There’s a novel by Russian author Ilya Ehrenburg titled The Life of the Automobile that chronicles humanity’s relationship with that form of transportation. As any critical observer knows (whether they drive a car or not) the automobile has forever changed the world in which we live, for better and worse. This is an essential point of Ehlenburg’s witty and underhandedly sarcastic novel. Mike Davis’s newest offering, Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb, could be considered a bloody sequel to Ehlenburg’s novel. It is, of course, not a novel but a disheartening recitation of incident after murderous incident of death and mayhem caused by lots of explosives packed into automobiles by numerous different groups with just as many agendas.
The title is taken from the carriage bomb set off by the anarchist Marco Buda on Wall Street in protest of the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti. According to Davis, this bomb was the genesis of the “poor man’s air force”–a weapon that killed as indiscriminately as the explosives dropped from airplanes in almost every war since the Wright Brothers. The comparison between air war and car bombs is not made lightly here. Indeed, Davis refers to the morality involved in both and constantly reminds the reader of the moral high ground car bombing removes from a group claiming to fight for justice. At the same time, he asks the reader why the same moral outrage the media reserves for car bombings is not displayed when a superpower carpet bombs an opponent with considerably less resource: the US Air Force versus Vietnam, for example.
In what is certain to be a revelation for many supporters of the state of Israel, Davis explains the car bomb’s modern origins in the tactics of the Zionist terrorists known as the Stern Gang. This group, composed of men-some who went on to help rule Israel–was ruthless in its application of car bombs. They genuinely did not seem to care who died in the explosions they caused, although they preferred them to be Arab. It was the success of their terror campaign that helped “cleanse” Palestine of Palestinians so that Israelis could take the lands. The Stern Gang’s success would also prove to cause what we nowadays call blowback. Indeed, car bombs set off in civilian spaces have been a favorite tactic of the Palestinian resistance to Israel ever since its founding. Davis relates this story, too.
The anonymous nature of the car bomb is what makes it appealing to those guerrilla groups that use them. It is also why they have an appeal to intelligence agencies whose goal is to discredit legitimate insurgent groups. From Saigon, where CIA agents assisted a Vietnamese warlord in his car bomb campaign against Saigon and Hanoi and after his death continued on their own, to Baghdad, where rumors fly daily about which governments are really behind the assorted bombings of that day, the car bomb has been used to manipulate the public and kill the rulers’ enemies. Nowhere did this secret government affinity for car bombing have a greater effect than in the campaign of terror unleashed by then CIA director William Casey in Afghanistan. With the general approval of the Reagan administration, Mr. Casey’s minions trained, armed and ran interference for the holy warriors of the Afghani mujahedin, providing car bomb technical assistance and materials. Of course, it is the descendants of that same group that Casey’s company trained that would eventually hatch the various plots against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon–car bombs with wings, as it were. More importantly, those acts have inspired many more such plots and acts, with no real end in sight.
Davis’s history is not a politically charged indictment of any particular faction, although he pointedly places blame for the current upsurge in the use of car bombs by Islamists on Mr. Casey and his crusade.. It is, however, a serious look at a military tactic Davis finds (along with most of his reader, one assumes) morally repugnant. There is no single faction to blame here, unless one blames the inventor of the internal combustion engine and those who manufacture cars, since groups of multiple political hues have all used the car bomb at various times. In fact, even criminal organizations have found this weapon useful when they want to kill opponents or whomever happens to be shopping on a particular day. Davis acknowledges the possible reasons behind the car bomb’s use by political groups but constantly reminds the reader of the moral complications that use brings to the group and its cause. While reading the book, I could not help but be reminded of the current Washington-led “war on terrorism” and the ridiculous assertion behind that war’s supporters that one can fight a war against a tactic. The history detailed in Buda’s Wagon makes it quite clear that any such battle is not only pointless, but wrongheaded. The lesson learned from Davis’ history is this: in order to fight the tactic of terror, one must become a terrorist themselves. That much is clear no matter whether one is fighting state terror or terror directed against the state.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is forthcoming from Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org