May 29, 2007

a poor man's air force?

Mike Davis, Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb
I probably first heard of Mario Buda (though I didn’t remember his name) the week after September 11th, as the news machines scrambled to make some sense of what seemed to have flown straight off multiplex screens and into a clear, sunny, mid-morning Tribeca pastoral. Here was a chilling, ominous haunt: an Italian anarchist who had walked away from a horse-drawn car bomb parked on the corner of Wall and Broad around noon on a warm September 17, 1920. More uncanny than the Egyptian truck bombing of 1993, because at once more distant, in time and motive, and more close: for it drew the line, however indistinctly, back to those forgotten anarchist meetings, “not unlike certain contemporary Quran study groups in gritty neighborhoods of Brooklyn and south London,” and set in a different, disquieting (because less contingent) light the question how we, who lived, worked, and played in lower Manhattan, most ordinary of people, had become targets.

Buda’s wagon furnishes the archetype and the title for Mike Davis’s sweeping new history of the car bomb, arguably the most significant technology in the contemporary arsenal of non-state war, and a powerful and simple emblem it is: “a poor immigrant with some stolen dynamite, a pile of scrap metal, and an old horse” killed forty and injured hundreds at the very beating heart of capital, and forced securities trading in New York to halt for the first time in the exchange’s history. Not that Buda’s bomb was without its own prehistory. In 1800 an attempt was made on Napoleon’s life with a horse-cart in the Rue Saint Nicaise, while the gunpowder plots of the 17th century and the monarchial assassinations of the 16th had invented the methods used by contemporary anarchists in their attempts on capitalists and monarchs: Frick and McKinley, Franz Ferdinand and J.P. Morgan.

Buda’s wagon furnishes the archetype and the title for Mike Davis’s sweeping, new history of the car bomb, arguably the most significant technology in the contemporary arsenal of non-state war, and a powerful and simple emblem it is: “a poor immigrant with some stolen dynamite, a pile of scrap metal, and an old horse” killed forty and injured hundreds at the very beating heart of capital, and forced securities trading in New York to halt for the first time in the exchange’s history. Not that Buda’s bomb was without its own prehistory. In 1800 an attempt was made on Napoleon’s life with a horse-cart in the Rue Saint Nicaise, while the gunpowder plots of the 17th century and the monarchial assassinations of the 16th had invented the methods used by contemporary anarchists in their attempts on capitalists and monarchs: Frick and McKinley, Franz Ferdinand and J.P. Morgan.

But Buda’s weapon taught a new lesson in asymmetry, a lesson no one was yet ready--or desperate enough--to learn: a lesson in the fantastic damage that might be done to the fabric of modern life by anyone ready to turn its most basic tools against it. It was a different epoch, though Trotsky had already issued his warning against terror tactics--an epoch of Bolshevik revolution, Spartacist street warfare, the mass strike, Fascist paramilitarism, of Nationalist struggle in China and Republican war in Spain--and mass movements, right and left, had not yet given way to the loose networks, ragtag bands, and individual desperadoes whose ever-growing capacity to inflict indiscriminate destruction on the world’s cities is today engaged in an enthusiastic race to the bottom with the massive violence of the contemporary state apparatus.

The full conceptualization of the car bomb’s tactical potential, on Davis’s account, would only come almost thirty years later, in 1947, when the Stern Gang hit a British police post in Haifa with a truck bomb, the beginning of a bombing campaign of striking (perhaps unparalleled) effectiveness in winning national independence: indeed, in one of what are called the ironies of history, the Zionists’ very success has made Menachem Begin required reading in Osama bin Laden’s camps in southern Afghanistan. And it was four radical students at Madison who would join the mobility and ubiquity of the truck as delivery system with the destructive power of strategic bombing in an assault on a math building on campus: in another cruel joke, a pamphlet on Pothole Blasting for Wildlife, disseminated by the Wisconsin Fish and Game Department to help farmers build duck ponds, furnished the deadly formula--the most basic tool of modern agriculture, ammonium nitrate fertilizer, highly explosive in itself, accelerated with everyday fuel oil--which gives truck bombs the capacity to deliver to the doorstep of their targets the payload of a B-52.

Reviews (few and far between to date) of Davis’s history have uniformly seized on what is probably the book’s most memorable line: truck bombs are “the poor man’s air force.” For truck bombs are probably the only strategic weapons cheap enough for individuals to assemble: they can be and have been used to accurately and decisively strike even hardened nodal targets. Such was the US embassy-cum-Marine barracks in Beirut, destroyed just about 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning in October 1983 by a truck bomb so powerful that it sheared the base of the building from its concrete columns (which, as the DoD’s engineers noted in their amazed post-mortem, were “15 feet in circumference and reinforced throughout with 1 3/4” diameter iron rods”) and lifted the entire building into the air--killing more Marines than had died in any single day since Iwo Jima. Two minutes later, a second truck crashed into the French barracks on the other side of town, lifting the building into the air and setting it down twenty feet away. Within four months, the Multinational Force had withdrawn from Lebanon. Imad Faiz Mugniyah, a Shia from the slums around Beirut’s international airport, had proven the efficacy of car bombing, driving the Sixth Fleet from Lebanon with, in Thomas Friedman’s words, “just 12,000 pounds of dynamite and a stolen truck.”

