on 22 September 2013
The publication of Command and Control was a long time coming - 9 years since Schlosser's last work, Reefer Madness: ... and Other Tales from the American Underground. The weighty volume I hold here (the notes and bibliography alone total 122 pages) make it as blatant as a mushroom cloud that he wasn't idling.
Like Don DeLillo's Underworld, C&C's narrative weaves multiple points of view and real-life testimonies together into a people's history of the Cold War. Unlike Underworld, C&C is not a work of fiction. That point might need repeating. What happens in fiction must always be plausible, true to an ordered sequence of events. What happens in life is plausible only because it happens. How many people would believe a novel in which any of the following happened?
'The BMEWS [radar complex] indicated that the Soviets had launched an all-out missile attack against North America. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were on the phone, awaiting confirmation. The United States had only minutes to respond. [...] A subsequent investigation found the cause of the computer glitch. The BMEWS site at Thule had mistakenly identified the moon, slowly rising over Norway, as dozens of long-range missiles launched from Siberia.'
'The Mark 6 was a large weapon, about eleven feet long and five feet in diameter, and as Kulka tried to peek above it, he inadvertently grabbed grabbed the manual bomb release for support. The Mark 6 suddenly dropped onto the bomb bay doors, and Kulka fell on top of it. A moment later, the eight-thousand-pound bomb broke through the doors. Kulka slid off it, got hold of something in the open bomb bay, and held on tight. [...] Neither the pilot nor the co-pilot realised the bomb was gone until it hit the ground and exploded.'
'Russian Nuclear forces went on full alert. President Boris Yeltsin turned on his "football", retrieved his launch codes, and prepared to retaliate. After a few tense minutes, the warning was declared a false alarm. The weather rocket had been launched to study the aurora borealis, and Norway had informed Russia of its trajectory weeks in advance.'
When Schlosser identifies the theme of his book as 'human fallibility', you feel it may go down in history as one of the most chilling understatements of the early 21st century. It's a worthy reminder of the danger of nuclear weapons, especially for a generation that wasn't alive when the Berlin Wall fell.
One of Schlosser's strengths as a writer is his refusal to accept stereotypes, received wisdom. One of his enduring fascinations is just how improbable human beings are. Contradictions abound and multiply like bacteria. President Eisenhower, the former World War 2 general who spent a total of 40 years in the US army, cut its budget by more than one fifth of its funding and one quarter of its troops. The pacifist Bertrand Russell fervently believed the US should annihilate Russia with a pre-emptive strike before it could develop its own nuclear weapons. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, as President Kennedy worried how best to deal Russian missiles deployed only miles away from the US mainland, Russell sent him a telegram reading as follows: 'Your action desperate. Threat to human survival. No conceivable justification. Civilised man condemns it [...] End this madness.'
There's more. The first atomic bomb wasn't completed in a top-secret installation, or even in a laboratory: it was finished in the master bedroom of a ranch house, with the windows sealed with masking tape and a car running metres away outside. Many of the scientists who helped the US build the first atomic bomb weren't psychopathic villains but refugees from Nazi Germany, convinced, with excellent reasons, that Adolf Hitler would build one first. The amount of uranium-235 that turned to pure energy and killed 80,000 people in Hiroshima weighed less than a dollar bill. A good fact or a true story is worth pages of exposition; Schlosser organises his wealth of both with admirable concision and readability.
I have one complaint, though, in that I would have preferred a more strictly chronological approach to the material. If a summary of Bill Clinton's time as governor of Arkansas is essential to your narrative, it's best put in the section concerning a nuclear-near miss in that state, not just before the Korean War is about to start. The focus, at thankfully rare times, blurs as a result.
That aside, this is a strong contender for non-fiction work of the year. Schlosser's former teacher, the unequalled John McPhee (and author of The Curve of Binding Energy), should be proud.
on 31 March 2016
I was expecting to enjoy this more than I did. There's a lot of interesting material presented in here, but the way it's presented I think is not ideal. There is the main "story" of one specific Titan II accident in Arkansas which is weaved through the entire book, interspersed with smaller anecdotes of other nuclear accidents AND a fairly exhaustive history of US nuclear weapons policy and politics. The result to my mind is a book that is disjointed and at times a bit of a slog. There are so many names and characters to remember from the main Arkansas story, that each time I was taken away from it for 20 or 30 pages to explore some bit of policy history from a different era, when I came back to the story I couldn't remember who was who or where they were (which is critical because there are literally dozens of people in this story who move around from place to place over the course of the emergency).
