In the last week of January, car bombs killed over 150 people in Iraq.
Mike Davis, in his new book Buda’s Wagon: A brief history of the car bomb, recounts the background of these “workhorses of urban terrorism”.
Often the product of fringe militancy or “clandestine state terrorism”, Davis shows that the car bomb has a limitless capacity to create and sustain fear.
This is, he argues, largely because of its low cost and technological accessibility.
He writes, “Vehicle bombs are stealth weapons of surprising power and destructive efficiency.”
However, as Davis puts it, “Like even the ‘smartest’ of aerial bombs, car bombs are inherently indiscriminate. ‘Collateral damage’ is virtually inevitable.
“If the logic of an attack is to slaughter innocents and sow panic in the widest circle, to operate a ‘strategy of tension’, or just demoralise a society, car bombs are ideal.
“But they are equally effective at destroying the moral credibility of a cause and alienating its mass base of support, as both the IRA and the ETA in Spain have independently discovered.”
Davis steers away from romanticism, keeping tight focus on the indiscriminate violence inflicted upon innocents.
Packed with horrific details, the book goes beyond the statistics to portray the human and moral costs of this gruesome political lever.
He exposes the role of state intelligence agencies – particularly those of the US, Israel, India, and Pakistan – in globalising urban terrorist techniques.
He points out, “Anonymity, in addition, greatly recommends car bombs to those who like to disguise their handiwork, including the CIA, the Israeli Mossad, the Syrian GSD, the Iranian Pasdaran, and the Pakistani ISI – all of whom have caused unspeakable carnage with such devices.”
The Zionist Stern Gang brought the car bomb to the Middle East. In the 1950s the CIA brought it to Vietnam.
It was brought to Algeria by far-right French ex army officers trying to destroy the independence struggle. In each case, the weapon produced blowback when adopted by their enemies.
Davis argues at the end of the book, “Since there is little likelihood of socio-economic reforms or concessions to self determination that might lead to the large scale ‘decommissioning of minds’ the car bomb has a brilliant future.
“Every laser-guided missile falling on an apartment house in southern Beirut or mud-walled compound in Kandahar is a future suicide truck bomb headed for the centre of Tel Aviv or perhaps downtown Los Angeles.”
Mike Davis will be speaking on America Today – war, race and class at a Bookmarks event on Thursday 22 February, 7.30pm, Dragon Hall, Stukeley Street, London WC2. Entrance £2. Phone 020 7637 1848 to book.