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Buda’s Wagon: The Gates of Hell

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Mike Davis writing on history and the city has been celebrated across the world. To mark the significance of his work, we're re-releasing his classic works in these beautiful new editions and we have 40% off all his writing until Jan 22.

Here we present an extract from Buda’s Wagon, Davis' brilliant and disturbing 100-year history of the “poor man’s air force,” the ubiquitous weapon of urban mass destruction

Any history of technology risks self-absorption and exaggeration. It is too easy to believe that the modern world is simply the addition of its inventions and their automatic social consequences: steam engines and socialists, trains and tourists, radios and dictators, computer chips and geeks, and so on. But as Marx long ago cautioned us, the future of any innovation depends upon existent social structures (or “relations of production”) capable of developing its potentials and harvesting its effects. The Alexandrian Greeks, for example, delighted themselves with steam-powered toys but in an age of abundant slave labor they had no use for labor-saving technology. Likewise, the car bomb existed in principle, as a potent template for future terrorism, for a generation or more before the Stern Gang first used it to plow the fertile fields of hatred in Palestine; its subsequent development in the Cold War era, like the rise of “terrorism” in general, was to some extent held in check by the authority of the superpowers and their networks of alliance. After Beirut and Kabul, however, and thanks especially to Bill Casey and his Pakistani counterparts, the car bomb proliferated across the planet like a kudzu vine of destruction, taking root in the thousand fissures of ethnic and religious enmity that globalization has paradoxically revealed. It also flourishes in the badlands of extreme inequality, on the edges of poor cities, and even in the embittered recesses of the American heartland.

Having opened Pandora’s Box, can it ever be closed? The Pentagon has launched a crash program, an anti-terrorist “Manhattan Project,” to counter the threat of roadside bombs and other improvised explosives, including car bombs. The formidably titled “Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Task Force” originated as an ad hoc working group of a dozen people in October 2003, then, as insurgent IEDs decimated Humvees on the highways outside Baghdad in winter and spring 2004, it was transformed into one of the Pentagon’s most urgent and high-priority projects. US military planners had not only been blindsided by the widespread use of IEDs, but they had also failed to anticipate the insurgents’ ingenuity in keeping pace with defensive responses: as Americans, for example, added heavier armor to their vehicles, the insurgents increased bomb yields, utilized more deadly shaped charges, and changed their cell-phone detonators to less detectable systems using garage-door openers. (As a colonel in the Combat Engineers told participants in an “IED Defeat Seminar” in 2005: “The folks building these things are very sophisticated. They need to die, but they are very sophisticated.”) Despite frenetic US countermeasures, the number of makeshift bomb attacks (both IEDs and car bombs) almost doubled from 5,607 in 2004 to 10,593 in 2005; the number increased again by 30 percent in the first half of 2006.

In response, the Pentagon keeps pouring more money into counter-IED research. By summer 2006, the budget for the Task Force, now headed by retired four-star general Montgomery Meigs, had increased to $3.5 billion, although ”senior officials say they essentially have a blank check.” Mobilizing the expertise of hundreds of top military engineers, forensic scientists, physicists, and intelligence experts, the Task Force, according to the New York Times, also funds “some 100 technology initiatives” through 80 private contractors to combat “the rising number of increasingly powerful and sophisticated homemade bombs that are the No. 1 killer of American troops in Iraq.” Altogether, according to the Associated Press, “from 2004 to 2006, some $6.1 billion will have been spent on the U.S. effort – comparable, in equivalent dollars, to the cost of the Manhattan Project installation that produced plutonium for World War II’s atom bombs.” NATO, now under attack from IEDs and suicide car bombs in southern Afghanistan, as well as being bombed in its own capital cities, is mounting a parallel technology campaign and recently appointed a Counter-Terrorism Technology Coordinator to oversee the development of “cutting-edge technologies to detect, disrupt and pursue terrorists.”

It remains an open question, however, whether these ambitious technology initiatives will yield authentic magic bullets or just temporary palliatives that will eventually be foiled by insurgents’ own innovations. (As I write, Hezbollah is again rewriting the rules of warfare in the Middle East, using Katyushas, IEDs, and sophisticated shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles with unprecedented success against Israeli heavy armor.) But as daunting as are the problems of protecting military patrols from hidden IEDs, passenger airlines from hijackers, and public-transit systems from suitcase bombs, they are dwarfed by the extraordinary challenge of protecting sprawling cities, rich and poor, from roving car bombers.

