Buda’s Wagon. A Brief History of the Car Bomb

Buda's Wagon. Mike Davis

The car bomb was invented in the US and was used to devastating effect by Mario Buda, an anarchist who exploded his horse-drawn wagon on Wall Street in 1920, thus prompting the title to Buda’s Wagon, a new book by often controversial and politically radical Mike Davis. Buda was the first car bomber, his progeny are many.

The Zionist Stern Gang used car bombs in the late 1940’s to blow up buildings in Palestine in an attempt to drive out the British and terrorize Palestinians. The Irgun and Haganah, underground Zionist groups labeled as terrorists by the British, quickly followed suit. The use of car bombs by Zionists represented a major step forward both in the lethality of the bombs and their use as political weapons.

However, Palestinians and Arabs soon learned the technology and responded with the same, prompting one of the founders of Israel, Ben-Gurion, to say after the bombing of a Haganah headquarters, “I couldn’t forget that ‘our’ thugs and murderers had blazed this trail.”

Prophetic words indeed. Car bombs don’t care who use them, and Davis details how the technology to create them travels from one hot zone to the next, as their practitioners spread the knowledge worldwide. Instrumental in the spread of car bombing techniques from the 1980’s onward was the lunatic Bill Casey of the CIA and ISI, the shadowy secret police of Pakistan who are considered among the best in the world and are a power unto themselves.

Car bombs are often successfully used by hardliners in a dispute to destroy the possibility of peace talks. Sow enough chaos, terror, and hatred, and peace negotiations often collapse. This has been a precise goal at times by Zionists, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, the IRA, and many others. Other times, car bombs can be used to force concessions, like with IRA bombings in London in the 1990’s. The bombs were deliberately targeted to damage the faltering British insurance companies, and it did indeed cost the companies billions of dollars and nearly cratered Lloyds of London.

That blowing up a building in an urban area, killing innocents, will often cause mass reaction against your political aims is something that escapes car bombers. Or maybe, blood-crazed with visions of retribution, they don’t care. Sometimes the car bombers are rival drug cartels or organized crime factions. Then, of course, there is little political motive.

Car bombs can achieve spectacular political results. Witness the Hezbollah bombings in Lebanon in the 80’s that destroyed a US barracks dubbed the “Beirut Hilton” and a French barracks as well. In both cases these large buildings (the French barracks was nine floors) were blown off their foundations, which gives some idea of the immense force of the explosions. These bombings led directly to the immediate US withdrawal from Lebanon.

Davis makes it clear that car bombs, while sometimes achieving short-term gains, generally lead to increased violence from the the other side (or sides) thus creating ever more mayhem and dead innocents. Using Iraq as an example, some car bombs are aimed at US forces, others are specifically used to create Sunni-Shia divisions. Islamic hardliners use car bombs to reinforce sectarian divisions because they do not want nationalism to occur because that would mean they’d then have no power base. Doubtless many other players there don’t want nationalism either.

Davis closes by saying

All sides, moreover, now play by Old Testament rules and every laser-guided missile falling on an apartment house in southern Beirut or a mud-walled compound in Kandahar is a future suicide truck bomb headed for the center of Tel Aviv or perhaps downtown Los Angeles. Buda’s wagon truly has become the hot rod of the apocalypse.

Car bombs are an example of how small groups operating in diffuse networks can produce devastating effects against much larger foes. This is what John Robb talks about in his new book Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization, which will be the topic of my next book review. He blogs about this at Global Guerrillas and at his personal blog.

[tags]Buda’s Wagon, Mike Davis, car bombs[/tags]