At the same time the parallel history about weapons policy and protocol - which branch of the executive or military had control of the weapons, who could issue the launch order, how those orders were ratified, what safety measures were in place around protocol, what safety devices were put on the weapons - the exhaustive and detailed history of all these things, and the political back-and-forth that went around it, is honestly pretty overwhelming and dull at times.
I learned quite a bit about the ancient history of command and control of US nuclear weapons but there's virtually nothing at all about the past 25 years and so the whole thing feels like an interesting but slightly irrelevant historical document, even though weapons proliferation and the threat of these weapons being used by non-state actors is greater than ever before.
on 23 February 2014
I was born in 1958, so I guess I'm a Cold War baby. I can't say I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, but as a teenager, and a young adult I was aware that nuclear oblivion was no more than the push of a button away. I took a history degree, and grew into adulthood as a supporter of nuclear deterrence, I liked the idea that war was so terrible that nobody dared risk starting one, even if peace came at the price of fear and paranoia I thought this was better than the mass slaughter of two world wars. I considered individuals and groups who called for nuclear disarmament to be idealistic, and naïve. Furthermore I never gave a thought to the safety, security, and reliability of the bombs which kept the peace. A hydrogen bomb going off by accident, being pinched by terrorists , or being detonated as a result of a software glitch never occurred to me. Atom bombs were safe, they were fail safe, everybody knew that.
Bloody Hell! was I wrong!!
If Mr Schlosser's book had appeared in 1980 I don't know what it's effect on public opinion would have been, but I am sure that it would have persuaded many people that the gravest risk of nuclear oblivion did not come from superpower rivalry, but from an accident resulting in the detonation of a bomb, or some panic stricken service man launching his nuclear weapons as a consequence of receiving false information. This is the gist of Command and Control, atomic weapons are not safe, the command and control mechanisms which determine their use are not infallible, and this fine book provides dozens of instances where the danger of a nuclear detonation happening was seconds away, and in almost every instance it was a combination of good luck, skill, heroism, and divine intervention that prevented a catastrophe.
This is an excellent book, and I would recommend it to anyone. It handles the big picture of international power politics, and the details of the operation and maintenance of nuclear arsenals against that backdrop without becoming confused or mired down in too much technical detail. Mr Schlosser has done a great deal of research ,and leg work, as the huge list of notes, and long bibliography it contains attest. He handles the scientific, and technical details easily and makes them comprehensible to the lay reader. And he never forgets that this is a human story, with its heroes and villains, thankfully mostly heroes, such as men willing climb into the cockpit of burning bombers loaded with live nukes, or men risking their careers to highlight failings in the design, or security of nuclear weapons.
It's hard to put this book aside without the uneasy feeling that we survived the Cold War more by luck than good judgement.
Lastly the short final chapter which brings the story up to date is truly scary, the risk of nuclear Armageddon between the USA and Russia now seems highly unlikely, but the risk of nuclear weapons being used is increasing as more countries covet them. The world seems less safe than it did twenty years ago, The Middle East, Asia, and the former Soviet Union all offer potential flash points for open war. Many of the nations in these regions have the bomb, or are hellbent on getting one. It's a frightening conclusion to a worrying story. Nuclear weapons still pose the gravest and most immediate danger to human civilisation, and they aren't going to go away any time soon.
In all walks of life crises occur, the military ones cause extra concern because they have the potential to do immense damage. With the advent of the atomic weapon such crises have, understandably, caused increasing concern. That accidents, near accidents and errors have occurred has beeen known for many years. Flocks of geese, the moon, misreading signals all these and many more have been documented.
Fail safe systems are now, contrary to what critics say, extremely rigorous and designed so as to override human error.
