fact, according to Neer, seen as a war winning weapon, especially in the Pacific and later on in Korea, where it saved US and UN forces from defeat. … Neer has written an excellent and eloquent study on one of the most feared weapons of all time. It is full of details, such as the U.S. plan to attack Japan with millions of suicide bomber bats wearing tiny napalm bombs. Neer also pays attention to napalm’s role in popular culture, in movies and (protest) songs. His chilling descriptions of the effects of napalm on people and cities makes you hope that the weapon will never be used again.

Daniel Weimer, Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia:

Neer’s “American biography” positions napalm within the broader context of the United States’ domestic and foreign relations history. … As a whole, Napalm is innovative in its contextualization of napalm over a sixty-year period. … Clearly designed for a wide audience, Napalm is accessible and highly readable, and is well suited for undergraduate use. 

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Mother Jones Best Books of 2013

Dave Gilson of Mother Jones explains why Napalm is one of the magazine's Best Books of 2013:

In the era of drone strikes, Napalm is a timely look at what it means to (literally) rain death from above. Developed at Harvard during World War II, napalm was explicitly designed to destroy civilian targets: It was even tested on mock-ups of German and Japanese houses. The horrific firebombing of Japan and the use of napalm in Vietnam figure prominently, but the book also details lesser-known uses of the weapon in Korea and Iraq (where the US military insisted its "firebombs" were different than napalm). An excellent and disturbing history of a weapon that's synonymous with the horror of modern warfare.

Click here for the complete list of Mother Jones magazine's Best Books of 2013.

"Chilling account … timely contemplation"

Tom Clonan in The Irish Times on 17 October 2013:

"[A] meticulous account of the development of napalm as a chemical weapon that would eventually be responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent civilians around the world. At a time of increasing paranoia about weapons of mass destruction in general and chemical weapons in particular, Napalm is a timely contemplation of the political, economic and sociological factors that combined to produce such a seemingly simple yet diabolical munition. ... [A] chilling account ....”

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"Modern warfare changed"

Peter C. Baker writes in The Nation on September 10, 2013:

Modern warfare changed on a Harvard soccer field in the summer of 1942. On July 4 of that year, Louis Fieser, head of the National Defense Research Committee’s “Anonymous Research Project No. 4,” flipped a switch, triggering a white phosphorous explosion inside a bomb filled mostly with jellied gasoline. The use of flame in war had been on the decline since the spread of gunpowder in the thirteenth century, but Fieser showed that with napalm, planes could drop sticky fire from the sky. 

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"Learned, fair and historically accurate"

Victor Davis Hanson in a cover review for the Times Literary Supplement on 17 July 2013:

Neer is often highly critical of the American use of napalm; yet his narrative of its origins, production and use over the past seven decades is not a jeremiad, but learned, fair and historically accurate. In the post-war era, napalm was felt essential to protect American ground troops, often outnumbered and deployed in hostile Asian landscapes. Soon it became a favoured tactic in Korea and Vietnam to substitute mini-firestorms from the air for the costlier insertion of infantry altogether. Yet the paradox of napalm, as Neer shows, is that while the use of such jellied gasoline – Napalm B, the successor to the original toxic mixture, is safer to store while burning longer and at higher temperatures – has saved the lives of American soldiers, it has usually been dropped in controversial post-war insurgent landscapes, where the lines between civilians and soldiers were blurred.

In comparison to chemical and biological agents, napalm remains a conventional weapon. Neer is especially insightful in showing how Vietnam was a turning point in public perceptions about napalm. Until photographs of burning Vietnamese children – especially the graphic disfigurement of young Kim Phúc – spread around the world, napalm per se was not particularly associated with barbarity, at least in comparison to the horrendous and multifaceted arsenal of modern weaponry. Certainly, before 1943 the Germans and British had managed well enough to burn wide swaths of European cities without it. But by the mid-1970s, napalm was forever associated with the indiscriminate torching of Vietnamese hamlets and civilians – and thus became a symbol in popular movies, rock songs and anti-war literature of the cowardly use of high-tech destruction by a bullying America against weaker indigenous populations.

