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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 4 August 2017
Fabulously written insight in the military industrial complex and the development of nuclear arms in the USA. Interleaves general development timeline with a detailed description of a severe failure at a launch site.

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.
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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*.
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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!
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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.
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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.
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on 29 December 2017
A fantastic book documenting the history of American nuclear weapons as well as an incredible examination of the 'Damascus Incident', a nuclear accident in 1980 involving a silo-based, nine-megaton equipped Titan II ICBM that it's highly likely you've probably never heard of! Let's all hope that serious lessons have been learned...
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on 8 April 2018
It's a wonder that the US didn't irradiate half of north America (or, indeed, various other parts of the world) during the Cold War and I dread to think what the situation was like in the Soviet Union over the same period. This is a fascinating examination of nuclear weapons safety (or its absence), intertwined with the detailed narrative of a specific incident. There are a few points at which the story flags a little but overall it's a gripping read that sounds more like the stuff of fiction. Hardly likely to be of mainstream interest but I was gripped by it.
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on 14 October 2014
Astonishing insight into nuclear weapons safety. A compelling read that had me fascinated and terrified in equal measure. After reading I can only wonder that we are here at all, instead of having been incinerated in an out-of-control accidental global nuclear conflagration leaving us as a thin layer of radioactive dust on a barren planet.
Actually it was more terrifying, honestly I couldn't put this down, I was so captured and horrified that I had to keep going.
And the threat is still here, it's still here now. Very disturbing indeed. Very disturbing.
Buy it and read it. Do it now.
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on 25 March 2016
I read the reviews for this book and thought I might like it. I was right.

The book mixes the historical timeline with a single historical event, but it does so in a very readable way. Whilst it admits that the story is fairly one-sided (and I hate to think what stories are buried about the nuclear arsenals of other countries) it balances the need to understand why actions were deemed necessary with the understanding why they went wrong, were corrupted by corporate greed or individual ignorance, or were influenced by world events. The historical event is seemingly handled in a very even manner... these are heroes whose roles in the event should be told.

Eric Schlosser has a very readable style, which is invaluable when reading a book which could by dry as dust or as complex as rocket science. If you lived through the Cold War you'll enjoy this narrative of all the things you didn't hear about at the time, or maybe didn't want to hear about at the time!
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on 6 June 2016
This is a thoroughly engaging history of how we (just) avoided the nuclear warehouses leading to nuclear war. The author interweaves the history with the story of an accident at a missile silo, which brings it down from a strategic to personal level. He provides quite a lot of detail on Strategic Air Command, but as the level of deterrence shifted to nuclear submarines, he loses the detail. He provides illumination on some of the more bizarre nuclear weapons ( the Genie nuclear anti aircraft missile, believe it or not) and on the level of safety they did or didn't have. A very interesting read
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