Command and Control Paperback – 3 Jul 2014
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So damnably readable. It drives the vision of a world trembling on the edge of a fatal precipice deep into your mind ... a piece of work of the deepest import, with the multilayered density of an ambitiously conceived novel (John Lloyd Financial Times)
Do you really want to read about the thermonuclear warheads that are still aimed at the city where you live? Do you really need to know about the appalling security issues that have dogged nuclear weapons in the 70 years since their invention? Yes, you do. In Schlosser's hands it is a reading treat ... he's a natural genius (Jonathan Franzen Guardian, Books of the Year)
Part techno-thriller, part careful historical investigation ... beautifully written and impressively researched (Gerard DeGroot Daily Telegraph)
Brilliant, gripping, chilling (Steven Shapin London Review of Books)
The author of Fast Food Nation does for the American nuclear industry what he did for industrial food production (Economist, Books of the Year)
Eric Schlosser detonates a truth bomb in Command and Control (Vanity Fair)
Deeply reported, deeply frightening . . . a techno-thriller of the first order (Los Angeles Times)
An excellent journalistic investigation of the efforts made since the first atomic bomb was exploded, outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, to put some kind of harness on nuclear weaponry. By a miracle of information management, Schlosser has synthesized a huge archive of material, including government reports, scientific papers, and a substantial historical and polemical literature on nukes, and transformed it into a crisp narrative covering more than fifty years of scientific and political change. And he has interwoven that narrative with a hair-raising, minute-by-minute account of an accident at a Titan II missile silo in Arkansas, in 1980, which he renders in the manner of a techno-thriller . . . Command and Control is how nonfiction should be written (Louis Menand The New Yorker)
A devastatingly lucid and detailed new history of nuclear weapons in the U.S. . . . fascinating (Lev Grossman Time)
Command and Control ranks among the most nightmarish books written in recent years; and in that crowded company it bids fair to stand at the summit. It is the more horrific for being so incontrovertibly right and so damnably readable. Page after relentless page, it drives the vision of a world trembling on the edge of a fatal precipice deep into your reluctant mind . . . a work with the multilayered density of an ambitiously conceived novel . . . Schlosser has done what journalism does at its best when at full stretch: he has spent time - years - researching, interviewing, understanding and reflecting to give us a piece of work of the deepest import (Financial Times)
About the Author
Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness, as well as the co-author of a children's book, Chew on This. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, the Nation, and Vanity Fair, and he was an executive producer on the films Fast Food Nation and There Will Be Blood and a co-producer of the documentary Food Inc.
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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*.
The author has managed to take what could be a very dry and technical subject and make it a gripping read.
Highly recommended read for anyone who has an interest in US military development, the dangers surrounding the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the increased chance of an accidental detonation.
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!