The Militarized Imagination: On Napalm and Nuclear Warfare

May 7, 2013

    IN ITS FINAL REPORT issued in July 2004, the 9/11 Commission concluded that much could have been done to prevent the fateful 2001 attacks from taking place: “The most important failure,” they declared in a statement widely cited in the press, “was one of imagination.” Given the possibility — indeed, inevitability — of future attacks, they added that it was “crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of the imagination.” One might object that the commission’s recommendation betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of what “imagination” means. Systematizing the creative faculties of the mind into formulaic soothsaying risks voiding them of their spontaneity. The result would be a reactive application of what is already possible rather than a redrawing of the frontier between the real and the fantastic. 

    Geopolitical conflicts unquestionably demand creative solutions. But in proposing to win the imagination race — that is, to anticipate the diabolical concoctions of our adversaries before they have even been formulated — we commit ourselves to generating plans and tactics whose consequences are entirely unforeseeable. A defense program conceived of as a contest over futures that do not, and perhaps cannot, exist is not conducive to vigilance or security. It is a prescription for perpetual transformation that promises to destabilize as much as it stabilizes, to unsettle as much as it guards or preserves. What the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation reveals is that the phantasmagoric logics of the Cold War continue to inform the vaguely defined and potentially interminable conflict that is our contemporary War on Terror. If the break-up of the Soviet Union failed to fundamentally alter the economic dynamics of the Western military-industrial complex, the belief that battles are partly fought and won in imaginary realms remains equally robust.

    To put the technological imagination in its proper place alongside economic, political, and institutional forces, we must look beyond governmental and industrial systems to the cultural economies of contemporary warfare. Here, popular fiction, games, and advertising or movies prove as important as official policy declarations or the percentage of the gross national product devoted to tanks and planes. Such considerations have largely been neglected by the dominant narratives of US power since 1945, but two new books offer an eclectic, innovative approach to the bureaucratization of creativity during the Cold War: A Short History of Nuclear Folly: Mad Scientists, Dithering Nazis, Lost Nukes, and Catastrophic Cover-ups, by Rudolph Herzog, a documentary director and the son of legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog; and Napalm: An American Biography, by Robert M. Neer, an attorney and lecturer in history at Columbia University. 

    While the two books have distinct agendas and are written from quite different cultural perspectives, they are strikingly similar in a number of respects. Each focuses on an unprecedentedly destructive invention that was born out of the intense collaboration between the US government and academic scientists during the Second World War and then deployed to decimate Japanese cities in 1945. In subsequent decades, napalm and the atomic bomb would both become symbols of the criminality of warfare and the unpredictable, uncontrollable nature of technology. They were among the first harbingers of our ability to wreak destruction on a planetary scale, exposing the complex moral, legal, and aesthetic calculi that inform the management of life and death in the modern nation state. Both gave birth to violent verbs: Nuke ’em! and Napalm ’em! have entered common parlance as expressions of wanton overkill and a disregard for the human costs of war.

    Herzog and Neer each begin by focusing on the engineering hurdles that had to be overcome before these weapons could be widely reproduced and used. Herzog shows the crucial role that the development of the centrifuge played in the proliferation of nuclear capability. “Reliable and energy-efficient,” this invention made it possible to enrich large quantities of uranium quickly, keeping “the costs of a nuclear-weapons program […] seductively low,” to the point that people began to speak of “poor man’s bombs.” Neer describes the research at Harvard that developed innovative gelling agents for incendiary mixtures, detailing the unique properties of the different concoctions of napalm that gave them an advantage over existing explosives. Equally crucial was an innovative delivery system. The first napalm bombs were ignited with gunpowder and proved unreliable, exploding irregularly with much of the gel failing to enflame, but once the research team hit upon white phosphorus as a “bursting” agent, there was no limit to the number of “beautiful fires” they could produce. Inventions of such unparalleled destructiveness can be profoundly disruptive for legal and ethical thought, because they unsettle existing ideas about war crimes. At the same time, both napalm and radioactive materials are uniquely volatile substances whose production, storage, and disposal present immense challenges. If these weapons are potent agents in the ideological realm, they are also something we might awaken to find dumped unceremoniously in our backyards. 

