- Series: ALA Notable Books for Adults
- Hardcover: 656 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Press; 1st 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 (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 1,016 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #163,624 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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
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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***
“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.”
“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.”
“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 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.”
“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.”
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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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.
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". Schlosser goes into great detail describing the cast of characters, from military generals and newspaper reporters to engineers and missile maintenance personnel who were involved in monitoring the event and preventing it from getting out of hand. Many of the younger technicians were straight out of high school, and while they were patriotic, brave and dedicated, one of the points that Schlosser makes is that not all of them were trained sufficiently to appreciate the nuances of maintaining one of America's nuclear linchpins. The accident itself was emblematic of what can easily go wrong with a complex system that may work well 99% of the time but can turn potentially catastrophic even if it suffers a 1% error rate. The exact details of the incident were not disclosed to the public but the account makes it clear that the explosion could have been much worse and led to a dispersal of the nuclear material in the warhead into the countryside. In fact the theme of unnecessary and pervasive secrecy is a constant thread through the book, and it's worth thinking about how the government and private corporations have constructed a potentially calamitous system funded by taxpayer dollars whose failures are concealed and successes are exaggerated.
The Damascus accident however is only one of the two themes running through the book, and the chapters on it alternate with others. The second equally fascinating part takes us on a journey through America's nuclear weapons complex, describing the weapons that were deemed to be so necessary to maintain the peace. It is necessary to understand this history in order to put the Damascus accident into context. Many topics are covered exceedingly well; among them, the safing and arming mechanisms in bombs, the history and progress of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) as the centerpiece of America's nuclear policy, the roles of a few key individuals and laboratories (Sandia National Laboratory is especially singled out) in recognizing and addressing flaws in weapons designs, the development of novel strategic and tactical nukes and their delivery systems, the ever-changing nuclear policies orchestrated by politicians and civilian bureaucrats and - in what's a ubiquitous theme in the book - the constant bickering between the different branches of the military regarding ownership of nuclear weapons. The Air Force especially comes out looking bad, constantly angling for nuclear ownership and opposing safety measures like locks for fear of malfunction.
But the most disturbing part of the book concerns a litany of nuclear accidents going back all the way to the dawn of the atomic age. Some "accidents" simply related to human error that could have led to destruction; there are examples of important messages being entrusted to bike messengers during the Cuban Missile Crisis, rocket launches being mistaken for nuclear missile launches and lower-level officers failing to convey important notifications from rival countries to higher-ups. The stories all underscore how much can go wrong with a complex technical and human system. The Damascus event itself came on the heels of an even worse Titan II fire in 1965 that killed 53 people. The rogues' gallery of nuclear accidents involved everything from scientists dying during tests of criticality of nuclear materials to dozens of incidents involving the accidental detonation of the explosives surrounding a nuclear core, most often when the package was jettisoned from a malfunctioning bomber. Some of the scarier stories include warheads burning in crashed airplane fires for hours and being reduced to melted slag. There are also cases where people lost track of the number and locations of nuclear weapons for various time periods. In addition many bombs and missiles were woefully unsecured during the early parts of the Cold War, especially in NATO countries where they were often guarded by lone guards toting rifles. It took until the 60s when secure locks were finally installed on many of these devices. Thankfully none of these lapses let to the detonation of an actual nuclear core (and this is a record the country should be proud of), but the key message that Schlosser sends is that the gap between what was and what could have been was frighteningly thin. As officials themselves admitted, catastrophic accidents were prevented by dumb luck as much as anything else.
Schlosser ends the book with an account of America's contemporary nuclear arsenal which still includes thousands of bombs and hundreds of missiles on alert. The end of the Cold War has led in some cases to lackluster management of an aging nuclear complex. It is also increasingly hard to find the kind of well-trained technicians and engineers that were a mainstay of the nuclear weapons buildup during the Cold War. But the real question that Schlosser asks is why all this is necessary, if it's worth having so many thousands of nukes when the nature of conflict has radically changed. In researching the book Schlosser has talked to hundreds of technicians, engineers, defense officials and politicians and almost all of them think that the nuclear arsenal should be much smaller than what it is. The real take home message here is that when an exceedingly complicated technical system becomes wrapped in layers of bureaucracy, accidents are just waiting to happen, especially when there is a perfect requirement for safety entrusted to imperfect human beings. President Kennedy really captured the gist of the matter when he talked about a "nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness". In connecting these memorable words to the Damascus accident, Schlosser's book tells us why we should get rid of this sword as soon as we can.
The book does an excellent job of documenting in super detail just how close this country has come to having accidental multi-megatonnage thermonuclear weapons blasts. After reading this book, I feel that one day a thermonuclear weapon with be accidentally discharged, even with the extra layers of safety that have been added over the decades. I will read this book again, to better absorb the information Mr. Schlosser so painstakingly researched and documented.