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Good Example of Industry's Definition of Recycling

Incineration

Military Says Goodbye to Napalm

Napalm No More Pentagon Recycles Remaining Stock of a Notorious Weapon

Michael Taylor SF Chronicle 4apr01

Napalm-Recycled.jpg (32630 bytes)

Terrified South Vietnamese children, including Kim Phuc (center), fled from the scene of an aerial attack of napalm, which became a symbol for the horrors of war. Associated Press file photo, 1972, by Nick Ut

If any one picture symbolizes the horror of the Vietnam War, it's the photo of a naked 9-year-old named Kim Phuc fleeing her village and screaming in pain from the napalm unleashed by a South Vietnamese plane minutes before.

The girl survived, after 17 operations. Napalm didn't. As of today, the Pentagon says it is gone from the U.S. arsenal.

Napalm, a syrupy kind of jellied gasoline, was used in Vietnam to burn forests and villages and people, without discrimination. It burned through everything, at more than 5,000 degrees, and it stuck to people and then burned some more, sometimes down to the bone.

And the TV images stuck, too: jets zooming in, almost on the deck, and, in their wake, whole tracts of jungle erupting in enormous orange fireballs, the oily smoke roiling upwards.

"Napalm is a push-button word," said Michael Blecker, executive director of the San Francisco veterans rights organization Swords to Plowshares. "Everything you think about Vietnam and the insanity of that war, and there are certain terms for it -- Agent Orange, Tet, Khe Sanh, My Lai. And napalm."

At a low-key ceremony this morning at the Fallbrook Naval Weapons Station in San Diego County, the final two canisters of Vietnam-era napalm will be recycled and sent on their way to Texas and Louisiana, where they will be blended into fuel used in industrial furnaces.

The Navy says this appears to be the last napalm in the U.S. military. Asked why the military seems to be discarding napalm as a weapon, a Navy spokesman said "there are more modern and efficient means to use in war these days than napalm."

The Navy, which has stored 34,515 canisters of napalm at Fallbrook since 1973, is emphasizing the environmental aspects of this recycle operation, providing detail upon detail of how the stuff will be broken down into components and it won't leak and it won't blow up (it is safe without detonating devices.)

The Navy is not spending much time talking about the other aspects of napalm -- the reasons why it became such a buzzword for Vietnam, such a symbol of protest and such a part of the American culture of war and ultimately its culture of entertainment.

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning," said actor Robert Duvall, playing the whacko Army air cavalry commander, Lt. Col. Kilgore, in the 1979 film, "Apocalypse Now." "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' . . . body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell. The whole hill . . . smelled like -- victory."

The notion of hurling fire at your enemies -- the origin of napalm -- came from the 7th century, when the Romans threw streams of flaming liquid at whoever got in their way. This lethal departure from the routine ordnance of bombs and bullets was refined in World War II -- flamethrowers were used by Allied and Axis forces -- and in 1942 Harvard and Army chemists came up with an incendiary gel whose name was drawn from two substances called naphthene and palmitate.

Napalm was used in Korea to some extent, but it wasn't until Vietnam that napalm came into its own, as one of the most notorious weapons used by South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. Out there, in the sardonic jargon of the GIs and the jet jockeys, it was simply "nape."

Air Force Lt. Col. John Pratt, now retired and teaching English at Colorado State University, used to "go along on flights" where napalm was dropped. "When it goes off, it's sort of like dropping gasoline and lighting it at the same time. It covers (the ground) like a fiery blanket, burns everything that it hits."

 

THE CRINGE FACTOR

When he looks back on the intensity of protests against Dow Chemical Co., the maker of napalm from 1965 to 1969, Pratt says, "there's something grotesque in what napalm does to people. Young people today, when they watch western shoot-'em-up movies, they can handle people shooting each other. But when you start dropping napalm in movies, it makes people cringe."

"It's a horrible thing, napalm," says Stanley Karnow, author of "Vietnam: A History," a definitive account of the wars of Vietnam. "But then, what isn't horrible? You have to put it in perspective. It was a war. They were killing people."

As for the protests against napalm, Karnow says, "what are (the protesters) saying? Let's have the war without the napalm? A cleaner war? Napalm was dramatic, and it had a kind of horrible quality to it. So it was easy as a protest symbol. But you can talk of dozens of other things that were horrible."

On June 8, 1972, however, the most horrible thing in Kim Phuc's chapter of the war was the napalm that crashed into her village of Trang Bang.

"When you're covering the war, you learn about napalm," Nick Ut, the Associated Press photographer who took the Pulitzer Prize-winning picture of Kim Phuc's terror, said. "Napalm was everywhere in Vietnam, and I shot a lot of pictures of it. That day, I took a picture of a little boy who died right there in front of my camera. Then a few minutes later, I shot a picture of Kim Phuc."

When he saw how seriously she was burned, Ut put down his camera, "put water on her body," then put her in the AP van and rushed her to a hospital. "She was crying, and I was worried she would die in the van. We got to the hospital in 30 minutes."

Doctors saved her life, and now Kim Phuc lives near Toronto with her husband and two children. This week, she was traveling and not available for an interview. But on Veterans Day 1996, she spoke at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington.

"As you know, I am the little girl who was running to escape from the napalm fire," she said. "I have suffered a lot from both physical and emotional pain. Sometimes I thought I could not live, but God saved me and gave me faith and hope."

She said if she ever met the pilot who bombed her, "I would tell him we cannot change history, but we should try to do good things for the present and for the future to promote peace."


About Napalm Napalm is 46 percent polystyrene (a type of plastic), 33 percent gasoline and 21 percent benzene (similar to gasoline, it is made from crude oil and coal.)

Its name was coined nearly 60 years ago, when scientists from Harvard University and the U.S. Army mixed a soap powder of naphthene and palmitate with gasoline, fashioning a syrupy material that burns more slowly than gasoline.

Napalm can get so hot -- routinely more than 5,000 degrees -- that it sucks oxygen out of the air and can asphyxiate people even though they may not get burned by it.


Napalm in Literature and Journalism These quotations about napalm were culled by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary:

E-mail Michael Taylor at mtaylor@sfchronicle.com

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