    Of the two books, Herzog’s is the less scholarly. His stated goal is to chronicle the “frivolity, naïveté, and unscrupulousness” with which nuclear power, a new and extraordinarily dangerous technology, was handled for decades. In compiling a host of memorable examples that range from the comically careless to the tragically lethal, he avoids the most famous events (Hiroshima, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chernobyl), choosing instead to seek out less well-known incidents that he explores via “secret documents” and “personal reminiscences” as well as press reports and other published sources. Herzog does not make clear which of these occurrences have already been well-documented and which barely rise to the level of rumor, although part of his point is that hearsay and fairy tales have been as influential for the management of nuclear technology as the actual construction of bombs. One shadowy source willing to speak off the record about Soviet plans for a “doomsday” weapon can prompt a host of responses by the US military and destabilize the geopolitical landscape. If A Short History of Nuclear Folly presents us with more a collection of anecdotes than a developmental trajectory of causes and effects, this is a testimony to the fragmentary, subterranean nature of the strategic discourses that comprise its subject matter.

    The annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is often regarded as the beginning and the end of nuclear warfare, and there has certainly never since been atomic destruction on such a scale. Herzog reminds us, however, that in the decades following the surrender of Japan, more than 2,000 nuclear devices were exploded in tests around the globe, 1,000 of them by the United States alone. He stresses that for many generals and scientists, it was not enough to know that the bombs worked; these men went to extraordinary lengths to concoct opportunities to demonstrate the weapons’ practical civilian utility. During the Cold War, the catchphrase “anything is possible” acquired a unique authority; to many, the very existence of a plan for deploying nuclear technology seemed tantamount to a justification for enacting it, a mindset that is difficult to relate to today. Much of Herzog’s book is devoted to describing plans that, had they been carried out, would almost certainly have resulted in immense environmental destruction and loss of human life. (Large sections of the North American continent, for example, might well be uninhabitable.)

    A central figure in these what-if stories is Edward Teller, the “father of the hydrogen bomb.” While Teller has long been regarded as an eccentric — he is thought to have been one of the inspirations for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove — Herzog stresses that “it would be a mistake to view Teller simply as a megalomaniacal lunatic” (the sinister adverb “simply” resonating ambiguously here). For Herzog, Teller is not so much a mad scientist as the embodiment of a bundle of cultural contradictions that allowed some stupefyingly dangerous and irresponsible ideas to gain momentum. Large sums were appropriated by Congress to determine the feasibility of Project Plowshare, which envisioned “nuclear earthmoving” on a grand scale. Proposals included the use of dozens or even hundreds of nuclear detonations to widen the Panama Canal, cut through a mountain range in Southern California to create a new highway, and expand existing irrigation systems and waterways. But even these far-fetched notions did not satisfy Teller’s imagination, and he encouraged the detonation of nuclear devices beneath the surface of the moon in a quest to locate reservoirs of water for an astronaut base.

    In this phantasmagoric theater of war, Hollywood has to make an appearance. In his discussion of the hazardous effects of fallout, Herzog describes The Conqueror (1956), produced by Howard Hughes and starring John Wayne, at the height of his career yet grossly miscast in the lead role of Genghis Khan. The film would come to be regarded as among the worst of its decade, but its aesthetic and commercial failures were the least of the filmmakers’ problems. The movie was shot in an area of the Utah desert heavily contaminated by nuclear testing, and in subsequent years, cancer struck an extraordinary number of the cast and crew, who appear to have been at least somewhat aware of the health risks. (There’s a photo of The Duke on set posing with a Geiger counter.) To solidify this picture of a planet already largely contaminated by radioactive material, Herzog turns from Utah to another remote landscape on the other side of the globe, the former Soviet bomb test site in northeastern Kazakhstan. At least 10 scrap-metal dealers who have plundered the area have died of radiation poisoning, and Herzog raises the possibility that these scavenged items could be combined with conventional explosives to fashion a “dirty bomb.” Anxious that there may even be weapons-grade substances there still to be pilfered, the US military now patrols the desolate area with unmanned drones.

    As much as Herzog delights in relating tales of gross negligence and creative folly, he never precisely explains why the riskiest schemes of Teller and his contemporaries were not carried out. Many of the proposals Herzog details relied on the assumption — essentially a hypothesis formulated by scientists prior to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — that the radiation released into the air and soil by nuclear detonations would dissipate relatively quickly and not travel beyond the immediate environ. As numerous countries conducted hundreds of nuclear tests over the first decades of the Cold War, this assumption was gradually exposed as false, a change marked by the 1963 ratification of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited everything except underground tests, partly in an effort to slow the contamination of the atmosphere by fallout. (Teller, for one, fiercely opposed the Treaty.) Nevertheless, there is no scholarly consensus about precisely when and how well the dangers of fallout and radiation sickness were understood — a point that has been graphically illustrated in recent years as veterans of various Western nations have brought lawsuits against their governments, seeking damages for their unsafe exposure to detonations, including cases in which some soldiers appear to have been used as human guinea pigs. In playing up the retrospective absurdity of nuclear earthmoving and similar schemes, Herzog simplifies or ignores some of the key features of the debates that surrounded, and ultimately defeated, these reckless proposals.

