Book reviews: Northern Ireland | Napalm |

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“FOR God’s sake bring me a large Scotch – what a bloody awful country,” said Reggie Maudling: English exasperation has been one of the great constants of the Irish conflict.

Northern Ireland

by Feargal Cochrane

(Yale, £25) *****

Paradoxically, it’s gone together with the complacency articulated by the same Home Secretary when – against a background of bombings, riots and shootings – he acclaimed an “acceptable level of violence” in 1971. In taking so measured a view of the “Long War” and so dispassionate a perspective on “the reluctant peace” that’s followed, Feargal Cochrane could attract a charge of complacency himself. But this Belfast-born historian has learned the dangers of emotive rhetoric; the futility of a historiography of hatred. He’s upbeat, then; good-humoured, even; and quirky in many of his insights (including the influence of Rollermania on the iconography of the “Tartan Gangs”). He doesn’t flinch from the bad news, though: 15 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, many are still awaiting their dividend. Some injustices have been swept away, but bitter sectarianism still continues. The habit of paramilitary violence has outlasted the actual war, producing “dissident republicanism” on the one hand, outright gangsterism on the other. On the whole, though, he leaves us hopeful for the future.


by Robert M Neer

(Belknap, £22.95) ****

It should be just another military technology, but now (and forever, one suspects) it wears the face of Phan Thi Kim Phúc, running in terror down the road outside Trang Bang. “Napalm was born a hero but lives a pariah,” writes Robert M Neer at the start of what he sees as an “American Biography”. And not just because it’s arguably been the United States’ most distinctive contribution to the history of atrocity – even Hiroshima didn’t claim as many lives as the Tokyo Firestorm of March, 1945. (“A war crime,” wept Robert McNamara in a 2003 interview.) As described by Neer in this hideously readable account, napalm – developed in 1942 – was one of the first fruits of the academic–military–industrial complex which has done so much to shape America – and the world – in the decades since. Its history seems quintessentially American, too, in the combination of ingenuity and ingenuousness which went into its development and deployment; the moral blindness to what all the world except the US can see. Kim Phúc is forgiving: “A knife can be used for good,” she points out – though she doesn’t suggest any humanitarian uses for this burning goo.