The Corner

That Napalm Story

I wish the Pentagon would quit playing these silly word games. Despite what a DoD spokesman, excuse me, spokesperson, may say, we are now fighting a guerrilla war in Iraq, and what Marine aviators dropped on enemy formations, as described in this article, was napalm.

Now, ever since Robert Duvall’s character in Apocalypse Now said

“I love napalm in the morning. It’s the smell of victory,” and papers

around the world published the photo of the Vietnamese girl running from

her village, on which napalm mistakenly had been dropped by a South

Vietnamese pilot, napalm has had a very bad press. But it is not an

illegal weapon. The main reason its use has declined is that there are

often better alternatives.

Does anyone remember the MOAB? I wrote a short NRO piece about

this highly-publicized weapon. It is a weapon that kills by fire, blast,

and overpressure. I don’t think anyone, other than the usual suspects,

argued that there was anything wrong with the MOAB. Indeed, I can almost

guarantee that the SacBee had a puff piece on MOAB.

The article claims that napalm was used in Vietnam against

villages and people. That is false. It was never used on purpose against

civilians, although as the photo I mentioned above illustrates,

accidents did happen. Napalm was used in Vietnam the same way the

Marines apparently used it in Iraq: against enemy troops, either dug in

or in the open. If anyone saw We Were Soldiers Once, you can understand

how effective it can be against attacking formations. Hal Moore wrote in

the book upon which Mel Gibson’s movie was based that for about 18

hours, the only thing that stood between his outnumbered command and

complete destruction at the hands of the PAVN was a wall of fire.

I will tell you that as a young lieutenant leading a Marine

rifle platoon in Vietnam, nothing made me happier than to see a couple

of napalm canisters tumbling from an A-4 onto a trench line or bunker

complex that my unit had been ordered to take. My view of things as a

lowly “grunt” was, to paraphrase Paul Fussell’s attitude about the

dropping of the atom bomb on Japan, “thank God for napalm.”

Before people get all riled up about this, I would like to point

out that the 9/11 attackers killed 3000 Americans essentially using

cruise missiles and un-gelled napalm.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


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