Eric Schlosser has written a very absorbing and well researched book about military nuclear mishaps. It reads like a novel telling the story of some of the 32 official 'broken arrows' thathave taken place since 1950. That is, incidents where nuclear weapons have been stolen, lost or unintentionally fired. Some 6,he says have actually been lost! The author relates a number of other serious incidents that have never been recorded. He argues, not altogether convincingly, that these could have been avoided if lessons had been learned from earlier incidents.
Some of his cases are hair raising, for instance the 1961 incident when a B 52 bomber carrying two thermonuclear bombs each 200 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb had to eject the bombs by parachute because of a serious fuel leak. Three of the 4 safeguards failed. If the fourth had failed much of the NE of the USA would have been devastated.
Schlosser says we need a nuclear free world. I disagree. In any case you cannot disinvent the nuclear weapon. We certainly ought to reduce nuclear arsenals. Despite reductions in the past 20 years they still represent massive overkill. He appears to favour more missile defence systems. Again I disagree. These are prohibitively expensive and can easily be swamped.
Where I do share his concern is regarding the possession of nuclear weapons by states such as Pakistan, countries that is that are politically unstable, and where terrorists could seize these weapons and use them to blackmail others. At the moment perhaps a little fanciful, I fear not 20 years from now.
Preventing proliferation is a very, very difficult task. We avoid asking the key question, namely, why is it permissible for the US, Russia, GB, Israel, France and others to have these terrible weapons but not Iran and N Korea? I know of nothing in International Law that prevents such proliferation.
A fascinating and important book that deserves widespread attention.
on 20 March 2014
A mix of story of the explosion of nuclear missile silo and a history of the command and control of nuclear weapons and some amazing insite into accidents and near misses (and there have been so many). The book was a little dry at times but very interesting and i could not put it down.
on 27 December 2014
Eric Schlosser has written a book which should be read by everybody. He avoids the twin traps of falling into anti-nuclear polemicism or of writing military techno porn and the resulting impeccable balance and avoidance of sharpening axes magnifies the books impact. The book is not a history of nuclear weapons development, not a history of nuclear strategy nor of the political issues attached to nuclear weapons although clearly the book does provide much back ground on these comments. The book is primarily a book about the safety of nuclear weapons, the command and control system for US nuclear weapons and a detailed narrative of the disaster which destroyed a Titan II missile at site 374-7 near Damascus, Arkansas in 1980.
The book alternates between the tragedy at site 374-7 and a more or less chronological history of US nuclear weapons safety and command and control. The author has clearly done a huge amount of research both into the specifics of what happened at site 374-7 and the US nuclear weapons program, including extensive interviews with key individuals as well as researching archives, papers, reports and secondary sources. If this is a story with numerous heroes, particularly the men who struggled valiantly to avoid a disaster at site 374-7 and who maintained and stood ready to launch nuclear weapons it is perhaps surprisingly a story with few villains. Curtis LeMay is still a figure of derision and hate to many yet the picture which emerges in Schlosser's book is more nuanced and not unsympathetic. He appears as a tough and uncompromising commander yet one who was certainly no war monger and who had a real sense of care towards his men and who was in many ways a progressive character. And his personal courage is undeniable, Schlosser allows readers to draw their own conclusions after commenting on a man who had flown numerous bombing missions over Germany being assailed by cries of "sieg heil" in 1968. The book examines the nuclear policies of several Presidents including Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter and Reagan as well as men like McNamara. In each case whilst the flaws are recognised the author is far from unsympathetic and presents a balanced picture. And clearly the book tells the stories of many technical, military and scientific specialists. The overwhelming impression is one of decent men struggling to manage a cold war confrontation and walking a tight rope between nuclear armageddon and surrender to Soviet diplomatic/military manouevring.
The book recounts numerous nuclear accidents, the events at site 374-7 are told in great detail whereas other incidents are summarised. The sheer number of these accidents is really rather terrifying. The book highlights the beaurocratic inertia and in-fighting which hampered efforts to improve the safety of nuclear weapons yet also at the end recognises that no accidental or unintended detonation of a US nuclear war head ever took place despite numerous major incidents and a multitude of vulnerabilities.
