An M-4 Sherman tank fires its flamethrower on Iwo Jima (National Archives)
Real Clear Defense
"During World War II, all sides used flamethrowers, including the U.S. Marine Corps. During the “island hopping” campaigns of the Pacific Theater, many Marines believed flamethrowers made the difference between their lives and death.
“We could not have taken the island without the flamethrower,” said Bill Henderson, a Marine Corps veteran who fought on Iwo Jima, in a Marine Corps oral history of the battle. “It saved lives because it did not require men to go into caves, which were all booby-trapped and promised certain death to all who entered.”
The Marines’ M2 flamethrowers were heavy and cumbersome, making it difficult to run when wearing the device. The unit also made the Marine a high-value target—easy to see and easy to shoot.
One Marine Corps flamethrower unit on Iwo Jima had a 92-percent casualty rate—leading a military statistician to estimate the average lifespan on the battlefield of a Marine flamethrower operator at four minutes.
Later, the Marines adapted flamethrower units to the Sherman tank, reducing the number of times that an individual operator had to expose himself to enemy fire on the battlefield.
When soft-hearted Americans protested the use of flame weapons against the Japanese, Gen. George C. Marshall, then chief of staff of the Army, defended them. “The vehement protests I am receiving against our use of flamethrowers do not indicate an understanding of the meaning of our dead.”
During the Vietnam War, for better or worse flamethrowers and other incendiary weapons became widely regarded as inhumane weapons of war. In 1978, the Defense Department issued a directive that ceased the tactical use of flamethrowers and their further development.
However, no international agreement bans flamethrowers.
From 1999 to 2000, the Russians employed flamethrowers against Chechen rebel forces during the battle for Grozny. Russian tacticians concluded that the flamethrower was effective as much for its psychological effect as its ability to flush insurgents or snipers out of enclosed or fortified positions.
The Russian use of flamethrowers was also one reason why in 2003 the United Nations declared Grozny the most devastated city on the planet."