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Napalm and the Arms Creation Myth

April 15, 2013

I found the opening (by the interviewer, not the author) to this interview with the author of a new and promising looking book on the history of napalm curious:

Napalm is one of those American inventions that you wish weren’t, sort of like Agent Orange, killer drones, or nuclear weapons. Sure, their invention might have had to happen eventually, but why should the U.S. have to shoulder credit – culpability? — for being the first to develop ever-better and more lethal weapons? Was that something the Founding Fathers ever envisioned?

I am not about to stand up for Agent Orange, and my readers are likely sick of anything I have to say about drones, but could we contemplate for a second why, exactly, it would have been in any way better for another country to have developed nuclear weapons first?

Consider that, without the influx and recruitment of European and especially German physicists to the United States, the next in line for successful nuclear development was probably Nazi Germany. Even if America’s decision not to develop the bomb had no impact on the failure of the German program, next in line after would likely have been the USSR. In what fashion would this have been a morally superior outcome? Even leaving aside the likelihood that the U.S. would have launched an invasion of Japan killing thousands upon thousands of Americans and probably millions of Japanese, and indeed possibly involving chemical weapons use by one or both sides, would blaming the Soviets – let alone the Nazis, if that had come to pass instead – for inventing the atomic bomb have done anything to morally improve the world? A Soviet first in developing or use of nuclear weapons would simply have given us the same arms race consequences only with an early advantage to a totalitarian empire, while their lack of development at all would likely simply have meant a longer war in Asia and a stronger Soviet Union overall. I do not see what anyone would find so reassuring about such scenarios.

In the case of incendiary weapons and firebombing generally, rather than napalm specifically,  we should note the U.S. pioneered neither their development nor their use, but instead perfected . Credit for modern flamethrowers and firebombing more likely goes to Imperial Germany, who employed the former on the battlefields and the latter from zeppelins over Britain’s coasts in WWI. Before 1942, cities the Axis firebombed included Chongqing, Warsaw, London, and Coventry. The Allies went on to use firebombing anyway, and demonstrated superior capability with it thanks to their more capable bomber wings. What the world would have gained from napalm not being introduced when firebombing (including thermite bombs) and flamethrowers were in use is unclear.*

As an aside, the argument that “the founders did not envision this” is usually misguided in matters of military technology’s 21st century applications because firstly, the founders had strong disagreements over matters of war and peace and frequently contradicted themselves, and secondly, because one can find evidence from the founding period to justify virtually anything one pleases. That the U.S. wished somehow to abstain from the development of military power seems rather bizarre. In 1815 the U.S. launched the Demologos, the first steam warship, but the production faltered for want of money and practicality after the war’s end (though armed river steamers did exist). Eli Whitney made a good deal of money off selling the concept of interchangeable parts for firearms (although between lifting French concepts and the frequent failure of his wares, he is also a founding-era pioneer of wasting taxpayer money through the military procurement process), which helped form the basis of the influential armory system. Elisha Collier invented a revolving flintlock (though he patented it first in Britain, partly because the UK would not accept patents granted first in the U.S. and further because the UK was willing to spend vaster sums on new arms). Though sometimes the moral inclinations of certain politicians scuttled new technologies (such as when John Quincy Adams derailed the Navy’s procurement of sea mines), the record of the founding period through the antebellum era is far more one of under-investment in the military than American moral abstention from developing military technologies.

Regardless, the point here ought to be that worrying about being the “first mover” is less important than being a responsible user, and that, given changing moral guidelines, even being a responsible first user is not necessarily going to provide the dividends one might expect as a matter of enlightened self-interest. Firebombing, as a subset of area bombing, became controversial in its own time primarily because of questions such as when it was militarily justify to bomb a city period, with the view that area bombing and firebombing being flat-out immoral being a less popular or prominent viewpoint. One section of an exchange with the author is illuminating:

Discuss the morality of napalm. Why do lead bullets seem to be viewed as “good weapons,” while napalm – and others, like chemical and biological weapons – seem to be viewed as “bad weapons”? Is there a logic to these groupings? If so, what is it?

I’m not sure I accept the premise of your question quite as you phrase it.

Napalm is legal to use against combatants under international law, for example, while chemical and biological weapons in general are not. It is also illegal to use bullets, to take your example, in certain ways: for example, to execute babies.

To fully understand my view about what happened to napalm, and discussions about its morality, naturally, you need to read my book. I will note, however, that Fieser asserted that he envisioned that napalm would be used against things, not “babies and Buddhists,” as he phrased it.

To the extent napalm became controversial, the worst damage it did was becoming symbolic of a war that was already extremely polarizing, and would have been so whether it was napalm or some other payload in some of the bombs being dropped. The extensive use of area bombing and firebombing in World War II attracts less controversy because the wars themselves are far less controversial. Notably, the very agonizing over the consequences of the atomic era keeps much of the controversy over the final atomic acts of the war alive.

For better or for worse, the extension of American ingenuity to warfare is a historical fact. But whether it is good or bad for society has much more to do with the consequences and context of the weapons than the weapons themselves. To wish that we had not developed a weapon that finds wide international acceptance is to engage in a sort of Pandora’s Box or Promethean myth about technology, whereby forgoing first use, through some vaguely articulated quasi-karmic mechanism, forestalls or even prevents the nastiness we associate the weapon with.

In a way, focusing on weapons systems provides a sort of win-win for activists and powerful states. The U.S. reduces its use of gelled-fuel explosives (rather than napalm per se) to select circumstances, in keeping with practical changes to military doctrine that were already occurring – but continues to employ a wide variety of other weapons systems with its overall military superiority and privileged international position intact, while activists get to claim a victory because extensive napalm use remains at the fringes of media attention by states without the same capability to employ it as the U.S. and its allies and clients possessed. Of course, focusing on a specific weapons system is a much easier for activists in terms of propaganda and more practical in terms of mobilization to work with than is, say, the concept of American military superiority writ large. The platform is certainly the most visible element of the combination of social and technical elements that support and provide political meaning to a weapons system. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using a weapon as an object of study or a starting point for analysis, but to make a moral or policy judgment requires looking at more than just the weapons system and realistically thinking about cause and consequence. Napalm was an evolution in a series of technologies and tactics developed elsewhere by others, it was part of an evolutionary process rather than a  revolutionary change. The process, however, by which one weapon became the focus of so much public attention and so prominent in generations of thinking about war, is fascinating and important, and one worth examining as we think about how other increasingly publicized weapons systems grab headlines in present and future wars.

*  As far as firebombing goes, even a country with total disregard for international norms and humanitarian practices would find that the changing construction of modern cities, and the need for massive fleets of freely operating aircraft, renders area incendiary bombings increasingly difficult. Much as with chemical weapons, a great deal of the relative lack of use needs to factor in practical considerations.

One Comment leave one →
  1. miguel cervantes permalink
    June 1, 2013 10:40 pm

    An intriguing thought, have you read Volpi’s In Search of Klingsor, it’s about a novel about certain members of the Reich’s nuclear program, with a fictional narrator but reference Heisenberg and the racial science obsessed head, Johannes Stark, one of the major reason why their program did not succeed, while we had Einstein, Fermi, Szlizard et al.

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