Eric Schlosser says nuclear threat remains very real

Like many people of my generation (under 40) the Cold War means little to me. I didn’t see Red Dawn until last year and I barely remember studying Russia (or as the ancient textbooks still called it the U.S.S.R.) in grade school. The events of that time have always seemed like a political war of words between former leaders Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev more to do with stagnating economies than possible nuclear annihilation.

As author Eric Schlosser says in his new book Command and Control the threat of nuclear weapons is still very real. Thousands of nuclear warheads are possessed by the United States and Russia aimed and ready to fire. Other countries have gotten in on the game too — India China Pakistan North Korea. We may have moved on to other targets (the never-ending war on terrorism) but those missiles and the possibility they could extinguish our future still exist.

Like Schlosser’s two previous books Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness Command and Control is by turns exciting and horrifying. Though the nuclear arms race seems far removed from the more modern concerns of factory farming and black market economies the motivating factors (corporate greed and hubris) remain the same. Safety as Schlosser shows is a carefully crafted illusion.

That said Command and Control isn’t about the policy-makers and the ideologies that fuel the arms race per se but rather the science and management that created and continues to maintain its existence. The main narrative concerns the “Damascus accident” where a crew of military officers and technicians barely avoided a nuclear holocaust in rural Arkansas. (It may or many not surprise you that most of the U.S.’s nuclear missiles are buried in Arkansas.) On September 18 1980 a missile silo containing a Titan II rocket outfitted with a W-53 the most powerful nuclear warhead the United States has ever created (nine megatons — three times the total destructive force of all the bombs dropped in the Second World War) nearly detonated after a servicing mishap caused the rocket to explode.

As Schlosser reveals it’s not the first time something like that has happened. On August 9 1965 a fire caused by the highly toxic and combustible chemicals used for the weapons tore through a silo killing 53 of 55 crew members. Schlosser details the procedural maintenance of a nuclear missile station where checks and balances are only as effective as the people responsible for executing them. Between the guy scrubbing the floors and the engineer repairing an ignition system anything can go wrong.

Throughout the book Schlosser bounces back in time to recount the creation of the Manhattan Project where a group of world-leading scientists and technicians were tasked with the creation of the atomic bomb. You may know the key players (J. Robert Oppenheimer Harry Truman) and the results (the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) but Schlosser’s account is revealing and thrilling all the same. He brings readers through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the present day.

Unlike other science fiction narratives (monsters aliens) and the details they evoke (skies lit up like neon burned and bleeding bodies) nuclear devastation is real. More than the science and the details what Schlosser recounts most powerfully is how the sheer lunacy and mind-blowing science of designing and building atomic weapons is so utterly sadly human. Mutually assured destruction is still considered the best policy.

Command and Control is armchair history at its best a quick read that could handle even more details than its already hefty 650-plus pages suggest. It might make for some sleepless nights too.

Command And Control: Nuclear Weapons The Damascus Accident And The Illusion Of Safety by Eric Schlosser is published by The Penguin Press 656 pp.