Those looking for a hatchet job on the US military and policy will be very disappointed. Equally those looking for a celebration of nuclear deterrence will be equally disappointed. Those looking for a very balanced, non-sensationalist and well researched examination of nuclear weapons safety will find this to be a truly outstanding work. The book is very well written and never feels laboured or dry. Very highly recommended, 5*.
on 31 December 2013
Everyone with an interest in risk management should read this book. I never knew there had been so many disasters involving nuclear weapons - yet in nearly 70 years, not one has actually gone off by accident. However, at times it has been far too close for comfort. Eric Schlosser ties everything together with a running story about a missile silo explosion. One thing that comes over strongly is the sheer ordinariness of these terrible devices; the devastation they can cause is out of any proportion to their size or assembly complexity, or the people who look after them. Not a good omen for the future, given the nations desperately trying to acquire this capability or struggling to control the weapons they have.
on 26 October 2014
Command and Control by Eric Schlosser. Published by Penguin Books
I think this book qualifies as the best thriller I have ever read - and it's all true!
The author takes the story of the 1980 accident in the Missile Launch Complex 374-7 in Arkansas. Around that story he weaves an enormous amount of information about the US Air Force Missile Command, its missiles and its command and control structures.
Launch Complex 374-7 was a Titan missile launch silo. The Titan was, by the time of the accident, the only liquid fuel rocket left on the inventory. The USAF leadership were reluctant to give them up, in spite of their known problems. Why? Because the Titans carried a nine megaton warhead - the heaviest the US possessed. It had a range of 6,000 miles.
On 18 September 1980 a technician, working partway up the rocket in its silo, dropped a wrench. The wrench bounced and hit the side of the rocket damaging the fuel tank and causing a leak. What happened as a result of that leak is the story that runs like a thread through the book.
But that story isn't the only thing in the book. At various points in the story, Eric Schlosser breaks off to write about the USAF Missile Command, its history and its structures. As the book proceeds it becomes clear that the accident wasn't a one off. Quite to the contrary, it fits seamlessly into a history of accidents and near disasters that bedevilled the USAF's nuclear armed forces.
Growing up as a teenager in the 1960s, like many other people I worried about the possibility of something accidentally triggering a nuclear war. When President Kennedy was shot I was at a boarding school in East Anglia, in the UK. All that night we could hear bombers from the nearby US air bases taking off, circling and landing. Reading this book makes me feel my fears were not overblown. Things were at least as bad as I feared, if not worse!
This book should be read not just by ordinary people, but by politicians and aspiring politicians. It's easy to brandish the war rhetoric when you don't know what's involved. Less so when you have some idea of the history of such things.
The book is over 600 pages long, and seems like a pretty comprehensive account of the problems with having nuclear weapons ready to go at a moment's notice. What it doesn't cover is accidents and near disasters that happened while manufacturing the things. Judging from the occasional stories I read in the press about the cleaning up of old nuclear weapons manufacturing sites, they don't seem to have been all that safe either. Perhaps there's material for another book there!
on 29 November 2013
This book had received rave reviews and I was not disappointed. It provides a thoroughly evidence based account of the hazards, accidents and disasters associated with nuclear weapons. It confirmed my worst fears about the existence of these weapons and the dangers associated with maintaining and managing them.
It is very clearly written and is a compulsive read, even if the subject matter is very disturbing. Reading it increased my resolve to work to abolish these weapons from all countries.
on 4 October 2015
This is a long and detailed book, with almost 100 pages of notes on source material and an extensive bibliography and index. It is well written but heavy going at times because of the complexity and detail. It is a book that could perhaps only have been written recently given the declassification of certain documents. It seems few stones (if any) were left unturned in its writing. The book works on several levels. It describes in great detail the historical development of nuclear devices from their invention to the present day. It describes how they have been controlled (or not) by the USA, and what has happened to some of them on the way. There is a lot in the book about how organisations work (or do not work), and about how resourceful people can be, and what happens to them when they are. There is also much about B-52 bombers and other delivery mechanisms and what happens when they do not work as they should. It is a scary book and yet there is hope. Thankfully.