Are We Hypocrites? Does Anyone Remember Napalm?
-by Helen Klein
We used chemical weapons against civilians big time during the Vietnam War. How can we claim the moral high ground and use this as a justification to initiate bombing in yet another country? I love our country and the high ideals to which we aspire. But, let’s do so with our eyes open and learn from our mistakes.
It is hard to watch the Syria situation unfold with anything but disbelief. With the uncalled for horrors of the pointless and illegally drummed up Iraq War so close in the rear view mirror, we are now witnessing much of the press and Congress-- Democrats as well as Republicans-- rushing to show support for Trump and his knee jerk cruise missile strike in Syria. The apparent rationale for this is that America takes the moral high road. How forgetful of our own past are we? How blind can we be? Very forgetful, I fear, and equally blind. And also hypocritical. Let’s be honest with ourselves and demonstrate that American can be truly great and earn the right to adopt high moral standards when dealing with other countries. We have risen to the occasion in the past, as we did with Vietnam and Watergate, and we can do so again.
Unfortunately, many Americans are the victims of our educational system, with poor knowledge of history and limited critical thinking skills. Congress and the media, however, have no excuse. As a whole, our country has shown that we are able to engage in self-reflection when push comes to shove, but we can also be pompous and arrogant. We need to analyze our actions and ourselves and then aim to do better. At this point in time, however, Trump has emphasized that our country is the greatest on earth, has moral superiority and can do no wrong. This simplistic, hollow view that he promotes likely helped him win the election and his supporters continue to cling to it. While Americans take enormous pride in our country and this view is sure nice to hear and feels good, reality is more complex and can be hard to accept. We need to open our eyes, not have our eyes wide shut.
Perspective is needed. Now more than ever, it is important for Americans to be aware of and remember our own use of chemical weapons. In the past, we were horrified and disturbed by this as well as angered by our government’s actions. We protested and objected to napalm. Dow Chemical Company was vilified for manufacturing the substance and its products were boycotted.
History shows that like many countries, when it comes to war, at least certain wars, we excel at talking the talk, but not walking the walk. Trump is full of bluster and he lays claim to a moral high ground of which he is truly undeserving. We certainly should not initiate another ghastly illegal fruitless war on this basis. The recent intervention in Syria is eerily similar to the beginnings of the wars in Iraq and Vietnam. With Trump at the helm, this looms as a disaster of immense proportions, likely at a much greater cost to our country and the world than either Iraq or Vietnam. Alarm bells should be ringing but they are way too faint. While some journalists, such as Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, have been critical of Trump’s action, others, such as Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, are offering support.
With all of the current brouhaha (and rightly so) about the chemical weapons used by Assad, let’s take a good look at the Vietnam War and what we, the United States of America, actually did to that country with napalm.
The Vietnam War was a huge mistake, a disaster. Our rationale was that we were fighting communism. We installed a pro-American puppet as President and propped up his government with the goal of bringing democracy there. Sound familiar? No surprise, it did not work out well.
Our weapon of choice against the Vietcong was napalm. This was “a tactical weapon used to remove vegetative cover and instill fear.” Whether napalm is considered a chemical weapon or an incendiary weapon, it is monstrous and has lasting and ruinous health effects. Baby boomers well recall the horrendous photographs and videos of the unbearable pain and suffering inflicted on the Vietnamese who were exposed to napalm, as well as the devastating damage it did to the environment. Napalm was spewed down from our airplanes in an indiscriminate manner and caused massive fires, destruction and death. Vietnamese soldiers, young men, women, children and babies (yes, babies) were damaged or killed in a random fashion. We did this to thousands upon thousands of innocent people.
What is napalm? From Wikipedia:
Napalm is a flammable liquid used in warfare. It is a mixture of a gelling agent and either gasoline (petrol) or a similar fuel that sticks to the skin and burns. It was initially used as an incendiary device against buildings and later primarily as an anti-personnel weapon, as it sticks to skin and causes severe burns when on fire.Napalm clings to whatever it touches, creating a large, hotly burning area around the target. This feature also decreases the need for accuracy when dropping napalm bombs.
In World War I, American and German forces used flamethrowers, but the gasoline dripped off of the targets so military leaders desired a substance that was thicker. In 1942, a team of scientists at Harvard, led by Dr. Louis Feiser, developed napalm. The term comes from the chemicals involved: “na” from naphthenic acid, and “palm” from palmitic acid (from coconut oil). Combining these agents with gasoline made an inexpensive highly effective weapon. It was also safer for the soldiers who used it, as it could be shot from long distances.
The book, Napalm: An American Biography by Robert M. Neer, released in 2013, is the authoritative book on this subject.
In a 2013 interview, Mark Thompson asked Neer why he picked the particular subtitle, An American Biography. Neer responded:
First, because this is napalm’s life story, from its birth on Valentine’s Day 1942 to President Barack Obama’s signature on his first full day in office of the first U.S. treaty to limit its use.
Second, because it is an American weapon: it was invented in America and has been used longer, more widely, and to greater effect by the United States than any other country.
