Growing up in Belfast in the 1970’s car bombs were an integral part of the soundtrack of my youth, so Mike Davis’ book, Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb was, as they say, a must read. The Buda in question was Mario Buda, an Italian-American, and his wagon was a horse drawn carriage packed with explosives and shrapnel which he left at the corner of Wall Street in New York on 18 September 1920. Thirty eight people died and hundreds more were injured in the cause of anarchism.
Davis defines car bombs as ‘delivery systems to create deadly explosions in public spaces’, excluding the use of booby traps on vehicles designed to kill the occupant, and traces their development and spread in the years since Buda’s wagon. It’s a fascinating read. Davis covers a lot of ground without getting bogged down in too much detail and brings to light the use of these devices in a host of conflicts across the world and down through the decades. As well as tracing their use by non-state actors Davis also looks at the way in which agents of the state – usually intelligence agencies with the US, Pakistan and Russia to the fore – have become adept at making use of car bombs to further their own goals.
Davis identifies a number of turning points in the evolution of the car bomb. First, the development of home made explosives based around ingredients like fertiliser and fuel oil, made bombs more easily available, cheaper and bigger. Second, the use of suicide bombers, willing to die during an attack, opened up new possibilities for militants who no longer had to work out how their man (or woman) would get away.
Davis discusses a number of key events, like the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the US Embassy bombings in 1998 which I well remember, but what is more disturbing is how many bombings that claimed mass causalities I only vaguely recalled or had no recollection of at all. The charts throughout the book listing car bomb attacks and resulting casualties make clear the relentless toll these weapons have taken – mostly on ordinary people – across the world.
The book was originally published in 2006 and this newly published paperback edition unfortunately has not been updated. It would have been interesting to see Davis’ take on the latest evolution of the car bomb where the car itself is the weapon and a bomb is no longer required. While he also dealt briefly with the impact of car bombs on urban security, more on the way in which car bombs have influenced architecture and urban planning would have been good.