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"Any history of technology risks self absorption and exaggeration," writes Mike Davis. It is a good reminder, as books about the history of gunpowder or computers or telegraphy roll out. Davis's new book avoids those risks; _Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb_ (Verso) is a frightening book about a threat that needs no exaggeration to inspire fear. Davis has written scary books before, about slums and about Victorian holocausts, books with irony and grim humor that are not present in his new work. Car bombs, the "poor man's air force", are too loud and sad for such treatment. From their first use by anarchists, they have spread like viruses to all the battlefields of the world, and to the domestic areas where battles are not to be waged. In Davis's history, links are made between such disparate forces using car bombs as the CIA, the IRA, Tamil Tigers, and a host of "liberation" forces with Arabic names, and some of the chapters are mind-numbing with accounts of violence, attack and counterattack, or explanations of increases in technological sophistication while even the basic bicycle bomb is still being deployed with dismaying effectiveness.

You probably never heard of the bomber who gives his name to the book. Mario Buda was an anarchist who "with some stolen dynamite, a pile of scrap metal, and an old horse," and a wagon managed to bring terror to Wall Street in 1920. That he was not caught is due to one of the characteristics of car bombs that make them such a successful weapon: they are anonymous and leave little forensic evidence. Davis lists other advantages of car bombs. They can be of huge destructive force, and bombmakers are improving their power all the time. Their consequences cannot be denied or covered up by the governments who are their victims. They are cheap; bootlegged electronics and $500 of fertilizer will do the trick. They can be assembled by individuals who can find the information on-line or in manuals descended from CIA-sponsored training camps. They can be targeted on one particular site, but they can be counted upon to wreak the sort indiscriminate havoc that will demoralize a society. They can give to a small, marginalized group enormous and dramatic power, promiscuously equalizing the powerful and the weak. In this story there are so many bad guys, sometimes connected in more-or-less formal chains of command, sometimes staging car bomb duels against each other, sometimes adopting tactics of previous car bombers, sometimes just repeating such history independently, that it is often difficult to keep them straight, especially as within the short chapters the scenes shift from Vietnam to Beirut to Latin America to Oklahoma City, and of course to Iraq. The American who seems to have played the biggest role in promoting car bombs was Reagan's CIA Director William Casey, who in reply to disastrous car-bombings in Lebanon promoted response attacks on Hezbollah and schooled Afghanis to do so, with the resultant lessons going on to the future Al Qaeda.

Naturally Davis's history winds up with the dismal situation in Iraq, where there is no shortage of willing martyrs, and also, because of the depots left behind by the Baathist regime, no shortage of explosives. There is, however, a shortage of the preferred car to use. "Iraqi insurgents prefer American stolen cars because they tend to be larger, blend in more easily with the convoys of U.S. government and private contractors, and are harder to identify as stolen." There is a solution to any such shortage, however; SUVs stolen in California or Texas were exported to the Middle East to be car bombs. It's this sort of innovation that can be done at a primitive level that is one of the reasons car bombs are so powerful. In a scary and disheartening book, Davis gives little hope for abatement in the ever-increasing use of car bombs. Sensitive equipment that can sniff ammonium nitrate at a distance is years from being invented. Trace sensors placed throughout cities are far too expensive, especially in poor countries. Concrete obstacles and bomb-blast barriers can't be put everywhere, and current car bombs can send damage out over 400 yards. The futility is shown in Baghdad itself, where there are 6,000 checkpoints and 51,000 soldiers and police to staff them, but still car bombs go off every day. The secure Green Zone just sends bombers off to softer targets. Davis has scorn for those "besotted with fantasies of 'beating the terrorists' with panoptical surveillance, ion detection technology, roadblocks, and, that _sine qua non_, the permanent suspension of civil liberties." There is little escape from his dismal prediction: the car bomb has a brilliant future.
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on June 22, 2007
The feature of Mike Davis' books that I have always liked the most is the way in which he digests and synthesizes scholarly works into his commentary to make his points without bogging the reader down in endless detail. This book however lacks this feature, unfortunately. What Davis has done here instead is survey the principle literature of the many asymmetrical warfare scenarios that have played out during the past hundred years and explain how each generation of freedom-fighters/revolutionaries/terrorists have used explosives to wear down their opponents and promote a condition of uncertainty, discontent and terror thereby.

Davis begins with the story of Mario Buda an Italian anarchist who set off a horse wagon filled with dynamite on Wall Street in NYC in 1920, killing 40 and wounding many more, in retaliation for the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti for a robbery and murder in Boston.

And here is where his scholarly manner fails him. Davis says that some time later in the 1930's after Buda has escaped America undetected and returned to his native Italy, that "Buda basked unmolested in the sunshine of his native Romagna (where he supposedly switched camps and became a spy for Mussolini).." [Page 11] Davis amazingly gives no citation for this claim, leaving the reader to wonder if Buda was merely a bloodyminded hothead or a sociopathic terrorist for hire. As the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and in this case Davis neglects his usual scholarly habit.