Third, because this is a story of America, from global authority at the end of World War II to its increasingly constrained position in a globalizing world.
Excerpt from a review of the book in the Organization of American Historians:
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”. 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.Excerpts from the book:
(In Word War II), napalm created an inferno that killed over 87,500 people in Tokyo – more than died in the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki-- and went on to incinerate 64 Japanese cities. The bomb got the press, but napalm did the work.
Americans applauded front-page stories on the incineration of Tokyo and the firebombing of other Japanese cities. During the Korean War, the New York Times and other newspapers printed hundreds of articles that mentioned napalm. Criticism, if it occurred at all, was fleeting.
Vietnam changed this paradigm. For the first time, napalm’s horrific effects on civilians, especially children, received sustained attention in the United States. A grass-roots protest movement against the incendiary and its manufacturer Dow Chemical Corporation began in northern California in 1965. It spread across the country in the late 1960s, and linked business, weapon, war and country so effectively, and received such wide publicity, that napalm came to symbolize for many all that was objectionable about American involvement in Vietnam.
In 1972, as debacle loomed for U.S. forces, “The Terror of War” photograph of nine-year-old Kim Phúc, burned naked as she ran to escape fighting, became an icon. Defeat in 1975 took napalm’s reputation, and much of America’s, with it. Movies, songs, artworks, poems, books and articles produced during and especially after the Vietnam War popularized the anti-war movement’s argument, and made napalm a worldwide synonym for American brutality.
This book, with its extensive history of napalm and its use by our country, should be a “must read” for Congressmen, government officials, military leaders, Trump and his appointees. If only Trump would/could read a book.
Now about napalm after Vietnam:
The United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons took place in 1980. Protocol III of the Convention forbade the use of incendiary weapons such as napalm.
Incendiary attacks against “concentrations of civilians” became war crimes. Most of America’s allies and greatest adversaries, their way smoothed by development of alternate military technologies, endorsed the compact in relatively short order.Our military has not stopped using napalm. In fact, we have continued to use napalm in conflicts since the 1980’s. Its most recent use was by U.S. forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
America refused to accept the world’s judgment. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush did not even submit Protocol III to the Senate for discussion. Over time, however, events changed the calculus of national advantage. Commanders in Chief came to appreciate the benefits of working within global consensus. President Bill Clinton and his successor George W. Bush changed course, and urged ratification. In 2008, in the face of multilateral alliances assembled to regulate landmines and cluster munitions, and concern that international law to manage conventional weapons was slipping out of U.N. control, senators ratified the protocol. President Barack Obama signed it in 2009. A diplomatic reservation attached by the president, however, asserted that the United States could disregard the treaty at its discretion if doing so would save civilian lives. This provision, of questionable legal validity (although no doubt valid enough in practice), suggests nostalgia for unilateralism.
Reports by the Sydney Morning Herald suggested the usage of napalm in the Iraq War by US forces. This was denied by the U.S. Department of Defense. In August 2003, the San Diego Union Tribune alleged that U.S. Marine pilots and their commanders confirmed the use of Mark 77 firebombs on Iraqi Republican Guards during the initial stages of combat. Official denials of the use of 'napalm' were, however, disingenuous, as the Mk 77 bomb that is currently in service at this time, the Mk 77 Mod 5, does not use actual napalm (e.g. napalm-B). The last U.S. bomb to use actual napalm was the Mark 77 Mod 4, the last of which were destroyed in March 2001. The substance used now is a different incendiary mixture, but sufficiently analogous in its effects that it is still a controversial incendiary, and can still be referred to colloquially as 'napalm.'
“We napalmed both those (bridge) approaches,” said Col. Randolph Alles in a recent interview. “Unfortunately, there were people there because you could see them in the (cockpit) video. There were Iraqi soldiers there. It’s no great way to die,” he added. “The generals love napalm…it has a big psychological effect.” – San Diego Union-Tribune, August 2003
Our righteous indignation towards Assad, while certainly on the side of morality, does not seem to apply to ourselves when we have continued to use weapons similar to napalm. We dragged our feet and it took us almost thirty years to sign on to Protocol III. Still, the diplomatic reservation Obama attached maintains our right to disregard international law and use chemical weapons in the future under circumstances that we determine.
Where would Trump stand in relation to the last sentence? Unfortunately, his position on torture is a clue in the wrong direction.
The consequences of Trump’s bombing in Syria and where this will lead us is extremely concerning.
Another aspect to consider is the nature of this attack by Assad, as Putin is insisting that Assad is not responsible for it. Trump responded rashly and impulsively, without time to clarify the facts. Surely it would have been important to establish with certainty what really occurred prior to letting loose 59 missiles. Perhaps Putin is full of bluster, but there was no need to rush with so much at stake.
In these trying times, it is vitally important for Americans to keep their eyes open, listen carefully to what those in charge tell us, take a close look at what is done in our name and speak out. Journalists must do their job. This is what democracy is about. We must not be manipulated into another unwinnable, ill thought out, destructive war. The American people have come through before and can again. Then we will show how great our country really is.