A brief history of the car bomb

Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb, Mike Davis, Verso, $39.95   Website

A brief history of the car bomb It’s not difficult to see why Mike Davis is regarded as a chronicler of apocalypse. His last couple of books have included one on the avian flu crisis and another on the world’s megaslums. His latest is a history of the car bomb that begins with Mario Buda, an Italian anarchist, who in 1920 parked a bomb-laden wagon on Wall Street. This was an ominous sign of things to come: use of an inconspicuous vehicle to bring terror and carnage to the heart of modern capitalism.

Davis’s books examine the injustices and inequities that get hidden away through society’s divisions and separations. This book charts the dreadful return of the repressed. As a weapon of urban terrorism, the car bomb is cheap, anonymous, simple to make; it is a kind of "open-source warfare". Davis’s book spares us none of the appalling consequences of this "poor man’s airforce".

This history really gets going in the Middle East, but Davis doesn’t look to the usual suspects to find its source. It was first utilised by a group of Zionist guerrillas, the Stern Gang, against the British authorities and the Palestinian populace. Davis then follows its trail to 1950s Vietnam and finds confirmation of Graham Greene’s theory in his novel of CIA intrigue, The Quiet American. Car bombings blamed on the communists were used to enhance the position of the US man in Saigon, General Trinh Minh Thé.

Early on in the book  we see car bombing practised by states, the marginalised, political insurgents, and gangsters. The early history also includes car bombings by the clandestine French military organisation, the OAS, which was intent on preserving the position of the white settlers in Algeria. By the 1960s, it is used by the Viet Cong against US personnel in Vietnam. 

A brief history of the car bomb Davis observes that Beirut in the early 1980s "became to the technology of urban violence what a tropical rainforest is to the evolution of plants and insects". After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah made its contribution to this grisly history: the suicide bomber. The effectiveness of this was evident in 1983 when they used a truck bomb so powerful that it lifted the US barracks into the air, killed 241 marines and caused the withdrawal of US forces.

No matter what the disagreement around 'blowback' as an explanation of terrorism, it is difficult to ignore the US training and arming of Islamist fighters against the communists in Afghanistan during the 1980s. CIA training and equipment provided via the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence — including that associated with the use of fertiliser-based car bombs — is described by Davis as "the greatest transfer of terrorist technology in history".

Technology doesn’t drive history, of course, but must wait for its time to come. Davis’s account shows this moment as arriving with the repercussions of Beirut and Afghanistan, in the various actions of Basque nationalists, Columbian drug lords and Peruvian Maoists. With the end of the cold war there was a globalisation of car bombings that even saw the IRA targeting London’s financial districts.

If the US had illusions of invincibility after the first Gulf War, it was disabused of this with the car bomb that blew a seven-story crater in the basement of the World Trade Centre in 1993. We can’t help but recognise this as a portent of a time when cars would grow wings. That the US faced a chaotic array of enemies at this point was made clear by the different kind of blowback visited upon them by Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh.

Some seem to hold faith in the well-targeted strike against terrorist HQ as a solution to current problems. A look at the history of car bombing allows Davis to recognise a more complicated and "diffuse ecology of terror and resistance" nurtured by closer factors such as Saudi money and Pakistani intelligence. Hence the groups that continued emulating al Qaeda after September 11.

Davis’s account was always going to lead us to contemporary Iraq, where car bombs have been used to drive out the UN, target police recruiting stations and foment civil war. The Americans withdraw to their green zones while average Iraqis are subject to crime, murder and insurgency. Davis ponders this as a future for us all, living in red zones, subject to surveillance, police checks and suspended civil liberties.

Davis’s book shows how the history of a technology can be used as a focus and shorthand for exploring some of the key forces and events of an age. The downside of this is sometimes a lack of an adequate sense of context and motivating belief of the actors involved. Nevertheless, Davis clearly demonstrates that this is a technology deserving of its own history. As a marker of present progress and development it is a very grim signpost indeed.



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