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"You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for twelve hours. When it was all over I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like - victory" Apocalypse now (1979)

Kim Phuc was the subject of a Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph during the Vietnam War taken in 1972, when she was a child, running naked down a road, screaming in pain from the napalm that was burning through her skin. The photograph has come to epitomize the tragedy of the Vietnam War. Ironically, this incident did not involve any American participation, and their impact in Vietnam was minimal. In the United States, however, the impact of this scene was tremendous, and uniformly negative. Practically everyone old enough to have viewed the news during those years remembers this scene, and others like them, with a combination of revulsion and disgust.

There are many types of napalm, with dozens of different compositions. Napalm (trade name) is a powder. Mixed with gasoline, it is a tactical weapon used to remove vegetative cover and instill fear. Fire bomb fuel gel mixture, the new nomenclature for napalm, is a mixture of fuel and gelling solution that are combined to produce a thickened mixture. The fuel gel mixture is stringy and sticky, and readily adheres to most surfaces. The fuel gelling system consists of a fuel gelling unit, drums of gelling solution, and aviation gas, mogas, JP-4, or JP-5 fuels.

Incendiary munitions can kill or wound by immolation and by asphyxiation. Burn victims of napalm do not experience 1st degree burns due to the adhesive properties of napalm that stick to the skin. Immolation produces very rapid loss of blood pressure, unconsciousness, and death in a short time. Third degree burns are typically not painful at the time, since only the cutaneous (skin) nerves respond to heat and full-thickness (third-degree) burns kill the nerves. Severe second-degree burns such as likely to be suffered by someone hit with a small splash of napalm are the severely painful ones, the ones likely to be survived, and likely to produce hideous scars called keloids [which also bring about motor disturbances].

Napalm Composition

A large amount of carbon monoxide is produced once a napalm bomb is set off, which makes it hard for people to breathe, causing them to pass out and burn. When Napalm ignites, it rapidly deoxygenates the available air. Oxygen is replaced with carbon monoxide (CO) as a result of incomplete combustion. As little as 0.4 percent CO is fatal in one hour because of the high affinity between carbon monoxide and hemoglobin. Napalm creates a localized atmosphere of at least 20 percent carbon monoxide.

During World War I, both Germany and the US used an early form of napalm in combat flamethrowers, but the substance burned out too quickly to be very effective at igniting targets. Gasoline alone is not an effective burning agent, as it will splash off of the target on impact, and will then flow away from the target like water. What is needed is a thickening agent so that the fuel will stick to it's intended target for a more complete burning effect. During the early months of World War II, the US Chemical Warfare Service used latex from the Para rubber tree to jell gasoline. This jelled gasoline shot further from flamethrowers, stuck to the target better, and burned longer. But when the US entered the war in the Pacific, natural rubber was in short supply. Research teams at Harvard University, Du Pont and Standard Oil engaged in a Government competition to develop a replacement.

Napalm was developed at Harvard University in 1942-43 by a team of chemists led by chemistry professor Louis F. Fieser, who was best known for his research at Harvard University in organic chemistry which led to the synthesis of the hormone cortisone. Napalm was formulated for use in bombs and flame throwers by mixing a powdered aluminium soap of naphthalene with palmitate (a 16-carbon saturated fatty acid) -- also known as napthenic and palmitic acids -- hence napalm [another story suggests that the term napalm derives from a recipe of Naptha and palm oil]. Naphthenic acids are corrosives found in crude oil; palmitic acids are fatty acids that occur naturally in coconut oil. On their own, naphthalene and palmitate are relatively harmless substances.

The aluminum soap of naphtenic and palmitic acids turns gasoline into a sticky syrup that carries further from projectors and burns more slowly but at a higher temperature. Mixing the aluminum soap powder with gasoline produced a brownish sticky syrup that burned more slowly than raw gasoline, and hence was much more effective at igniting a target. Compared to previous incendiary weapons, napalm spread further, stuck to the target, burned longer, and was safer to its dispenser because it was dropped and detonated far below the airplane. It was also cheap to manufacture.

Modern day napalm uses no Napalm (naphthalene or palmitate) -- instead using a mixture of polystyrene, gasoline and benzene. After the Korean War a safer but equally effective napalm compound was developed. This new formulation is known as "napalm-B", super-napalm, or NP2, and it uses no napalm! Instead, polystyrene and benzene are used as a solvent to solidify the gasoline. This modern napalm is a mixture of benzene (21%), gasoline (33%), and polystyrene (46%). Benzene is a normal component of gasoline (about 2%), while the gasoline used in napalm is the same leaded or unleaded gas that is used in automobiles.

Napalm-B had one great advantage over the original napalm -- ignition can be readily controlled. Napalm is less flammable than gasoline and therefore less hazardous. The more polystyrene in the mixture, the harder it is to ignite. Napalm is actually harder to ignite than might be expected. A match or even a road flare will not ignite napalm. A reliable igniter is used to start napalm-B burning. Thermite is typically used to ignite napalm. Some forms of modern napalm cannot be ignited by a hand grenade.

There was a report on Al-Jazeera on December, 14, 2001 that the US was using napalm at Tora Bora in Afghanistan. In response, General Tommy Franks said "We're not using -- we're not using the old napalm in Tora Bora."

The US Department of Defense denied the use of napalm during Operation Iraqi Freedom. A rebuttal letter from the US Depeartment of Defense had been in fact been sent to the Australian Sydney Morning Herald newspaper which had claimed that napalm had been used in Iraq.

An article by the San Diego Union Tribune revealed however, on August 5, 2003, that incendiary weapons were in fact used against Iraqi troops in the course of Operation Iraqi Freedom, as Marines were fighting their way to Baghdad. The denial by the US DOD was issued on the technical basis that the incendiaries used consisted primarily of kerosene-based jet fuel (which has a smaller concentration of benzene), rather than the traditional mixture of gasoline and benzene used for napalm, and that these therefore did not qualify as napalm. But the official Department of Defense definition of napalm is "1. Powdered aluminum soap or similar compound used to gelatinize oil or gasoline for use in napalm bombs or flame throwers. 2. The resultant gelatinized substance."

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:52:52 ZULU