So many books to read, so little time.

Hell For Leather

with 9 comments

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

9 Responses

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  1. […] Posted in ubiwar by Tim Stevens on November 12th, 2008 I’ve got a new post up at Adam Elkus’ new web endeavour, the Anti-Library. I love this project – a space where […]

  2. “US Marines in Beirut (1963)”


    The way to stop VBIEDs is not to try to stop them at the scene, but to go upstream and annihilate the network that makes them, recruits the drivers, etc.

    “…a simple weapon – so long as there is no answer to it – gives claws to the weak.”

    In this case, however, the victims are not usually the strong. The VBIED is usually a way for the weak to kill other people who are even weaker.

    As a result, like non-vehicular suicide bombings, the political results of these weapons has been underwhelming. The Palestinina Intifada failed when it switched to suicide bombing. The Al Qaeda forces in Iraq alienate their Sunni hosts by their bombings that killed Muslims, leading to a major setback. The most spectacular suicide vehicles were the 9/11 aircraft. They caused the USA to destroy the system of Al Qaeda bases and according to at least one source, to kill 90% of the people ever trained in the Afghan camps.

    Suicide bombing seems to be the last resort of people out of ideas at the tactical, operational, strategic or political level.

    Or am I missing something?

    Lexington Green

    November 12, 2008 at 5:03 pm

  3. Tim,

    Plus ca change, plus c`est la meme chose.

    Didn t find this in the English Wiki:

    On 26th frimaire an IX (17th december 1800), the Chouans (Choauns were royalist “illegal comabatants” as you probably know, mostly in the pay of the Brit govt) Carbon, Limoëlan et Saint-Régeant bought a sort of wagon and a horse from a Parisian grain merchant named Lamballe.

    They spent five days preparing a large vat of wine and affixing it to the wagon with 10 large iron rings. The plan was to fill it with powder, transforming it into a huge bomb and blowing it up when Bonaparte (not yet Napoleon of course) passed the “charette” on his way to the Opera.

    The explosion was provoked on December 24th 1800 killing 22 people and injuring dozens, but missing the the target. The 1st person killed was a girl of 14 years who had been offered a cple of sous to “hold the bridle for a moement”.

    Sounds familiar, what.

    Repression started against the extremist left. Then the redoutable Fouché (himself a former extremist of the left and Ministre de la Police) managed to prove the authorship of the Chouans whose sympathizers were persecuted.

    In the longer run the attempt probably strenghtened Boney, possibly convinced him of the need for a monarchy of Boneys and paved the way for the summary execution of the blameless Duc Enghien “en représailles”.

    (To read: Mémoires de Fouché, Duc d´Otrante and and excellent bio: Louis Madelin, Fouché or the German second hand version Stefan Zweig: Fouché (based on Madelin).

    All in all I am with LG on this. Murder in itself, even when perpetrated against hundreds of people or more does not constitute decisive or even “useful” (judged on a strictly pragmatic basis with no reference to morals etc.) political action.


    Where did you get the 90 % ?


    November 12, 2008 at 8:22 pm

  4. From this.

    Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri is quoted as saying 90%. Ten years of work was annihilated in a matter of months, according to him.

    Lexington Green

    November 13, 2008 at 2:43 am

  5. Good points re utility, guys. I remain unconvinced that VBIEDs are the most effective use of personnel or materiel but I think Davis is right to suggest that they have had utility, even if only as a tactical way to create ‘terror’. Suicide bombing, a different thing, is surely as LG says – the last refuge of the uninspired. It’s a pretty daft tactic when you think about it, except that it can generate increased community support, etc. Again, I’m not sure how true that is, or how you’d measure it.

    Tim Stevens

    November 13, 2008 at 12:36 pm

  6. Effectiveness has many metrics. If you have an unlimited supply of “wannabe-martyrs” and cheap autos, then VBIEDs may be the most cost effective means (at the margin) of battling your adversary. The irony is you can’t deter a suicide bomber with more powerful weapons.


    November 14, 2008 at 12:07 am

  7. I think the effectiveness has to be separated from the nature of the act itself. If a tank is deployed in an urban environment without dismounted infantry, it won’t be effective against insurgents. This doesn’t mean that tanks are useless tools in urban combat, though. Likewise, a VBIED can accomplish great things if it is employed in a strategic manner. Look, for example, at the car bombing that blew up the Marine Barracks.


    November 14, 2008 at 5:24 am

  8. “Look, for example, at the car bombing that blew up the Marine Barracks.”

    Or the Madrid bombing. Perhaps the quintessential example of a successful 4GW operation.


    November 14, 2008 at 11:53 pm

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