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 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.
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 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 30 January 2014
Well written, thoroughly researched and authoritative.
At places there's a little too much detail (time to practice your speed reading).
Overall though the book describes a mixture of heroism and the scariest stuff I've ever read.
on 27 July 2014
Oh my God !! This is an astounding and outstanding piece of work. Eric Schlosser's book is a frightening study of incompetence, negligence and plain, simple stupidity. How on earth the United States government allowed the maintenance of its nuclear defence to get so precarious is unbelievable. I'm stunned we're all still here to find out !!
Schlosser's work is a combination of narrative and analytical history of the United States nuclear weapons programme from 1945, with a concurrent description of a serious incident that occurred in Arkansas during the late summer of 1980. The author describes how the US nuclear plan developed from the initial 'Trinity' detonation in 1945 to the introduction of the multiple war-headed 'Peacemaker' missiles at the end of the 1980s. After the attack on Japan, the United States discovered just how difficult it was to maintain a stockpile of nuclear arms and maintain them in a state of readiness for quick use. Upon asking his commanders how many weapons were available for immediate use during the 1948 Berlin Crisis, President Truman was told bluntly 'None': they simply hadn't been built by the scientists at Los Alamos !!
It gets worse. With the development of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) by General Curtis LeMay during the subsequent two decades, arguments and endless debates arose as to who maintained control of the weapons and determined their ultimate usage in any particular circumstance. President Eisenhower believed it should be the military, Defence Secretary Robert McNamara was adamant it remain under civilian control. In conjunction with this there was to be virtually no co-ordination between the Army, Navy and Air Force in how best to use these weapons in the advent of a new world war. Some Soviet targets were to be hit at the same time, some not at all. Inter-service rivalry was clearly operating at an unbelievable level and hampering the development of a clear strategy.
The nuclear strategy of the United States is also analysed... and heavily criticised. As mentioned there was precious little inter-service co-operation in the event of maximising damage upon the Soviets in the event of a confrontation. Eisenhower's idea of 'Massive Retaliation' against any Soviet aggression soon became impractical and a wider range of nuclear options soon developed involving limited war and further led to the development of 'tactical' nuclear weapons. Situations changed, but the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) never did and it highlighted how vulnerable the US was to the possibility of complete political and military decapitation during a nuclear war. Eventually, the penny dropped and by the time of Reagan's election, the thinkers and strategists were discovering one key aspect of nuclear war: it's un-winnable !! The terrifying descriptions of 'attacks' which turned out to be simple computer faults is unbelievable. Nuclear war was only just avoided on so many occasions... chilling !!
Equally chilling is the amount of accidents that occurred involving nuclear weapons over the years. Some bombs were dropped from air planes, others burned, some melted and a select few blew up !! How the Hell there was not a thermonuclear detonation on the continental United States at some point over time is a complete mystery. There was little command and even less control. Schlosser's detailed narrative of the disaster in Arkansas in September 1980 epitomises the lack of maintenance, training, tolerance and even interest in maintaining the condition of bombs and missiles in storage. Too many accidents were blamed on front line personnel when the generals were the real culprits. This was to be an overhang of the rigid command structure introduced by General LeMay himself.
Schlosser dedicates pages to other serious concerns such as weapons safety, security at US bases in Europe (there wasn't any !!) as well as the surprising amount of drug abuse amongst the staff employed to maintain and guard the bombs and missiles.
This is a very scary, sobering and frightening publication. Very easy to read however and a must for all Cold War scholars.
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 3 March 2016
A disturbing book. Schlosser has carried out an impressive amount of research into the development of nuclear weapons, although things inevitably get sketchier the closer he gets to the present day, for security and confidentiality reasons. In fact at times the book is a little weighed down by the amount of detailed technical information he wishes to convey, and a little light editing would have helped. Obviously we need to know a certain amount about the technology and procedures in order to understand what is happening, but I'm pretty sure I don't need to know the colour of the paint on the silo walls or what kind of car the officers were driving.
