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Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (Ala Notable Books for Adults) Hardcover – September 17, 2013

4.5 out of 5 stars 819 customer reviews

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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


***A New York Times Notable Book of 2013***

Time magazine:

 “A devastatingly lucid and detailed new history of nuclear weapons in the U.S. … fascinating.(Lev Grossman)

Jonathan Franzen, The Guardian:
Schlosser's book reads like a thriller, but it's masterfully even-handed, well researched, and well organised. Either he's a natural genius at integrating massive amounts of complex information, or he worked like a dog to write this book. You wouldn't think the prospect of nuclear apocalypse would make for a reading treat, but in Schlosser's hands it does.”

Associated Press:
“Gripping... A real-life adventure that’s every bit as fascinating as a Tom Clancy thriller... Schlosser is clearly on top of his game with Command and Control. His stories of nuclear near-misses inspire trepidation, and his description of Cold War political machinations provide hints about the conversations Pentagon officials must be having nowadays when they review the country’s war strategies.”

Financial Times:
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.”

Los Angeles Times:
“Deeply reported, deeply frightening… a techno-thriller of the first order.”

The Guardian:
“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."

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)

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.”

Mother Jones:
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.”

 Vanity Fair:
Eric Schlosser detonates a truth bomb in Command and Control, a powerful expose about America’s nuclear weapons.”

Dallas Morning News:
“Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control is a sobering and frightening yet fascinating account of the unbelievable peril posed by repeatedly mishandled American nuclear weapons….The tale is riveting from start to finish. In the first few chapters, I found myself so repeatedly astounded by Schlosser’s recounting of accidents in the early 1950s, I thought: Certainly, it can’t get any worse than this. But it kept getting worse—so much so that I started folding the corners of each page that contained what seemed like the most egregious examples of nuclear mishaps and horrors. I now have a 632-page book with roughly a quarter of the pages folded over for reference. Command and Control is truly a monumental, Pulitzer-quality work.”

“The book alternates between sections describing the accident with sections on the history of nuclear weapons in the U.S.  Schlosser’s excellent eye for detail, which he displayed in his first book, Fast Food Nation, is also in evidence here....epic pop history."

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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Product Details

  • Series: Ala Notable Books for Adults
  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; First Edition edition (September 17, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202273
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202278
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (819 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #35,116 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Format: Hardcover
When Mr. Schlosser initially contacted me several years ago I was skeptical with respect to what his intentions were. Other stories and articles have been written about the incident at Damascus, AR. To many of us who experienced it on site that night it seemed there was no one who "got it right".

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.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Command and Control reads like a techno-thriller. Eric Schlosser takes the most destructive and scary nuclear accident in American history and uses it as a needle to thread a narrative about the sloppiness and inflexibility of America's nuclear weapons program that almost guaranteed that nuclear weapons accidents were fated to occur. That we haven't had a vast, deadly, nuclear weapons incident is due mainly to luck and God - and mostly to God according to some weapons analysts.

The scariest incident occurred in 1980 when a Titan II missile exploded in its silo in Damascus, Arkansas (back when Bill Clinton was governor) and blew a live nuclear warhead over 200 yards into a ditch. He tells this story in detail through eyewitness accounts and good research and interrupts the story throughout the book with sections on nuclear weapons history, other incidents, and a superb explanation of American and Soviet nuclear strategies in the Cold War.

Schlosser shows how ramshackle the atomic weapons program really was and how and why these weapons were eventually removed from civilian control under the Atomic Energy Commission and turned over to the military (and it's not because the military were more competent). He traces this history back from the 1940s right up to the Obama administration's lukewarm proposal to ban all nuclear weapons.

He shows that we have come through some pretty tough stuff in atomic history and we are a little further from the brink - but we should be very afraid when we consider that India, Pakistan, China, and the other members of the nuclear club may have less ability or incentive to try and contain atomic weaponry as we finally learned to do.

He doesn't preach or analyze. He is a brilliant reporter and has written a gripping and fascinating story. And it's all true.
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Format: Hardcover
Think America's nuclear arsenal has always been pristinely safe? Thing again. In this riveting and meticulously researched book Eric Schlosser gives us a report card on accidents with nuclear weapons that have been periodically taking place since the weapons were introduced into a warring world in 1945. The book centers its narrative around the Damascus accident of 1980 in which an explosion in a Titan II ICBM housed in Damascus, Arkansas killed one and injured about twenty others. In Schlosser's capable hands, the event becomes a lens through which we can view the inherent frailty and risk in complex engineering endeavors masked by layers of bureaucracy. The volume is a real page turner which kept me awake late into the night. It is superbly researched and is packed with fascinating details about the workings of both nuclear weapons and the very human command and control infrastructure which oversees them. Some of the reviewers here are not too happy about the digressions, but in my opinion the digressions do a great job of recreating the history and the times leading up to the event. In addition all the facts are supported by an extensive bibliography running to more than a hundred pages.

This book is really two books in one, and both parts are equally gripping. The first part describes the Damascus accident in gory technical and human detail, starting from the time that a dropped socket blew a hole in the skin of the Titan II missile, spraying fuel around the missile and creating a dangerous buildup of fuel and oxidizer. What is scary is that the accident resulted from an honest, relatively trivial mistake that anybody could have made; in the parlance of systems engineers it was only a "normal accident".
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