In August 2004, after a federal alert that closed roads, bridges and banks in Washington, D.C., and New York City in face of rumors of an imminent truck-bomb attack on a major financial institution, the Washington Post surveyed experts about the country’s preparedness to deal with the threat. Reporters Spencer Hsu and Sari Horwitz quickly learned that there are 2.6 million heavy-duty trucks and another 90 million smaller trucks, ranging from delivery vans to pickups, on the nation’s highways, and that 5 million tons of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer are sold over the counter every year without any national system to report or track the sales. Although Washington had spent more than $1 billion enhancing physical security at federal buildings and embassies with concrete barriers and setbacks, this undoubtedly will only redirect terrorists to softer targets. The reporters also found that “truck bombs have been very far down the list” of Bush priorities, as Homeland Security spending was initially focused upon airline security and bioterrorism. Indeed, “eleven years after Muslim extremists used an explosives-laden van to attack the World Trade Center and nearly three years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, senior federal agents acknowledge that the country has “virtually no defense against a terrorist barreling down the street with a truck bomb.”

To be fair, since this Washington Post report some additional federal money – if only a smidgen of that devoted to IEDs – supports advanced research on the detection of vehicle bombs as well as the protection of structures against their blast effects. Unfortunately, the technologies under development, such as robotic arms that use “fast” neutrons to scan car bodies to detect explosives, or cutting-edge systems of vanadium steel/concrete-composite wall construction, are only really applicable to protecting government buildings, international border crossings, and elite “ring of steel” districts like the Green Zone, where vehicles are stopped and inspected at security points. “Stand-off detection,” supersensitive systems that can “smell” ammonium nitrate or TNT molecules at a distance of several hundred feet, are still “at least a decade away,” according to experts at Sandia National Laboratories. Although science writers like to fantasize about “vast networks of imaging or trace sensors deployed throughout cities,” such Orwellian systems, if they actually become available, will probably be too expensive to find widespread use, especially in poorer countries.

A future “technological fix” for the car-bomb threat, in other words, will only be relevant to certain privileged residential zones, transport hubs, and decision-making centers. Bomb-detection portals and robotic inspection systems, for the most part, will remain luxury goods. Bomb-sensors under current development for use in garages or military checkpoints, for example, will cost at least $165,000 and have a range of only a few feet. “Pre-bomb cordons” using concrete obstacles and traffic barriers may seem a cheaper and more feasible alternative, but, according to City of London Police Superintendent Timothy Hillier (a world authority), adequate protection against large vehicle bombs “require[s] a minimum cordon of 400 meters (437 yards), or more than the length of four football fields. An explosion can cause injuries and damage even beyond this distance, so everyone should exercise caution near the perimeter. Considering this scale in the center of any city, the enormous difficulties encountered with pre-bomb cordons become apparent.”

The almost insuperable problem of security for the urban masses is brutally illustrated by the immense, ongoing security mobilization in Baghdad that has largely failed to deter car-bombings and mass murder. By July 2006, according to the New York Times, there were an estimated 6000 checkpoints in Baghdad, manned by 51,000 soldiers and police – an astonishing mobilization – yet car bombers were still setting off deadly explosions on an almost daily basis. If the Green Zone was effectively off limits to bombers in stolen American cars, they had no problem finding their way to tempting soft targets in poor Shiite neighborhoods and suburbs; and when the dramatic introduction of thousands more US troops in August temporarily reduced the carnage in Beirut, the jihadis simply moved on to less secure cities, such as Kirkuk with its volatile population mix of Sunnis, Kurds, and Turkomans. In Baghdad itself, attackers circumvented roadblocks and traffic curfews with bicycle bombs – circa Saigon 1952.

When American military spokesmen claimed a dramatic reduction in killings in August, their figures were immediately disputed by hundreds of uncounted, hideously tortured bodies warehoused in the Baghdad morgue. Moreover, sectarian violence spiked dramatically again in September with car-bombings in eastern Baghdad, which were immediately repaid with more disfigured Sunni corpses. (In Kirkuk, meanwhile, jihadists choreographed five suicide car-bombings within minutes of each other, a terrifying warning that the “martyrs” had returned in force.) In sheer desperation, the Pentagon announced that American and Iraqi forces would attempt to seal off Baghdad with a “ring of reinforced checkpoints, berms, trenches, barriers, and fences.” “The enemy is changing tactics,” President Bush explained at a later press conference, “and we’re adapting. The enemy moves and we will help the Iraqis move. And so they’ve building a berm around the city to make it harder for people to come with explosive devices . . . They got a clear build-and-hold strategy.“

The obvious model is Fallujah, which since its reconquest by US Marines in November 2004 had been converted into an urban prison along the lines of Gaza under the Israelis. “The American forces,” explains the New York Times, “have run the city as a mini police state, with people who want to enter required to show identification cards at checkpoints.” But Baghdad is vastly larger than Fallujah and critics immediately assailed the Bush administration’s folly of trying to build an anti-terrorist dike or moat around its sprawling 60-mile-long perimeter. Unlike Fallujah, moreover, the residents of Iraq’s megalopolis do not carry obligatory identity cards, the pre-requisite to any effective system of checkpoints. The proposed ring around Baghdad, in other words, has more to do with sustaining the American occupation’s flagging PR campaign than with defeating a “terrorism” that has become so deeply and terrifyingly entrenched within the city’s neighborhoods.

