Is it possible to be nostalgic about the threat of global thermonuclear war? I found myself asking that rather odd question recently as I read Command and Control by Eric Schlosser. From the cover art to the alphabet soup of cold war acronyms (NORAD, SIOP, SAC, and who could forget MAD) I found Schlosser’s tome triggering memories that were an odd mix of fondness coupled with dread: classmates and adults freaking out over the TV movie The Day After, Sting’s concern about the Russians fondness for their children, basking in the electronic glow of irradiated cities while playing Missile Command at the video arcade.
As I kept reading, however, my feelings of nostalgia soon gave way to an amazement at how little I knew about the most destructive weapons ever created and the protocols, or lack thereof, in place to ensure that they only go off when they are supposed to. While Command and Control definitely contains a lot of fascinating Cold War history and strategy, its main focus is on how the U.S. government has attempted to safely maintain the many nuclear weapons on our soil and throughout the world since their creation in 1945. When you consider that just one ‘accident’ could wipe out a city, it gives you pause. Let’s just say that the facts are not conducive to worry-free days and restful sleep.
To increase the tension, Schlosser intertwines his general history of the safety of nuclear weapons with the story of a specific incident: the ominous sounding ‘Damascus Accident.’ On September 18th, 1980, during a routine maintenance check of a Titan II missile silo in rural Arkansas, a seemingly mundane thing happened: a socket from a socket wrench came loose. Unfortunately this socket careened off the missile and created a hole that began spewing out rocket fuel. The thought of the unfortunate maintenance worker who dropped the socket says it all: ‘Oh man, this is not good.’ The author then provides a minute by minute tension-filled account of events that is layered throughout the book. It is a clever writing device that not only keeps you reading, but puts a human face to the policy makers’ use of terms such as ‘acceptable risk.’
Another hallmark of this work is the author’s balanced approach to the topic. It would have been easy, given the subject matter, to depict many of the historical characters as two-dimensional heroes or villains. Instead the author presents fully fleshed out individuals with complex motivations. Good examples of this are the many scientists and administrators who developed the atomic bomb during World War II. As a scientific achievement, the creation of the atom bomb was truly amazing and Schlosser doesn’t shy away from that fact. You begin to see the project through the scientists’ eyes as they puzzle and experiment to bring a seemingly impossible thing, the splitting of the atom, to life. Conversely, you also share their horror when they realize the sheer destructive power of their achievement and what it means for the world.
Ultimately, this book is an exploration of a series of questions that should be easy to answer: What is the strategic purpose of possessing nuclear weapons? Are the ones we posses safe? Where are they located? Who actually controls them and what are their targets? Before reading this fascinating work, I would have assumed it was my ignorance and default generational apathy that led me to be clueless. Now I find it hard to disagree with the conclusion of the author that:
Secrecy is essential to the command and control of nuclear weapons. Their technology is the opposite of open-source software. The latest warhead designs can’t be freely shared on the Internet, improved through anonymous collaboration, and productively used without legal constraints. In the years since Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the design specifications of American nuclear weapons have been “born secret.” They are not classified by government officials; they’re classified as soon as they exist. And intense secrecy has long surrounded the proposed uses and deployments of nuclear weapons. It is intended to keep valuable information away from America’s enemies. But an absence of public scrutiny has often made nuclear weapons more dangerous and more likely to cause a disaster.