Vehicles for destruction

IPods, Coca-Cola and Michael Jackson are not the only currency of globalization.

car bomb book 88 298 (photo credit: )
car bomb book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb By Mike Davis Verso 192 pages; $22.95 Products such as iPods, brands like Coca-Cola and pop stars like 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, their use tends to reproduce indefinitely," he writes. "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 for this "infernal machine," as Davis takes to calling it. In fact, the car bomb's history started in the good ole US of A. The first car bomb on record exploded in September 1920 on the corner of Wall and Broad streets in New York, outside the offices of J.P. Morgan. The vehicle was not a car, but a horse-drawn wagon; the culprit, Mario Buda, was an anarchist; the victims were 40 bystanders. 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 and anonymous, and are bound to create collateral damage - "the poor man's air force," as Davis calls them. Buda's Wagon follows the weapon on its destructive path rough the past six decades of war and resistance - from the Jewish struggle to create a state, to the French Indo-China war, to Algeria, Corsica, Vietnam, Ireland, Beirut, Argentina, Chechnya, Oklahoma and Iraq. This is Davis's third micro-history, following, most notably, Magical Urbanism, his study of Chicano immigrants in US 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 Stern Gang in the 1940s, targeting civilian Arab neighborhoods and British soldiers. Later, those same bombs were turned against Israelis, including a car bombing of The Palestine Post, which later became The Jerusalem Post, that killed one and injured 20). Today, vans stolen from Texas wind up in Iraq as car bomb vehicles, since their 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 antiwar 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 their campus, killing an antiwar physics student working late in his lab and providing a recipe for years of killing in the future. Davis predicts the car bomb will continue toward a "brilliant future," its parts becoming harder to trace and easier to obtain. Most importantly, whether the bombers are Basque separatists, Iraqi insurgents or America's own homegrown terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, their righteousness seems not to be abating, either. In the language of globalization, its market potential is huge. The writer is president of the National Book Critics Circle.