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Archive for November 12th, 2008

Hell For Leather

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In his review of Mike Davis’ Buda’s Wagon in Foreign Affairs, Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman wrote:

With so many grim stories to tell in a brief book, the context of individual episodes is often sketchy, the underlying political analysis shallow, and the prognosis alarmist.

Well, as an example of strategic analysis Freedman is right, but this does not detract from the value and sheer vicarious thrill of reading Davis’ book. Like Planet of Slums before it, Buda’s Wagon is a fast-paced and enthralling one-stop shop on a focused theme of global importance.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the only readily accessible volume on the subject of the VBIED, the vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, or car bomb. Davis kicks off his history with Mario Buda, an anarchist who detonated a wagon full of explosives in New York City in 1920. Forty deaths, 200 injured, and a declaration of national emergency, as the technological accident inserted itself into a post-WWI America – a phenomenon later described by George Orwell thus:

A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon – so long as there is no answer to it – gives claws to the weak.

This is the premise upon which Davis builds his story, that of asymmetry and the empowerment of the non-state actor. He traces the development of the car bomb from a semi-strategic weapon analogous to early air power – the attacks on critical urban nodes, and the creation of ‘terror’ – to its flowering as a fully strategic weapon. He illustrates the latter by the attack on the US Marines in Beirut (1963), the 1993 IRA bombs in London, and the 2001 New Delhi experience, which was as close as mankind has come to a nuclear war since the Bay of Pigs.

Buda’s Wagon is a journalistic account, and Davis often reveals his caustic and empassioned wit, particularly in passages in which he lays bare the role of states like the US and Pakistan in sponsoring terrorism from the 1960s on, a period he describes as “mass technology transfer”. Later, when discussing the global jihad, he writes:

Like his forerunners Hermann Goering and Curtis LeMay, Osama bin Laden seems to exult in the sheer statistics of bomb damage – the competitive race to ever greater explosive yields and killing ranges, regardless of the dead children and scattered body parts.

Davis’ Marxist bent is obvious, but as E.H. Carr noted, history is interpretative. His structural framework is interesting, involving step-changes such as the first multiple car bombings, economic car bombs, suicide car bombings, videotaped and broadcast actions, first against tourists, etc. The story ends in Iraq and Afghanistan 2006, having structured the latter part of the book around the principal theme of “the thousand fissures of ethnic and religious enmity that globalisation has paradoxically revealed.” He describes the car bomb as the “kudzu vine of destruction” and asks if it can be countered. The answer seems to be ‘no’, and his historical account illuminates the failure of counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency to combat VBIEDs thus far.

Conversely, Davis suggests that initiatives like urban ‘rings of steel’ and heavy surveillance environments are the future, and will be as ineffective against the “hot rod of the apocalypse” as previous schemes. “The car bomb probably has a brilliant future”, despite the militarisation of Baghdad and London alike. Vehicles are ubiquitous technologies, and large cities “will never enjoy universal security”. As with much of modern CT thinking, it’s all about risk management, rather than 100% “beating the terrorists”. Davis offers no solutions to this quandary, and is probably right when he states that solutions cannot be achieved, for example, through “that sine qua non, the permanent suspension of civil liberties.”

Buda’s Wagon serves as a reminder of the evolution of a phenomenon rather than a deep analysis of one, as Freedman critiqued, but it is more than a lazy addition to the groaning shelves of bookstores fuelling the terrorism industry. As a provider of occasional great insight it should be read by public, politicians and practitioners alike – especially those who think they know everything about the history and future of that most ubiquitous weapon of technological urbanism, the car bomb.


Written by Tim Stevens

November 12, 2008 at 10:01 am

Posted in Nonfiction