Bombs Away

John Freeman
3 min read
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Products like the iPod, brands like Coca-Cola and pop stars such as Michael Jackson are not the only currency of globalization. As Mike Davis points out in this swift, grimly readable little book: weapons are, too.

“Like an implacable virus, once vehicle bombs have entered the DNA of a host society and its contradictions,” he writes, “their use tends to reproduce indefinitely. Between 1992 and 1999, 25 major vehicle attacks in 22 different cities killed 1,337 people and wounded nearly 12,000.”

It would seem the last three years in Iraq have matched this total. But Baghdad is hardly ground zero of this infernal machine, as Davis takes to calling it. In fact, the car bomb’s history started right here in America.

The first car bomb on record exploded in September of 1920 on the corner of Wall and Broad Street outside the offices of J.P. Morgan. The vehicle was not a car, but a horse-drawn wagon, the culprit Mario Buda, an anarchist, the victims 40 passersby, some of whom were mangled beyond recognition.

It would take another 27 years before the car bomb reignited on the road to urban warfare, Davis notes, but the spark had caught. Car bombs are stealthy, loud, cheap, anonymous and are bound to create “collateral damage.” Here was the weapon to empower marginal actors—“the poor man’s air force,” as Davis calls it.

Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb follows the weapon on its destructive path through the past six decades of war and resistance, from the War of Independence in Israel to the first Indo-China War to Algeria, Corsica, back to Vietnam, Ireland, Beirut, Argentina, Chechnya, Oklahoma and Iraq.

This is Davis’ third micro-history, following, most notably,
Magical Urbanism , his study of Chicano immigrants affects on American cities, and it shows. Cleverly, the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient has constructed Buda’s Wagon to mirror the feedback loop of technological invention. The bomb is deployed, refined, deployed again and refined again across borders, boundaries and time.

Of course, this cycle of invention leads to historical ironies. For instance, Davis notes that the first car bombs to explode in the Middle East were deployed by the radical Zionist group the Stern Gang, targeting civilian Arab neighborhoods and British soldiers. Later those same bombs were turned against Israelis. Today, SUVs stolen from Texas wind up in Iraq as car bomb vehicles because their big, bulky exteriors and blacked-out windows make them resemble the vehicles driven by American contractors, and thus less suspicious.

One of the biggest technological leaps came in 1970 at the hands of a group of left-wing anti-war students at the University of Wisconsin. Using a mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, a recipe gleaned from “Pothole Blasting for Wildlife,” a brochure put out by the Wisconsin Fish and Game Department, the kids created a bomb equivalent to 3,400 sticks of dynamite. Detonated, it destroyed nearly half of their campus. It killed an antiwar physics student working late in his lab and provided a recipe for years of killing in the future.

Davis predicts the car bomb continues toward a “brilliant future,” its parts becoming ever harder to trace and even easier to obtain. Most important, whether they are Basque separatists, Iraqi insurgents or our own homegrown terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, it seems the righteousness of the detonators is not abating. In the language of globalization, its market potential is huge.
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