Still, there's a ton of fascinating information, not only on the specific accident Schlosser decides to feature, but also in terms of historical and political context. It's a story of safety compromised at every turn due to paranoia, pride and short-sightedness, but its also about the impossibility of 100% safety, and how the safest way to deal with nuclear weapons is not to have them in the first place.
At times it was a bit of a slog and became a little dry, and Schlosser tries to up the human interest quotient by dropping in biographical details about the military personnel, although this often just comes out as "He later died of his injuries. He'd just got married and was expecting a baby in the spring". The thing that did stick with me about the guys who had to go in and deal with all the dozens of accidents and mishaps described in the book is how young they were: almost all of them still in their 20s.
on 21 February 2016
This is an essential read for all citizens who want to know the inns and outs of nuclear weapons. There are 3 broad themes
1) Accidents will happen - and the more complex the system the more chance of human error. A retired Chief of Staff from the Pentagon admits that the US alone were very lucky to escape a major nuclear incident caused by a mistake. Other reviewers cite examples.
2) Secrecy and lies - because these weapons are the seen as the top of the military food chain they are surrounded by secrecy so dense that a team of dedicated scientists working on making the transportation and handling of weapons did not know about a detailed report into hundreds of nuclear weapon incidents - many minor - but a significant number potentially catastrophic. The lies follow every major incident. A B52 crashed over the coast of Spain. USAF denied any nuclear weapons on board. Yet within days the area was being combed by men in anti-radiation suits searching for missing A bombs. A wing-borne nuclear missile was involved in a serious fire at Lakenheath, UK. The people of the UK were not informed.
3) Although things are a lot better between superpowers following Gorbachov glasnost there are still a great many weapons in the world. Pakistan has them and also has a significant extremist presence. Tension ebbs and flows between India (another with weapons) and Pakistan. Israel are reported to have them. Given how lucky the world has been since 1945 how long will that luck last?
This book is essential reading for anyone wishing to really understand where we have reached. Well researched - it is a bit too dense and could be
structured in a slightly more coherent way hence the loss of a star. It leaves us thinking what the hell are we going to do? We cannot uninvent them. We live in an era where people are willing to die for their cause and someone somewhere will eventually get their hands on one or more weapons.
on 30 November 2015
I grew up with the Cuban missile crisis and its one of my earliest memories of Big State confrontation. Until that point I did not know much about the cold war although I had been driven through East Germany just before it happened, the standout thing I remember was how poor the state of repair of buildings was, compared to the West German state. A siege/war economy which the Eastern block adopted eventually bankrupted their states and led to the Reagan truce with Gorbachev. The expenditure involved in keeping up with the US through the period in which this book is set is highlighted by the USSR resorting to hoaxes to convince the paranoid SAC that they had more bomber and missiles that they actually had. The so-called bomber and missile gap that fuelled the military industrial conspiracy theories of the time.
Using a narrative style it puts in perspective the events of development of weapons of mass destruction, the controls needed to keep the deterrent active and yet safe and the relative safety of missile use compared to the mass bomber plans which evolved from the WW2. Its coupled with an interlinked narrative concerning a liquid fuelled rocket accident, which shows how little true evolution took place in missile propulsion from Hitlers rocket man, Werner von Braun, until stable solid fuel devises were introduced. The incorrect placement of a decimal point turned a 1.5 million ton TNT blast into a yield of 15 million tons which shook the earth mantle on detonation.
Despite the sometimes sloppy and complacent handling of such lethal weaponry, it is surprising that there was no significant accident and no nuclear explosion, with planes carrying bombs inevitably crashing, fire and burnout, with explosions and later Polaris being inaccurate, no GPS to guide trajectory or route it is amazing that we can look back and see that we may have survived in spite of rather than because of the bomb.
The actor Jimmy Stewart unlike many of his Hollywood contemporaries was a seasoned WW2 bomber pilot, regarded as lucky, who later became a deputy director of The Strategic Air Command which had independent (non political) control of nuclear weaponry. As I leafed through this book in one of the best bookshops I have ever been into, in Haight Ashbury San Francisco, it was this snippet which led me to buy it later and see what became of Le May and McNamara, two of the most powerful men in recent history who are now only misty memories in the political landscape.