When a couple of Washington Post journalists investigated rumours of an imminent truck-bomb attack on a major financial institution in August 2004, they found that there were 2.6 million heavy trucks and 90 million lighter ones on the roads of the US. They concluded that, despite the billions of dollars lavished on the Department of Homeland Security since 9/11, there were no more effective defences against vehicle bombs in 2004 than at the time of the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Centre with a van bomb 11 years earlier.
In Buda's Wagon , Mike Davis demonstrates beyond cavil the alarming disproportion between the cheapness and availability of such weapons and the cost of the damage they cause. The blizzard of statistics in his short book amply justifies his image of the car bomb - or what the Pentagon calls the VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) - as "the poor man's air force". He traces its origins to a horse-drawn wagon loaded with explosives detonated on the corner of Wall Street in New York by an Italian anarchist, Mario Buda, in September 1920. Motorisation was soon added: first, in 1921, by Barcelona syndicalists using a hijacked taxi and later with the trucks used by Zionist terrorists in Palestine after the Second World War. These groups, though, like the Vietcong in the 1960s, employed conventional explosives.
Arguably, the birth of the car bomb proper came with the IRA's discovery that shatteringly powerful explosives could be blended at home from cheap, universally available ingredients, notably fertiliser. ANFO - ammonium nitrate and fuel oil - could deliver explosive yields equivalent to Second World War blockbusters. But the weight and bulk of such bombs meant they could be moved only in motor vehicles. The final stage was to find drivers prepared to die taking a vehicle to its target - a refinement not available to the IRA, the most consistent car bombers of the 1970s, but one that would be adopted with deadly effect by Islamic groups in the Middle East and in Chechnya.
"Brief histories" can seem appealingly easy to read, but sometimes something more substantial is needed. Buda's Wagon is a case in point. Its brisk chatter of thumbnail histories of car-bomb users across five continents contains enough descriptions of detonations to satiate most readers, but seldom do we hear about the supposed strategic logic of using such weapons in indiscriminate attacks. Some bombers, at least, undoubtedly think about this. Davis suggests the IRA had an "almost cargo-cult-like belief" in the effect of car bombs. But there is more to it than this, and it should form a vital part of the story.
Moreover, the very notion of "the poor man's air force" raises issues that get sidelined here. The effectiveness or otherwise of air power has been, and remains, one of the high-profile military and political questions of the past hundred years. All the signs are that the poor man's air force is as erratic in effect as the superpower's. For every brilliant strategic success, such as Hezbollah's 1983 bombing of the US Marines barracks in Beirut (which, in Davis's opinion, "constitutes the gold standard of terrorism"), there have been dozens of gruesome sequences of pointless destruction and revenge, and many examples of the counterproductiveness of indiscriminate killing.
Davis certainly knows this. He notes that IRA car bombs, for example, were "fraught with potentials for political and moral disaster". But he does not examine this issue head on. It is important because, if there are significant ways in which "Buda's wagon" does not work, there is some chance it will not become, as Davis grimly predicts, "the hot rod of the apocalypse".
Charles Townshend is professor of international history, Keele University.
Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb
Author - Mike Davis
Publisher - Verso
Pages - 228
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 1 84467 132 8