In any event, sectarian car bombers reclaimed ownership of Baghdad on November 23, 2006 with a horrific and carefully choreographed attack on Sadr City. Beginning at 3 pm and continuing at 15-minute-intervals, Sunni suicide bombers set off five enormous half-ton explosions in the Jamila and al-Hay markets, and al-Shahidein Square. Iraq’s Health Minister Ali al-Shemari estimated the death toll at 200, although “many of the dead have been reduced to scattered body parts and are not counted yet.” The next day, while furious Shiites in Baghdad were burning Sunnis alive and shelling their mosques, another suicide car bomber killed 22 people in the northern, largely Turkmen city of Tal Afar. A week later, two car bombs were exploded outside hospital morgues in Baghdad in an attempt to kill relatives of earlier victims or perhaps just blow up the dead a second time.

In truth, cities as large as Baghdad, London or Los Angeles, with their vast seas of cars, trucks, and buses, and their thousands of vulnerable institutions and infrastructural nodes, will never enjoy universal security. Like drug dealers, car bombers will always find a place to do business. Writer Martin Amis, who frets that in the future “riding a city bus will be like flying El Al,” has no need to worry: El Al has a level of professional security far beyond what most sprawling and cash-strapped municipalities will ever be able to afford. The vast majority of us will continue to live in the “Red Zone,” vulnerable to sinister Fiats and Ryder vans. As Rhiannon Talbot points out in a reflection on the IRA’s Bishopsgate bombing, ``No matter how many police officers are on duty, or how many special constables and auxiliary police officers are drafted we cannot guard every building of significance in the country nor every street where hundreds could die if a devastating bomb were to be detonated.” Such common sense, of course, must be pounded into the heads of politicians and police officials besotted with fantasies of “beating the terrorists” with panoptical surveillance, ion detection technology, roadblocks, and, that sine qua non, the permanent suspension of civil liberties.

A deeply revealing conversation in this regard, reported by Irish journalist Tim Pat Coogan, occurred in the course of the secret meetings between Irish and British security officials in 1996, where it was debated whether or not the current IRA ceasefire was “genuine,” and whether the peace process could go forward without the complete “decommissioning” of the Provisional IRA’s arsenal. As Coogan explains, the issue of the IRA arsenal, so fetishized by Loyalist and British politicians, “was actively debunked, not by an Irish spokesperson as one might have imagined, but by a senior RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] officer,” who also offered a remarkable assessment of the role of car bombs in the “Troubles.”

This is not a military issue, it is a political issue. The major portion of the damage and death caused over the entire period of the troubles did not come from hand guns and rifles, from home-made mortars, or even from Semtex explosive. It was caused by the fertilizer bombs which can be made up by anyone with a schoolboy knowledge of chemistry. Two men with shovels can make up a thousand pound bomb in a Fermanagh cowshed and, if for some reason the operation has to be aborted, they can decommission it again, all within twelve hours. You can’t decommission shovels. It’s minds which have to be decommissioned.

Since there is little likelihood of any of the socio-economic reforms or concessions to self-determination that might lead to the large-scale “decommissioning of minds” (indeed the trends are quite the opposite), the car bomb probably has a brilliant future. The recent car-bombings of critical oil hubs in the Niger Delta and Saudi Arabia preview a global assault on the vulnerable petroleum industry, just as the arrest of a group in Canada in summer 2006 who were stockpiling tons of ammonium nitrate for a doomsday truck bomb is reminder that no country is immune to the contagion. The 50 or so suicide car-bombings in Afghanistan in the first ten months of 2006, moreover, are proof that in madrasas somewhere (probably in neighboring Pakistan) the future mujahedin are chanting: “One, two, three, many Iraqs!” All sides, moreover, now play by Old Testament rules and 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. Buda’s wagon truly has become the hot rod of the apocalypse.

Extracted from Buda’s Wagon. All our books by Mike Davis are 40% off when you buy 2 or more. Activate your discount by clicking here.

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