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Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety Paperback – August 26, 2014
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Nuclear bombs must be handled with the proper care, yet that is not always the case. Mentioning harrowing mishaps in the history of the American atomic arsenal, Schlosser singles out one for detailed dramatization, the explosion in 1980 of a Titan II missile. Some airmen were killed and injured, but since the warhead didn’t detonate, the safety system appeared to have worked. Color Schlosser skeptical, for, as he recounts this accident, which began with a mundane incident—a dropped tool that punctured the missile—he delves into nuclear weapon designs. Those are influenced by the requirement that the bomb must always detonate when desired and never when not. Citing experts in the technology of nuclear weaponry who have pondered the “never” part of the requirement, Schlosser highlights their worry about an accidental nuclear explosion. Underscored by cases of dropped, burned, and lost bombs, the problem of designing a safe but reliable bomb persists (see also The Bomb, 2009, by weapons engineer Stephen Younger). Well researched, reported, and written, this contribution to the nuclear-weapons literature demonstrates the versatility of Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation (2001). --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Los Angeles Times
“Deeply reported, deeply frightening… a techno-thriller of the first order.”
The New Yorker
“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)
“A devastatingly lucid and detailed new history of nuclear weapons in the U.S. … fascinating.” (Lev Grossman)
“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.”
“The strength of Schlosser's writing derives from his ability to carry a wealth of startling detail (did you know that security at Titan II missile bases was so lapse you could break into one with just a credit card?) on a confident narrative path.”
San Francisco Chronicle
"Perilous and gripping… Schlosser skillfully weaves together an engrossing account of both the science and the politics of nuclear weapons safety… The story of the missile silo accident unfolds with the pacing, thrill and techno details of an episode of 24."
New York Times Book Review:
“Disquieting but riveting… fascinating… Schlosser’s readers (and he deserves a great many) will be struck by how frequently the people he cites attribute the absence of accidental explosions and nuclear war to divine intervention or sheer luck rather than to human wisdom and skill. Whatever was responsible, we will clearly need many more of it in the years to come.”
“Easily the most unsettling work of nonfiction I've ever read, Schlosser's six-year investigation of America's ‘broken arrows’ (nuclear weapons mishaps) is by and large historical—this stuff is top secret, after all—but the book is beyond relevant. It's critical reading in a nation with thousands of nukes still on hair-trigger alert... Command and Control reads like a character-driven thriller as Schlosser draws on his deep reporting, extensive interviews, and documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act to demonstrate how human error, computer glitches, dilution of authority, poor communications, occasional incompetence, and the routine hoarding of crucial information have nearly brought about our worst nightmare on numerous occasions.”
“Eric Schlosser detonates a truth bomb in Command and Control, a powerful expose about America’s nuclear weapons.”
Publishers Weekly (starred):
"Nail-biting... thrilling... Mixing expert commentary with hair-raising details of a variety of mishaps, [Eric Schlosser] makes the convincing case that our best control systems are no match for human error, bad luck, and ever-increasing technological complexity."
Kirkus Reviews (starred):
"Vivid and unsettling... An exhaustive, unnerving examination of the illusory safety of atomic arms."
Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative; Co-Chair, Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future; Director, the Center on Congress at Indiana University:
“The lesson of this powerful and disturbing book is that the world’s nuclear arsenals are not as safe as they should be. We should take no comfort in our skill and good fortune in preventing a nuclear catastrophe, but urgently extend our maximum effort to assure that a nuclear weapon does not go off by accident, mistake, or miscalculation.”
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To put to rest any concerns I had I contacted Al Childers after learning he had spoken to Mr. Schlosser. I have always had the highest regard for Al and his opinions; hence I participated in the project. After leaving Little Rock AFB we both were transferred to Vandenberg AFB and worked in the same building.
I appreciate the integrity of Eric Schlosser who did what any good writer, or investigator, should do. He collected the facts and reported them, how refreshing is that in this era where so many run off and write, or report, half cocked. This entire book was researched in more detail than I ever imagined. Although I was there that night Mr. Schlosser reported things I didn't know simply because I didn't have the right or need.
I have read several reviews in which the writers refer to the incident at Searcy, AR as being more serious. I would like to take this opportunity to simply say that while the loss of life is never to be taken lightly, the circumstances between these two accidents were as different as night and day. Sometimes it seems those writing the reviews forget that the Titan II at Searcy was not on alert meaning it had no warhead. The Titan II at Damascus was on full alert and armed. Mr. Schlosser got it right and was not swayed by the loss of life vs. the reason for his book!
Several of my fellow airmen who went back on site that night have passed away. I hope we, as a nation, never forget what they did that night while the nation slept, unaware of the risks those men were taking. I hope their families will have an even greater appreciation for what they did to try and save a resource as well as each other's lives. Finally thank you Eric Schlosser for getting it right and Chuck Wilson for the countless hours he spent with me fact checking.
I may never sleep again. The Damascus story itself is riveting, but a couple of the accident stories are absolutely hair raising. Some of those B52 crashes with 4 megaton Hydrogen bombs on board could easily have killed tens of millions of people each. I still get chills when I think of the accident where a bomb was released by the (then) unmanned and crashing plane, and the wiring tore loose between bomb and plane, making the bomb believe it was dropped on purpose, fully armed, and the only thing that kept it from detonating with full atomic yield was a switch on the instrument panel in the cockpit, where "air" or "ground" burst had not be selected. It still raises the hair on my arms when I think about it.
The book is written like a great Tom Clancy novel, to the point where I had to keep reminding myself this is all 100% factual information. People (myself included) have NO IDEA how close we've come to vaporizing millions of people and dooming millions more to fates far worse than death (before they too eventually die), simply due to hap hazard accidents with nuclear weapons. I had no idea there had been so many.
The book speaks volumes about how military strategy is thought out, and the politics that drive poor decision making. So many examples of when rivalries between competing branches of the military lead to some really bad choices. It's also very eye opening to see how petulant some members of our military leadership could be when things didn't go their way.
The book is so well researched, and the researched so well put together, you don't have to be fan of history, or non-fiction to enjoy reading it. There were times I couldn't put it down. There's not a lot of non-fiction I can honestly say that about. I'd highly recommend this book. It's fun to read, and in the end, it makes you a far better informed citizen.