I bought this book after seeing the author on The Rachel Maddow Show a while back talking about the recent scandal regarding the USAF's missile commanI bought this book after seeing the author on The Rachel Maddow Show a while back talking about the recent scandal regarding the USAF's missile command. Unfortunately, I was hugely disappointed. I would have been less so if the book stuck to the Damascus Accident and gave me way less of the only peripherally relevant background. Lengthy discursions into salty anecdotes about nutty old Curtis LeMay, cranky Truman and grandfatherly Eisenhower seem non-illustrative and not particularly well treated here.
Every mainstream writer on a technical topic like this has to ask: To wonk or not to wonk? The author of this volume chose not to wonk, about what is perhaps the wonkiest topic on the planet... a topic IMPOSSIBLE to comprehend or even conceive of without wonking the living hell out of it.
The result is like a NBC suit washed in warm water.
The problem is that the Titan II accident in Damascus was fundamentally different than other nuclear weapons accidents, and is, in fact, enormously atypical. The author goes into so much detail about the propellant handling specific to the Titan II program that it becomes super-confusing just what his point is with regard to the broader schema of "command and control." Most of the broken arrow incidents cited outside Damascus stem from misrouting or mishandling of warheads or mishaps aboard airplanes (particularly B-52s, by dint of numerological likelihood), not ICBMs. The author's own assertion (that "this happened a lot") establishes that Damascus is not an illustrative example of the dangers of handling nuclear weapons.
That fundamental cognitive dissonance required the author to stray too far from the events of the Damascus Accident, and make numerous points which really had little to do with Damascus. The author didn't do a stellar job of connecting the dots, in my opinion. There ARE those connections, but it would have taken a fairly huge revision of the book to fit them in.
I believe the author needed to answer one question: Is this book PRIMARILY about 1) the command and control of nuclear warheads, or 2) the hazards of their delivery vehicles? If it's about both (which it is, or tries to be), then the fundamental connections between those two need to be stated more clearly, with a more succinct expression of the nuclear fundamentals and less reliance on the reader's "awe" of technology to produce an emotional response.
Here's what I mean: because the author does not appear to be a nuclear engineer (or even a physics nerd), it never felt clearly established to me what the core differences between nuclear and conventional weapons are from a command and control perspective. It may seem obvious, but it's actually only obvious from a non-wonk perspective. I know this probably makes me sound like a zany Buck Turgidson whack-job, but hey, it's not the first time. Wonks make policy. Wonks decide how to handle nuclear weapons. Wonks run the scenarios on what will happen if nuclear weapons are ever used. Wonks may be geeky to a fault, but they're who ACTUALLY give a damn about extreme scenarios like nuclear war or nuclear accidents. In writing what SHOULD have been a colossally wonky book, the author showed his tendency to think of both the military and nuclear worlds from a "mainstream" (non-wonk) perspective.
One example is that the hazards of nuclear detonations are portrayed in an overblown, hand-wringing fashion. BECAUSE I REALLY NEEDED THIS GUY TO TELL ME THAT NUKING THE WORLD IS A BAD IDEA. There's a subtle form of hysterical pretension throughout that I found both problematic (from a policy perspective) and dull (from a reading-pleasure perspective). Honestly, the difference is kind of slight between realistic evaluation of worst-case scenarios and pseudo-journalistic hysteria, but something about this book's tone seemed well outside realism and into facts stated as shock value.
The underlying issue from a writer's perspective is that nuclear accidents and nuclear detonations (actual or potential) are particularly susceptible to "correct" facts being blurted out with the intent to shock. Nuclear reactions (weapons-related or power-related) are unfamiliar and counter-intuitive to most if not all humans (even nuclear engineers, physicists and chemists, etc.).
But the chemical reactions involved in large-scale rocketry, like that used in ICBMs and in the Titan II program specifically, are just as unfamiliar...therefore, just as prone to correct facts being delivered with the intent to shock.
I felt like the author indulged in a lot of that "shock treatment," resulting in a somewhat uneven tone. I thought he never really stopped "gee-whizzing" about how wacky the technology is long enough to get around to a cogent policy analysis or even a sense of what policies were being changed (or not).
There are some valuable lessons in here, for which I am grateful, but with its uneven tone and unclear goals, this book was a slog to get through....more
This book did not feel overly coherent, but I still enjoyed it. It consists of too many disparate anecdotes to feel like an incisive analysis or histoThis book did not feel overly coherent, but I still enjoyed it. It consists of too many disparate anecdotes to feel like an incisive analysis or history of the crisis. Nonetheless, many of its pieces parts are GREAT. Most interesting is the author's takedown of Kennedy-as-Messiah theories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, at the end of the book. I am a big admirer of Kennedy in many respects, but his handling of the Crisis was not above reproach. The author takes the view that reason prevailed on both sides, and that there was no eye-to-eye stand-off, but a more complicated interaction of clusterfuck and close call. Dobbs is not quite a proponent of the "sheer dumb luck" view that Robert McNamara took in later years, but he certainly gives that idea a fair hearing, in a compelling and chilling way. I also very much enjoyed the very vivid vignettes about front-line pilots and ship crews interacting. The Russian side of the conflict is not as well represented as the American, but there is more info about the Russian perception than in previous English-language books on the subject.
Overall, a decent read and an interesting take on the Crisis and the cold war....more
This is an amazing book. A great cast of characters: Korolev, Kruschev, Werner Von Braun, Eisenhower, Nixon, and many more. Not as much rocket scienceThis is an amazing book. A great cast of characters: Korolev, Kruschev, Werner Von Braun, Eisenhower, Nixon, and many more. Not as much rocket science as I would have liked, but so much great Russian and American cold war history that it more than makes up for it. I also found that the author tended to rely on a small number of sources, particularly Sergei Kruschev's memoirs...but ultimately the end result was so fascinating, and so far from what I already know anything about, that I never stopped being totally fascinated...I TORE through this book. A great story of twisting and turning Russian-American political intrigue, and a depressing view of just how much "human progress" in the '50s was actually driven by the arms race....more
Exhaustive account of the 1953 coup that deposed nationalist Iranian Mohammad Mosaddeq, who was anti-British but mildly pro-American, in order to instExhaustive account of the 1953 coup that deposed nationalist Iranian Mohammad Mosaddeq, who was anti-British but mildly pro-American, in order to install the oppressive regime more directly controlled by Shah Reza Mohammed Pahlavi, whom this book portrays as about the most gutless dictator ever born. A direct path is drawn between the pro-American attitude of the Iranian people, and Mosaddeq in particular, before the British were expelled for what Mosaddeq called "meddling" in Iranian politics by trying to reverse the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and, when that failed, planning a coup. One the British were expelled, we Yanks became British stooges -- or, if you want to take the Kermit Roosevelt-Allan Dulles view, we planned a coup to depose the secular Nationalist Mossadeq so that our planning a coup wouldn't make him ask the Soviets for protection. Kind of mind-bending logic, there. The result? Twenty-five years later, we got Ayatollah Khomeni, the Hostage Crisis, and the most rabidly anti-American government on the planet. Thanks, Kermit.
The book should be read by anyone who wants to understand the roots of anti-American Islamic fundamentalism, oil politics, British decolonization, Iran, or why setting up pro-American puppet governments directly in opposition to the will of 98% of the population is a shit-stupid idea -- and tends to lead to the codification of far more extreme ideologies that are far more anti-American....more