    For a book that purports to examine the ideologies of technology, A Short History of Nuclear Folly is somewhat vague about the fundamental tenets of its critique. At times, it feels as if Herzog is offering nothing more than a banal lament about human carelessness. Observing that “dwindling oil reserves and global warming could lead to a renaissance of nuclear power,” his primary concern seems to be that governments and corporations will botch the relevant safety and waste disposal issues. At other moments, he appears to have a more fundamental objection to any sort of nuclear technology; at the very least, he comes close to implying that all nations should follow Germany’s plan to phase out nuclear energy for good. Even when Herzog explicitly weighs the pros and cons of various technologies in a cost-benefit analysis, there is a sense that his examples are somewhat incomparable; e.g., he acknowledges that radiation therapy has been immensely beneficial for countless cancer patients, but then muses about what may have happened to the corpse of a single deceased woman who had been outfitted with a plutonium-powered pacemaker.

    The ambiguity of some of Herzog’s positions is symptomatic of a more basic contradiction in his understanding of the Cold War mind. He has ample evidence that the military leadership of the US and the USSR gave “free rein to their imaginations,” devising a host of negligent, impractical, or improbable plans. At the same time, he insists that the trouble with nuclear power was the inability of government and military personnel to foresee its inherent dangers: “The problem, both in the West and behind the Iron Curtain, was a lack of imagination. No one was able to picture the worst-case scenario.” In Herzog’s terms, the strength of the militarized imagination is its weakness: it is creative enough to churn out proposal after proposal, innovation after innovation, and yet somehow never creative enough to anticipate the resulting hazards. The imagination crafts a future that it can never quite predict. It is never imaginative enough for itself.


    Neer relates the story of napalm in a more systematic and scholarly fashion, as a sort of anti-Bildungsroman. Like Herzog, he gives equal attention to the scientists who created the weapons and the generals who embraced them, focusing on Louis Fieser, the Harvard organic chemist who invented the first form of napalm for military use in 1943, and General Curtis LeMay, who directed the air strikes on Japan in 1945. In subsequent years, Fieser would actively distance himself from his achievement; and in fact, in the latter part of his career the inventor of one of the most dreadful weapons of his age went on to do crucial medical research into blood clotting agents and aided in the first synthesis of cortisone. Neer betrays some sympathy for the difficult choices both men faced, avoiding condemning them if not necessarily exonerating them. But this is not just a story about the elites who developed and deployed these deadly chemicals. Neer bookends his history of napalm with a prologue and epilogue in which he focuses on Phan Thi Kim Phúc, the Vietnamese woman who was photographed in 1972, as a nine-year-old child, fleeing a napalm attack with her family, her clothes burnt away and her skin still being eaten through by the deadly gel. This picture has become one of the most iconic images of the barbarity of modern warfare. In an interview with Phúc that closes the book, Neer relates that in addition to her immense physical suffering, the attack left her consumed by “anger, bitterness, and pain.” “Love,” the love of God, explains Neer, “was her only solution.” Phúc, who has decided to heed the Bible’s injunction to “love thy enemy,” is given the last word: “God has let me be alive. God has let me learn. Now I count every single minute in my life to be a blessing. Faith and forgiveness are much more powerful than napalm could ever be.” With this closing flourish, Neer vividly humanizes this anti-poster child of the Vietnam era, although it is hard to know who, if anyone, he is indicting in the process. 

    To be fair, Neer’s primary concern is not to apportion blame for napalm’s terrors but to explain the infamous reputation it has acquired. For Americans today, the flammable jelly is strongly associated with the Vietnam War and the hubristic belief that we could defeat a resilient foe by burning down an entire country. Perhaps the canonical representation of this folly is the scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) in which Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall, directs his men to secure a beach that is reportedly good for surfing. Following a helicopter attack accompanied by Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” Duvall caps off his bravura portrayal of psychopathic masculinity with the immortal line: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

    The uses and abuses of napalm in Vietnam were heavily protested at the time, and they became defining emblems of American arrogance and the misguided conviction that technological “superiority” was sufficient to triumph in any military engagement. These motifs are still very much in circulation today: consider the recent Mad Men storyline highlighting the ad executives’ efforts to rehabilitate the image of Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of napalm, with a Joe Namath commercial. Curiously, this focus on napalm’s role in what would ultimately be the failed US war in Vietnam has obscured the fact that the deadly chemical was “successfully” used to burn down most of a country on not one but two prior occasions. All American schoolchildren are taught about the devastating firebombing of Japanese cities in 1945 in which civilians were boiled alive in rivers or asphyxiated as the oxygen was sucked from the air. Relatively few people, however, are aware that the incendiary devices dropped by the fleets of B-52s, which destroyed many more acres of urban landscape than the two atomic bombs combined, were napalm-based. Napalm also played a far more consequential role in the Korean War, where United Nations forces used it liberally, than it did in Vietnam. In his 1951 testimony to Congress, General Douglas MacArthur, who was no stranger to scenes of carnage, having headed the reconstruction of Japan after its surrender, declared: “The war in Korea has almost destroyed that nation of 20,000,000 people. I have never seen such devastation.” LeMay was similarly blunt in his assessment of the airstrikes: “We burned down just about every city in North Korean and South Korea both.”

    Protocol III of the 1980 United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons prohibits the use of all incendiary weapons against civilians or military targets near concentrations of civilians, but there have been numerous violations of the edict. As Neer explains at some length, the United States did not become a signatory to this section of the treaty until President Obama took office in 2008, and it remains legally ambiguous whether the US reserves the right to disregard the prohibition in situations where napalm’s use could save lives — a hypothetical calculus that eerily echoes the justifications for dropping the atomic bomb and firebombing Japanese cities in 1945. In any case, there is strong evidence that the US has continued to use napalm, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan; the official response to these accusations has taken the form of an Orwellian explanation that the bombs in question may be “remarkably similar” to napalm-based bombs but “technically” go under a different name. (This is not to imply that the United States has a monopoly on this horrible tool of warfare. Over the past 65 years, many countries have relied on it, both openly and covertly, in wars in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America.) 

    It is undeniable that napalm injures and kills in ghastly ways. During the Second World War, soldiers described its unique role in “overcoming the enemy’s will to resist,” and Neer cites many gruesome accounts of its impact upon bodies: “where the napalm had burned the skin to a crisp, it would be peeled back from the face, arms, legs [. . .] like fried potato chips.” “There was no defense,” writes Neer with a flourish, “once this mythic terror came within range.” But it is precisely because of this lethal effectiveness that soldiers and their governments are reluctant to forego napalm’s use. Whether it is dropped from the air or delivered on the ground via flamethrowers or tanks, there is unanimous agreement that napalm works.

    The decisions to destroy Japan’s cities with incendiary raids and atomic bombs remain profoundly controversial. In April 2013, protests forced a popular air show in Dayton, Ohio to cancel a planned reenactment of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For those who believe that the 1945 attacks were routine acts of warfare — lamentable but justified in a campaign against an imperialist aggressor — such a demonstration is no different than similar battle reenactments that occur around the country every weekend as hobbyists recreate scenes from the Revolutionary or Civil Wars. For those of us who view the annihilation of Japan’s cities as a war crime that led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in a country whose defeat was already assured, there could scarcely be a more disrespectful form of public theater. 

    Herzog and Neer help us understand why the events of 1945 linger on as exemplars of both the pinnacle of military engineering and the essence of what war should not be. In tracing the histories of nuclear power and napalm, they limn the afterlives of these technological traumas, and address the complex, often contradictory ways in which the imagination — both routinized and unregulated — has played a role in perpetuating them. Over the course of the last half century, we have repeated these catastrophes on larger and smaller scales, and we have tried to work through their horrors by envisioning new military and civilian uses for these weapons, uses that may or may not take advantage of their unrivaled capacity to kill.

    In the final analysis, napalm and atomic power have proven to be almost as disruptive conceptually as they are physically. Their management and mismanagement have repeatedly exposed the inadequacies of our moral and political systems when it comes to negotiating the frontiers between the possible and the impossible, or between the real and the imaginary. The abiding symbolic authority of these terrible inventions testifies to the degree to which our fantasies of war and our fantasies of peace are far more similar than we might wish. Whether this state of affairs reflects a failure of the imagination or its triumph remains an open question.


    Jan Mieszkowski is Professor of German and Humanities at Reed College. He is the author of Watching War (2012) and Labors of Imagination: Aesthetics and Political Economy from Kant to Althusser (2006).


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