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How Napalm Works


The MK-77 and Napalm in Iraq
Images like this one, of napalm exploding in an area south of Saigon, became well known during the Vietnam War, but napalm hasn't exactly died out since then.
Images like this one, of napalm exploding in an area south of Saigon, became well known during the Vietnam War, but napalm hasn't exactly died out since then.
Hulton Archive/­Getty Images

­Since its development, napalm has been used by many countries' militaries, including that of the United States, Angola, Nigeria, Brazil, Egypt, Israel, Argentina, Serbia, Turkey and possibly others. Today, America's sole incendiary bomb is the MK-77, or Mark 77 bomb. The MK-77 is a firebomb with a "thin skin" of aluminum [source: Iraq Analysis Group]. This "dumb" bomb -- as opposed to a precision-guided or "smart" bomb -- is a mix of 63 gallons (238 liters) of jet fuel (mostly kerosene) and 44 pounds (20 kilograms) of a polystyrene-type gel [source: Buncombe]. Although technically an incendiary bomb, the MK-77 is often referred to colloquially by soldiers and experts, and even in some military documents, as napalm. (Remember the previous discussion of napalm as a catchall term?)

During the Persian Gulf War, U.S. forces dropped about 500 MK-77 bombs [source: GlobalSecurity.org]. These bombs were used on trenches that Iraqi forces had dug and filled with oil. Iraqi soldiers were going to light these oil-filled trenches on fire when U.S. forces approached, but U.S. soldiers dropped napalm on the trenches to light them prematurely and clear the area. At the end of that conflict, Iraqi Kurds led a revolt against Saddam Hussein's government. In its reprisal attacks, Hussein's forces also used napalm to brutally crush the rebellious Kurds.

Although the U.S. military claims it hasn't used napalm in Afghanistan or the war in Iraq, some experts believe this distinction is simply a semantic one [source: GlobalSecurity.org]. They contend that while the old form of napalm isn't used, a similar, reformulated compound, also a jelled incendiary substance, has been used, most notably in the form of the MK-77 bomb.

In 2003, U.S. pilots admitted to using napalm on Iraqi soldiers. One American commander told The Independent newspaper that commanders like napalm for its "psychological effect" [source: Buncombe]. A Marine Corps Major General agreed that the United States had used napalm in Iraq [source: Crawley]. In the same article, a Marine spokesman said that Mark 77 bombs -- specifically the MK-77 Mod 5 used in Iraq -- were "remarkably similar" to napalm bombs (although less environmentally harmful), but referred to them as "firebombs" [source: Crawley].

There have been allegations that napalm was used when American forces assaulted Fallujah in November 2004 [source: Iraq Analysis Group]. But there has been considerable debate about whether this is true. U.S.-led forces may have instead used white phosphorous, another divisive incendiary weapon, rather than napalm [source: FAIR].

The use of napalm or napalmlike weapons has drawn some controversy for countries working with U.S.-led coalition forces who signed U.N. Protocol III but were working with or under the command of U.S. forces employing napalm. The eventual revelation that U.S. forces dropped MK-77 firebombs in the Iraq War angered British officials, who, in 2005, accused the U.S. of offering misleading information about the use of the MK-77 [source: BBC News].

Whatever the final verdict, napalm, like Agent Orange, has become a loaded word, symbolizing for many the carnage and brutality of war. During the Vietnam War, signs reading "Dow Shall Not Kill" and the photograph of Kim Phuc became icons of the antiwar movement. But despite the ghastly images we've seen, some experts on the subject point out that while napalm produces horrific results, it's used as part of waging war, which itself contains numerous images and symbols of horror, death and destruction. Yet even if napalm is a weapon like many others, something in particular about the substance and the images that have chronicled it, have lent it a special symbolism, unlikely to fade.

For more information about napalm and related topics, look over the links on the next page.