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NRC Handelsblad, Amsterdam Netherlands

Jan Donkers writes on June 7, 2013:

Napalm werd geboren op Valentijnsdag 1942. Het leidde een lang en controversieel bestaan, verwoestte miljoenen mensenlevens en werd op 66-jarige leeftijd door de internationale ge- meenschap tot paria verklaard. Het levensverhaal van napalm is ook ‘het verhaal van Amerika, van de overwinning in de Tweede Wereldoorlog, via de nederlaag in Vietnam tot aan zijn huidige positie in een globaliserende wereld’, schrijft Robert Neer, geschiedenisdocent aan Columbia University. Hij noteerde het fraai gedetailleerd, en met weerzin die hier en daar door zijn professionele distantie heen schemert.

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"Clear-eyed and harrowing"

Thai Jones in Dissent — "Firestorm: Napalm and the American Century" in the Summer 2013 edition:

Robert M. Neer’s clear-eyed and harrowing new account surveys this infamous technology from both perspectives. This is history, in a literal sense, from above and below. Using napalm as a symbol for American global influence acutely demonstrates the political trajectory of a superpower, from impetuous upstart to tortured giant to—finally—chastened hegemon.

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"Extraordinary evolution"

Warren Wilkins in Vietnam Magazine:

Neer recounts in rich detail the extraordinary evolution of napalm from hero in the gilded age of post-WWII American power to pariah in the aftermath of Vietnam… Neer ultimately moves beyond the protests to examine how antiwar grassroots activism, art, journalism and politics during and immediately after the Vietnam War radically reshaped cultural attitudes about napalm and the United States.

Frankfurter Allgemeine, Frankfurt Germany

Michael Hochgeschwender writes on May 11, 2013:

Der Rechtshistoriker Robert M. Neer von der New Yorker Columbia University erzählt aber nicht allein die Geschichte des Napalmeinsatzes in Vietnam, sondern eine viel breitere „amerikanische Biographie“, wie es im Untertitel seines Buches heißt. Denn Napalm hatte eigentlich als typisch amerikanische Erfolgsgeschichte begonnen. 1942 hatte ausgerech net ein deutschstämmiger Chemiker der Universität Harvard eine Waffe entwickelt, die sich an älteren Vorbildern, etwa dem berühmt-berüchtigten „griechischen Feuer“ der Byzantiner oder deutschen Brandbomben aus dem Ersten Weltkrieg, orientierte, aber wesentlich ef- fizienter war.

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"Insanely readable"

Shyam K. Sriram on 9 May 2013:

This book should really appeal to everyone. There is no bias here, no leftist or conservative agenda. This is simply an exhaustive history of napalm, from its beginnings as kind of a scientific puzzle for technocrats to one of the most widely despised symbols of war. This book is historical enough for history buffs, yet laden with enough military and chemistry jargon to make the viewers of the History Channel and Discovery Channel, respectively, go dry-mouthed with anticipation. Neer has a penchant for making even the most technical and obtuse topic insanely readable. 

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"Thought-provoking and heart-rending"

Review by Chris Patsilelis for the Tampa Bay Times:

"[A] gripping, meticulously documented study of a devilish weapon ... Neer vividly makes clear how napalm earned its satanic reputation as an indiscriminate incinerator of children. He reminds us in this thought-provoking and heart-rending book of all those hideous news photos of burned children, and he reintroduces us to the now 50-year-old Kim Phuc, the little South Vietnamese girl so severely scorched by napalm in the iconic 1972 news photograph. 'I suffered so much I wanted to die,' she says to Neer."

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"A masterful job"

Kit Gillet for The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong:

Neer doesn't hold back his punches in describing the nightmarish scenes following napalm strikes, quoting heavily from accounts of those caught underneath and journalists who arrived on the scenes soon after. ... [T]here is no question that Neer has done a masterful job of writing a compelling history of one of the major villains of the 20th century.

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"Hideously readable"

Scottish 2012 Newspaper of the Year The Scotsman writes:

As described by Neer in this hideously readable account, napalm – developed in 1942 – was one of the first fruits of the academic–military–industrial complex which has done so much to shape America – and the world – in the decades since. Its history seems quintessentially American, too, in the combination of ingenuity and ingenuousness which went into its development and deployment; the moral blindness to what all the world except the US can see.

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