Truck bombs make the weak strong: orders of magnitude more spectacularly and more efficiently than the other cheap staples of “low-intensity” warfare--Stingers, Katyushas, Kalashnikovs. Thanks to widely available manuals and the diligence of CIA, ISI, and their studious pupils in al Qaeda, the know-how to construct truck bombs is now fully globalized. “Terrorism,” Davis reminds us, is “a playground epithet in the serious business of geopolitics,” and the car bomb is indiscriminate in its utility: at once left and right, insurgent and internecine, Shia and Sunni, and, occasionally, an instrument of the intelligence agencies of the great powers. Every continent except Antarctica has seen truck bomb attacks in the last thirty years, and Davis’s account ranges wide: the trail of death and destruction stretches from the British counter-insurgency in Palestine to the Saigon Hôtel de Ville, from ultra-right operatives of the OAS in Algeria to mafia warfare in Sicily and Colombia, from Timothy McVeigh to Indira Gandhi’s clandestine support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Nadu.

But on Davis’s account, truck bombs are inducing a set of changes in civil life which perdure beyond the rising and falling fortunes of violent groupuscules and the intelligence services which fund and fight them. On the one hand, the IRA’s 1992 bombing of the “Square Mile” which is home to the British financial services industry (and its more spectacular sequel, the attack on the World Trade Center--“car bombs with wings”) perfectly exemplifies the extreme vulnerability of core institutions of the global Concert of Powers. A blue dump truck packed with explosives cost the reinsurance industry some £2 billion and forced its reconstruction, almost driving the venerable Lloyd’s of London into bankruptcy in the process; the response has been “a network of traffic restrictions and cordons, closed-circuit television cameras, and intensified public and private policing.” Nowhere on Earth is now more heavily surveilled than the City of London, with the possible exception of Baghdad’s Green Zone (Monte Carlo?)--for which, of course, it was the prototype.

And on the other hand, as the wealthiest and their banks retreat into fortified enclaves, car bombers turn to softer targets and the messy, effective strategies of civil war. Beirut was the prototype; but that the poor man’s air force can be as urbicidal as “precision” bombing is proved by the ongoing transformation of Baghdad into “a medieval archipelago of warring Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods where residents, especially those too poor to emigrate, increasingly put their faith in local confessional militias and the culture of vendetta.” Three hundred thousand American soldiers and billions in foreign aid cannot restore the Iraqi state’s monopoly on violence: the carnage wreaked by suicide car bombs in the marketplaces and mosques of Shia neighborhoods has splintered the basis for any non-confessional Iraqi polity. A truck bomb killed Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special envoy to Iraq, in 2003, and drove the UN from the country; car bombs have been used to assassinate key figures in the attempt to consolidate a single, legitimate, and effective Iraq state and to strike against the embassies of American allies. It is only a matter of time before a large truck bomb is exploded within the confines of the Green Zone itself.

There are, perhaps, nine million trucks on the roads of the United States of America; ammonium nitrate is an essential ingredient in the daily reproduction of modern society. It is always distorting to generalize from a single technology to the social form. But what car bombs index is the impossibility of using conventional means to secure the contemporary world. Airpower supremacy can’t fight the anonymity of explosives stolen from construction sites or trucks stolen from florists; and, at best, multi-billion-dollar interception techniques (the Pentagon is funding research into the use of slow neutrons to detect explosives inside trucks) will only ever secure the Green Zones and Square Miles of the world, leaving the poorest vulnerable to city-destroying cycles of shadowy and indistinct violence. It is in this sense that Buda’s Wagon is an appendix to Mike Davis’s book on the conurbations in which a billion people live, Planet of Slums: car bombs are the most basic, and the most self-destructive, tool in the spasmodic response unleashed by the normalization--as the “military humanitarianism” championed by such liberal luminaries as John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, and the University of Chicago’s own Jean Bethke Elshtain--of the use of the rich man’s air forces against urban populations. “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.”

The cutting edge of strategic thinking is already accustomed to these horizons: a programmatic 1996 essay in Parameters, the journal of the Army War College, proclaimed that “The future of warfare lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, industrial parks, and the sprawl of houses, shacks, and shelters that form the broken cities of our world. We will fight elsewhere, but not so often, rarely as reluctantly, and never so brutally. Our recent military history is punctuated with city names--Tuzla, Mogadishu, Los Angeles, Beirut, Panama City, Hue, Saigon, Santo Domingo--but these encounters have been but a prologue, with the real drama still to come.” No wonder then, perhaps, that when the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs reviewed Buda’s Wagon it coolly pronounced Davis’s prognosis “alarmist.”

For the ailing Diskord at the University of Chicago

Posted by Max at 04:49 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack