Napalm: its use and abuse - onscreen and off

Note: these articles have been published in The Mole, the supliment to Education in Chemistry produced by The Royal Society of Chemistry.

The 1979 movie Apocalypse Now [1] is about the horrors and psychological trauma of the Vietnam War. A major cause of trauma on both sides was the widespread use of Napalm - considered by many to be the most feared weapon of all. The chilling scenes of burning fields, property and people from the news reels are unforgettable. It makes the line from Apocalypse Now, when Kilgore walks around exclaiming "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body", all the more appalling [1].

In the 1999 film Fight Club, Tyler claims "if you mix equal parts of gasoline and frozen orange juice concentrate you can make napalm" [2]. So what is Napalm and how is it really made? Napalm is basically thick oil or jelly mixed with fuel (petrol, gasoline). Its name is derived from two of the compounds used in the first preparations: naphthenic and palmilic acid. Liquid fuels burn quickly but mixing it with a gel allows the fuel to burn with a hot slow flame thereby maximising the damage it can do to property and life.

The term 'Napalm' is used for a number of chemically distinct materials. Napalm B, used extensively in Vietnam (containing polystyrene and benzene) is very sticky and can't easily be removed from skin. Versions of Napalm B containing white phosphorus will even burn underwater (if there is trapped oxygen in folds of cloth etc.) so jumping into rivers and lakes won't help those unfortunate souls attacked with this vile weapon. They will either die from severe burns, from the effects of the prolonged intense heat (heat stroke), or possibly from carbon monoxide and phosphorus poisoning.

Napalm can be dropped from an aircraft; a single 'bomb' is capable of completely destroying 1000's square meters of property. Napalm was dropped on Germany and Japanese cities in the second world war and used extensively by the USA in Vietnam from 1950's to 1970's. It is particularly feared because unlike standard bombs and bullets, it can flow and spread very effectively. Napalm is not easy to dodge or escape from. For example it can form a river of burning liquid that can flow into hidden underground trenches like no other weapon. Now that the use and appalling effects of Napalm have been well documented many humanitarian groups around the world are trying to ban its use.

References and notes
[1] Apocalypse Now, 1979, 20th Century Fox.
[2] Fight Club, see InfoChem, Issue 104, May 2007


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Dr Jonathan Hare, The University of Sussex
Brighton, East Sussex. BN1 9QJ.

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