So what exactly is it about car bombs that make them such an attractive weapon for terrorists? "Car bombs are loud," says Davis, "in every sense. In addition to their specific operational functions (killing enemies, disrupting daily life, generating unsustainable economic costs, and so on), such explosions are usually advertisements for a cause, leader, or abstract principle...In contrast to other forms of political propaganda, from graffiti on walls to individual assassinations, their occurrence is almost impossible to deny or censor. This certainty of being heard by the world, even in a highly authoritarian or isolated setting is a major attraction to potencial bombers." [Page 9]

Davis makes this book a geo-political historical survey of the effects of car bombs in various wars of independence, terror campaigns, uprisings, revolutions, as well as in criminal acts and senseless murders since Buda's wagon bomb in 1920. [Pages 189-195] Davis almost makes me conclude that whatever the horror and carnage that they create, terror bombings will only increase in number, deadliness and frequency in the coming years, as the media-fication of the global village and dramatic acts of terror are simply made for each other. [Page 153]

I would however limit my recommendation to readers that can stomach endless descriptions of death and injury to innocent people that Davis serves up here though.
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on April 22, 2007
Mike Davis writes books that are difficult to read: he takes on subjects nobody else will touch and analyzes them with an unrelenting, scientific eye (see his recent Planet of Slums). The history of car bombing--like the startling rise of urban slums--is not a pleasant thesis. One reviewer on this site stated that car bombing is a "good topic for a `microhistory' (like the ones that are about wood, coal, salt, etc.)". But I can hardly recommend BUDA'S WAGON to a reader merely because they enjoyed Kurlansky's SALT or McPhee's ORANGES. Rather this is the sort of work you give to a dear friend with the caveat "It will make you sick to your stomach, furious, and terrified for your children's future." Professor Davis' political affiliations have nothing to do with this work. He is more misanthrope than "lefty." There are no heroes in the despicable annals of car bombing. Davis points out over and over again how bombers (from the Stern Gang in pre-Israel Palestine to Casey's operatives in Lebanon to Iraqi "insurgents") almost ALWAYS go after civilian targets--usually women and children. The purpose of the car bomb is to rip out the souls of one's enemy. They are absurdly cheap to make (the blast power of a $5,000 car bomb is often superior to a million dollar ballistic missile). They are incredibly effective (Ronald Reagan pulling us out of Beirut after the Marine barrack bombing; UN forces leaving Iraq). And a few well-placed bombs can create economic catastrophe (e.g. the IRA bombings of London's financial center in the early nineties causing billions of dollars in damage). I pray this book is not a prescient glimpse into a grim future for America. I hope specialists in the FBI and CIA as well as Homeland Security have well-read copies of Davis' work sitting on their desks. And every time you read about a new car bombing in Iraq (nearly every day now) you, dear reader, will think of this joyless yet important book.
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on December 16, 2007
The title is catchy. Davis' prose is lively and pithy. This book
however, does not measure up to his earlier works such as "Prisoners
of the American Dream". I think the problem is with the subject
itself. All Davis' discussion to the contrary, a car bomb is a
relatively unsophisticated device. One bomber does not have much to
learn from another: some fertilizer, fuel oil, a detonator and a
stolen car and one has a poor-man's air-force. Thus, it is difficult to
cover the history of a car bomb from a purely technical
perspective. Like one could do with other weaponry: fighter planes or
assault rifles. The physical effect of a car bomb is pretty similar so
there is little to describe: a loud bang, smoke, flying debris and
body parts, mangled and bloodied people wringing in agony. Davis tries
to be discreet in his explosion descriptions, yet it gets repetitive
by the end of the book.

So carbombing is a ruthless and indiscriminate tactic employed by
guerrillas of all stripes. The most fascinating aspect of the carbombs
is social. Why does a certain group or a movement chose to use
carbombing? What were the social ramifications? And this is where
Davis falls short. The format of the book does not allow him to
describe in detail each individual guerilla movement. Instead, he
tries to quickly and impartially describe the movement and proceed to
the bombing itself. The effect, however, is that he lumps together the
truly progressive independence movements, the cults like Sendero
Luminoso and everything in between. He does, however, cite good books
that cover each individual conflicts in sufficient enough detail to
explain the causes, the reasons and the dynamic of the struggle in
each individual case: "The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990" by Marilyn
B. Young, "A Secret History of the IRA" by Ed Moloney, or "Pity the
Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon" by Robert Fisk. The facts about the
conflicts that I am not familiar with such as the details about the
Stern Gang in pre-Israel Palestine and Arab reprisals are quite
interesting. The coverage of the ongoing conflict in Iraq is naturally
incomplete and feels truncated.
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on December 7, 2010
"Some people have battleships; other people have car bombs.
It kind of evens out."

