Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety has, since its release, garnered a remarkable amount of attention for a book on nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness among other books, has turned his eye to nuclear theory and the early history of the United States Air Force. Much like cheeseburgers, pizza, and heroin, it turns out that while everybody loves nukes, they aren’t particularly good for you.
What it’s About
Command and Control traces the history of nuclear weapons deployment across the three U.S. services, with an overwhelming focus on the Air Force. Schlosser episodically tells the story of the 1980 Titan II incident in Damascus, Arkansas, interspersing this narrative with descriptions of a litany of other nuclear accidents and near accidents, from the dropping of a nuclear core in 1946 to a wide variety of bomber mishaps in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Schlosser gives a good account of why military and civilian policymakers felt that expanding the US nuclear arsenal was necessary, and of how they approached considerations of safety. Perhaps unsurprisingly, civilian officials demanded much higher safeguards than the Air Force could concede. Absolutely committed to the reliability of the nuclear arsenal, the services fought hard against steps that could prevent accidents and unauthorized usage. Even as measures to prevent theft, destruction, or premature detonation of nuclear weapons improved over the decades, nuclear incidents continued.
What Does it Contribute?
These stories are familiar to people who’ve read works such as Scott Sagan’s Limits of Safety, Lynn Eden’s Whole World on Fire, Richard Rhodes’s classic The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and dozens of other books on the early years of nuclear weapon safety and doctrine in the United States. In fact, I suspect that for people interested in the subject, the stories are a bit too familiar; there’s nothing really new here. During the (fabulously executed) PR rollout of Command and Control, the most interesting reactions came in response to the Goldsboro incident, in which one nuclear weapon was lost and another nearly activated. Although Schlosser presented some new information on the arming switch, none of this was particular surprising to people who followed the history of nuclear weapons policy in the United States. Indeed, Schlosser spends little time on the Goldsboro incident compared to the Damascus Titan II explosion, where he has numerous first person accounts.
Unlike Sagan or Eden, there’s no obvious theory underlying Schlosser’s account, beyond the notion that nuclear weapons are dangerous and tend to fall apart in alarming ways. At times, the fascination with nuclear disaster porn seems to overwhelm Schlosser’s better instincts as a writer. When breaking from the central narrative of the Damascus Titan II incident, he recounts near-accident after near-accident, which of course re-affirms the point that even the most tightly held possessions of the U.S. military can break or go missing. At some point the litany ceases to cause alarm and begins to induce not only numbness, but perhaps even the sense that the military is very bad at preventing a certain level of accident, and apparently very good at preventing the escalation of those accidents.
To take a contemporary comparison, Douglas Keeney’s Fifteen Minutes has virtually the same structure as Command and Control. Keeney intersperses vignettes of the transition between the Bomber Age and the Missile Age across a narrative of another disaster, the collapse of Texas Tower 4 (an early warning radar installation) in the wake of a hurricane. The cast of characters is very similar (Curtis LeMay plays an outsize role in both), as are the discussions of the underlying logics that drove the development of the arsenals. But I think I learned more from Keeney’s book, even though it’s half the length and I found the structure off-putting (Keeney’s vignettes are very short, producing a disruptive, episodic reading experience.
On the upside, Schlosser writes beautifully, and I say this as someone who has recently written on virtually the same subject. Reading Schlosser while copy-editing my own work throws the limitations of my prose into stark relief. Much of the writing on this subject has been academic, with all of the benefits and drawbacks that entails. Schlosser’s description of the collapse and explosion of the Titan II near Damascus is well-researched, detail-oriented, and exceptionally vivid, with strong, well placed personal accounts supplementing the technical aspects. It’s also worth noting that while Schlosser doesn’t pace his story well and doesn’t have much of a theoretical account, he also doesn’t include any serious howlers, although his description of intra-Air Force conflict between the fighter and bomber factions left much to be desired.
I suspect that others will get more from this book than I. As suggested, Keeney’s book gives more information about the topic in less space, although arguably in a less readable fashion. For experts, there’s not much here beyond some anecdotes that haven’t been fully fleshed out. Little about Command and Control will surprise anyone who’s read the work of Sagan and Rhodes. But Schlosser does present his material well, and I can imagine this being a useful introductory text to the history of nuclear conflict during the Cold War.
See also Texican and Menand.