Review: Car Bombs, Coups and Civil Wars

Three topical, unusual books on military affairs

Uncategorized October 1, 2013 0

Review: Car Bombs, Coups and Civil Wars Three topical, unusual books on military affairs by TOM HART Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the...

Review: Car Bombs, Coups and Civil Wars

Three topical, unusual books on military affairs


Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (2007) by Mike Davis

Accounts of weapons tend to be dry and technical — or spend too much time focusing on how one weapon’s technical jargon compares when stacked up to some other weapon. Mike Davis attempts something different: a social history of the car bomb.

His story stretches from an attack on Wall Street in 1920 by an anarchist named Mario Buda, to the streets of Belfast and finally Baghdad. Admittedly, Buda’s weapon of choice was a horse-drawn carriage and not a car, though the mode of transport, Davis contends, is only one aspect in what makes the car bomb such a fearful weapon.

The blast killed 38 people — slices of damage are still visible today on nearby buildings. When shaken bankers picked themselves up amongst the shattered glass, the world had changed. A new, indiscriminate weapon that was mobile and camouflaged as a civilian vehicle had arrived.

Davis, whose previous histories include Late Victorian Holocausts and a bleak guide to Los Angeles, City of Quartz, gives a social history for a weapon that is often neglected, though popular. Cheap and symbolic of the automotive age, the car bomb started as a terrorist’s weapons of choice before morphing from the Algerian back streets and the OAS (Organisation de l’Armée Secrète), a secret organisation of dissident French military officers, into a deadly weapon for Beirut’s various militia groups during Lebanon’s destructive civil war.

Known as the ‘poor man’s air force,’ the car bomb became a by-word for terror. Davis teases out the changes in tactics and strategy that guided the car bomb’s development. The Provisional Irish Republican Army, for example, soon realised that the bomb’s true power lay in its ability to enforce almost bloodless (given sufficient warning) economic damage on the United Kingdom’s financial service industry.

A different use, where intimidation reigned supreme, was at the height of the insurgency in Iraq. Although written six years ago, the car bomb continues to be used to terrible effect in Iraq, and has jumped the border to Syria.

Coup d’ État: A Practical Handbook (1968) by Edward Luttwak

Luttwak’s book is a must-have for anybody with a desire to seize control of a country.

Indeed, the rumour goes that more than a few junior army officers under various regimes have had a lot to explain when found in possession of the Practical Handbook. Talk about awkward.

It’s important to note that an early chapter explains the differences between a coup, a pronunciamiento and a putsch. A coup is a simply a plot by a small but important part of the state — usually military officers against the head of government. A pronunciamiento is a movement of officers within the military who make a public declaration against a government, and then wait and see if the rest of the military will follow. Last, but not least, a putsch is taken as an attempt by a unit in the military and its legitimate leadership to take power.

The book is, as promised, very practical and ranges from how to sound out fellow officers, to the optimal time and order to capture key government buildings.

Perhaps the greatest weakness, as it was published in the mid-1960s, is that the book cannot account for changes in media and communications. The classic coup move, capture the radio station and make a broadcast, is somewhat undermined in the Twitter age.

This being said, it didn’t stop Egypt’s generals this year, and classic coup techniques can still shine through. There are still ways to pull the plug on the Internet. A new edition with updated infrastructure to could prove invaluable to future conspirators — a Steal This Book for a would-be junta.

Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing (2006) by Christopher Cramer

Civil wars are generally thought of as an absolute catastrophe. Here’s an alternative take that reminds us that civil wars are not as foolish as some people suppose.

With a title taken from a Sicilian forced to fight on Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War, Cramer argues that a civil war might be a useful way to deal with emotions that cannot be reconciled during a more peaceful period.

He points to innovation during various civil wars, from government bonds to more efficient centralized government. Whereas civil wars — whether the American Civil War or the English Civil War — are characterised as terrible moments in history which opened nations up to greater development and democracy, civil wars in less developed countries are characterised as a catastrophe, a Hobbesian race to the bottom where conditions only get worse and worse.

Outbursts in civil strife from Rwanda to Mozambique are not, Cramer contests, entirely irrational. He unpicks the political economy behind civil war, and provides the reasons why factions initiate civil wars. Strategic interests, both economic and existential, can often underpin what looks inexplicable to an outside observer.

Given the current civil war in Syria, and other continuing conflicts across the world, Cramer provides an alternative, less pessimistic take on civil war. It doesn’t offer comfort — civil wars are still terrible and traumatic events — but it does encourage a more rational approach toward these conflicts.

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