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Mike Davis’s important and uncomfortable Buda’s Wagon deserves to be read by historians of technology as a stellar example as well as a dire warning about the possibilities and pitfalls when writing a global history of a contemporary technology. Here Davis, as our time’s Lewis Mumford, provides an explicit technological history of an urban phenomenon in order to contemplate and castigate contemporary global politics.
Its title refers to the 1920 Wall Street bombing where the alleged perpetrator, militant anarchist Mario Buda, used a prototypical car bomb in the form of a horsecart with dynamite and iron slugs to maim hundreds of passersby. Since then, car bombs have become urban terrorism’s “brutal hardware and quotidian workhorses,” and the car bomb, “like any triumphant modern technology, deserves its proper history, with particular attention paid to key technical and tactical innovations” (p. 7).
Davis follows the car bomb from its emergence in the alleyways of 1940s Haifa and Jaffa through bomb-infested streets and parking lots across five continents to its end at the marketplaces of contemporary Baghdad and Jaffna. The many fascinating stories he has recovered include the importance of the F-100 Vietcong urban terrorist command as the inspiration of modern truck bombings, the 1969 American invention of the fertilizer- based ANFO car bomb “that elevated urban terrorism from the artisan to the industrial level” (p. 5), and the “greatest transfer of terrorist technology in history” (pp. 94–95) in the 1980s, when the United States provided sabotage expertise for training foreign and Afghan mujahedin.
Davis’s perspective and sweep could make any historian of technology proud: it is a genuinely global history “from below” about technological empowerment, about use rather than innovation. It exemplifies how a somewhat traditional history of technology can illuminate one of the central [End Page 242] issues of our time. Traditional it is: an episodic, descriptive, and at times almost boring history of a technological artifact, including many lists with dates, places, and numbers. But—and it is a huge “but”—Buda’s Wagon is at the same time an immensely powerful, dark, and overwhelming interrogation of a material underpinning of what Davis in a previous work aptly described as our contemporary “ecology of fear.” This rich and comprehensive history shows the car bomb being embraced by substate militants and criminals as well as by the governments of the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, Israel, Iran, and Pakistan. Its development and use to a large degree provides a history of global cold war politics, Western imperialism, and state repression—where the car bomb becomes “the classical ‘weapon of the weak’” and “the ‘poor man’s air force’ par excellence” (pp. 11, 8) and its development dialectically connected to the legitimate and clandestine violence of states.
Although condemning the “mass terror against civilian populations” and “state terrorism” of Western states as well as blaming Western imperialism for leading to resentment and militancy, Davis does not imply any “sympathy for the devil” (pp. 10, 114). The sympathy is always with the bombed, never with the bombers, regardless of whether they are rebels, revolutionaries, or regimes.
Inevitably, this book shares some weaknesses with many works of contemporary political and military history. It is primarily based on sparsely referenced and unverifiable accounts by journalists, politicians, security advisors, and intelligence sources, and its long and global sweep leads to an understandable but regrettable loss of depth. It is not an intimate history, and Davis keeps his distance, which leads to an ironic weakness in the work of such an outspoken Marxist as Davis in the lack of materialism and labor perspective. We do not get any intimate knowledge of the bombs nor of their makers. The individuals we mainly get to know are the bomb industry’s “executives”: terrorist leaders, crime lords, and CIA directors. The story’s central characters, the bombs, do not speak much about themselves or the work of their makers. This gives an impression that the motives propelling these killing machines are those…