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A brief history of the car bomb

  • 18 May 2007

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

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.  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