-heard on the street, Beirut, 1983

The car bomb today functions as one of the most effective
weapons which our enemies have in the "War on Terrorism".
It figures that the car bomb was invented in America.

If you can get past the disgusting descriptions of the
effects of a car bomb on civilians, this is a fascinating
look at the evolution of a weapon and the shifting ways
in which it impacts military operations and political
attitudes.

The most disturbing thing about this book is the story
of how difficult it was for the City of London to halt
the IRA car bombings: The disruption caused by the threat
of car bombs was perhaps greater than the damage caused by
the actual explosions. To this day, the entire financial
district is a secure area, with inspections at the
(limited number of) entrances.

My conclusion from reading this book is that we are not
going to see the end of car bombs any time soon.
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on April 17, 2013
Davis provides a great insight into the history of the car bomb, so much so that this book leaves me feeling terrified as I read through it.
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Car bombs are an interesting topic, especially recently. But they have made headlines for almost the last hundred years. From New York to Oklahoma City to Lebanon, Afghanistan, Israel and Iraq. It should have been a fascinating history and it would have been had the author not decided that he had to inject his personal political and petty hatreds into the topic. After recounting many car bombings, the book then descends into a diatribe against the American and British governments, claiming that the CIA personally is responsible not only for car-bombings in Lebanon and Afghanistan, but that the CIA trained all the people who then went on to influence all those who now do car bombings elsewhere. This is pretty far fetched. Where was the CIA in 1920?

This is like all those books that have as their central thesis a claim that every problem in the world must be the fault of America. But it was Afghan insurgents who detonated the car bombs when fighting the Soviets. It was "Casey's hirelings". Imagine if this book had just been written about car bombs, about their use, their influence, their affect, their death tolls and most interesting, their technological development. That would have been interesting. Oddly enough the terrorists who have masterminded car-bombing campaigns in Iraq and caused thousands of casualties don't come in for the criticism of the CIA, and that is because of bias, rather than honesty. If the author abhored death in general then blame would be equally spread and castigation and high minded language and abuse hurled at all those who blow up civilians, rather than pretending that all car bombing in the world was developed by the CIA and Bill Casey.

A simplistic and biased book, a true tragedy for ruining an interesting subject. Its almost as if it was written first with the idea of 'how can we blame America' and only secondly with the attempt to find a subject that might fit and a bunch of accusations that are unsubstantiated and grossly fabricated.

Seth J. Frantzman
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I picked up this book when I saw the title. I thought to myself "This is a good idea for a book. Why didn't I think of that?" I read no further; I simply bought it under the assumption that if someone had managed to come up with a good idea for a book they must have done a good job on it as well.

I was mistaken about the good job part.

This book repeats unfounded and self-serving statements while making assertions it cannot back up. Why? Well, because that's the only way you can write a book blaming the use of car bombs on the U.S.

In reading Davis' book you get the distinct impression that Buda invented the car bomb but it was the CIA who perfected it and put it into "mass production," so to speak. Also the author asserts with no documentary proof (propaganda film notwithstanding) that the British government was responsible for a spate of car bomb attacks in Ireland and NOT Protestant terrorists as is commonly believed. His evidence? The attacks were "sophisticated." The author does not explain what sophistication he is talking about. If you are going to enter in a conspiracy theory such as this you ought to be able to explain your only piece of evidence.

While discussing Iraq (and let's face it, what other reason would there be for doing a book on this topic at this time?) the author displays considerable lack of interest in the methods employed by terrorists in using car bombs. There are car bombs that are remotely detonated, ones that are detonated with timers, others that employ suicide bombers and are "self-initiated," car bombs that employ drivers who have been forced to drive (lest their family be murdered), and car bombs that have unsuspecting drivers who are pro-insurgent but have not been told they are on a one-way trip. While these distinctions may not make a difference to Davis they are relevent to the story as different tactics reflect weaknesses and problems from the bombers point of view. Nor is there any discussion of the methods such as curfews that have limited the effectiveness of car bombs.

I spent 2005 in Iraq and I am somewhat familiar with this topic. I get the distinct impression that Mr. Davis did not attempt to get in contact with the U.S. Army, which in turn would have gotten him in contact with the VBIED task force combatting this scourge. Then again, if he "cooperated" with the U.S. military he might be "compromised" as working with the "Occupation."

I do not wish to give the impression that this book is totally useless. I find some of the statistical information to be interesting and should someone else decide to do a REAL book on car bombs they might find this a helpful outline. However, my advice to you, if you are desperate for entertainment and have only this book to fulfill that role, is to read it until you come across the phrase "Dirty War" used to describe the government forces' efforts to combat terrorism and to yell "bingo" at each instance. If you don't get put away for making a public spectacle of yourself you just might manage to pass the time away.
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