Bryan Alexander's Reviews > Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser
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Oct 04, 2014

really liked it
bookshelves: geopolitics, politics, technology, cold-war

Dropping a nuclear weapon was never a good idea. (168)

Command and Control is a far more interesting book than it may seem. At first glance Schlosser's topic is fairly technical, even rarefied: safety problems for atomic weapons during the Cold War. And yet I* couldn't put the book down without a struggle, and read parts of it out loud to my family.

What makes this book so good? To begin with, Schlosser creates a nice narrative structure, intertwining two timelines, big and small. The macro story concerns atomic bombs and their control mechanisms from 1946 to the end of the Cold War, and a little beyond. Those mechanisms are both technological and social, including ever-advanced devices and nearly continuous political struggles between military and civilian authorities. The micro story focuses on one single event, the 1980 explosion of a Titan II missile in Damascus, Arkansas. Command and Control switches back and forth between these accounts very neatly, using each to inform and balance the other. Every grand history chapter sheds more light on what made the Damascus incident occur. Each Arkansas detail humanizes the big picture.

Another appealing aspect of the book is the way it uses atomic weapon safety to offer a fascinating new look at the Cold War. Certain usually reviled figured appear in a sane, even positive light in this context, like Curtis LeMay and Robert McNamara. Eisenhower emerges as a deeply conflicted steward of humanity's fate, agonizing about the shambling weapons edifice he inherited and grew. This helps set up his famous farewell speech, warning about the military-industrial complex.

Some of these retelling are shocking, like president Truman's discovery that the United States had at most one (1) functioning atomic bomb - this, after Truman had promulgated a global Cold War strategy predicted on a nuclear deterrent! Kennedy's 1960 missile gap campaign theme gets turned inside out. There wasn't one, after all, but the New Frontier administration eagerly ramped up its nuclear missile capacity, and then gave the world mutually assured destruction (MAD).

Above all, the book is scary as hell. Schlosser manages the neat trick of making the specter of global thermonuclear war even more terrifying by revealing just how risky was the weapon stock. I was fascinated by how the top-secret Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) spooked the politicians and military leaders who learned of it.

The real problems facing America's leadership in trying to actually wage an atomic war loom quite large. Again and again Schlosser finds weapons likely to fail, rockets who keep missing targets, and the titular command and control systems collapsing all over the place. For example, in the early 1970s,
A decade after the Kennedy administration recognized the problem, despite the many billions of dollars that they had spent to fix it, the command-and-control system of the United States was still incapable of managing a nuclear war. (356)

Command and Control does many things right as a nonfiction book addressing a difficult subject. It doesn't adopt contemporary classic political postures, but depicts them in the weapons context. For example, Schlosser carefully notes the way 1950s Democrats thumped Eisenhower for being too soft on atomic offensive war (!). And it zeroes in on the many weird, fascinating, and chilly ways atomic war shaped language. "Safe" becomes a verb, as in "safing a bomb." The Air Force comes up with "clobber factor" to describe "the rate at which low-flying aircraft were likely to crash due to unknown causes" (205). A bomb's safety lock becomes a "Permissive Action Link", or PAL (265). One aircraft mission has the acronym TACAMO, which stands for Take Charge And Move Out (273). Another safety mechanism sounds like a party game: weak-link/strong link (331).

Schlosser writes with excellent clarity on a technical subject. He does a fine job of introducing terms gradually, then repeating them at a reasonable amplitude in order to educate the reader. Ever so often his prose elevates just a little, like the memorable closing lines:
Right now thousands of missiles are hidden away, literally out of sight, topped with warheads and ready to go, awaiting the right electrical signal. They are a collective death wish, barely suppressed. Every one of them is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder. They are out there, waiting, soulless and mechanical, sustained by our denial - and they work. (485)

Schlosser has a keen eye for primary source material, pulling out terrific quotes. For example, this Langdon Winner koan for our time:
Our ability to organize does not match the inherent hazards of some of our organized activities. (460)

Or this observation from General George Lee Butler, which would make a fine epigraph for the book:
I came to fully appreciate the truth... we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion. (457)

Schlosser also provides tiny but intriguing details, like the US Air Force publishing "a compendium of more than eighty thousand potential targets located throughout the world" entitled with admirable brevity Bombing Encyclopedia (204). Or consider the surrealism of deploying "forty-two pigs dressed in U.S. Army uniforms" - why? Because their "skin would respond to thermal radiation in a manner similar to that of human skin" at a bomb test (326).

What keeps me from awarding it five stars? My major issue was that the book didn't address the Soviet Union nearly enough. Obviously its focus on the United States prevents equal treatment of the USSR, but all too often events appear without the Muscovite context. Crises, for example, *always* occurred with an eye to the Soviet response; this doesn't show up often enough. The Soviet missile development strategy was crucial for driving the US program, but drops out of sight. This kind of context is obviously much easier to offer in the post-Soviet era, despite the recent chill in US-Russian relations.

Consider that a half-star demerit, and a recommendation to all readers. Especially to you younger generation who were fortunate enough to grow up after 1991.

*A book like this is irresistible to a child of the Cold War like myself. Born 1967, I grew up thinking hard about nuclear weapons and the likelihood of atomic devastation. As a teenager I pored over stories of nuclear annihilation. A friend and I spent quality time with a CIA-published list of Soviet missile targets in the US, carefully determining which warheads were likeliest to kill us. I remember panicking at Reagan's election in 1980, believing the odds were great that we'd all be annihilated. I read all the atomic war stories I could, and saw all the movies.
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Reading Progress

October 4, 2014 – Started Reading
October 4, 2014 – Shelved
October 4, 2014 – Shelved as: geopolitics
October 4, 2014 – Shelved as: politics
October 4, 2014 – Shelved as: technology
October 4, 2014 – Shelved as: cold-war
October 11, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

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message 1: by John (new) - added it

John Morgan Bryan, I highly recommend Kaplan's "Wizards of Armageddon" (although rather dated) and Rosenbaum's populist, flawed but interesting "How the End Begins" as good companions to this. I've been meaning to read Blair's "Strategic Command and Control" as well as a Russian book called C3 which is about the Russian side of nuclear c&c but which is impossible to find.


message 2: by John (new) - added it

John Morgan Freedman's "The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy" is also very interesting.


Jenny (Reading Envy) How far into the present does it go? You say 1980, is that the most recent event? I've had two friends go to work at Oak Ridge and disappear off the Internet, another friend working at an army library that is very high security, and other working with data at Los Alamos. I'm curious about the past but also about what's going on now, and rarely discussed.


Bryan Alexander The climax is really 1991, Jenny, but he does take things up to the Obama administration in the final chapter.


Bryan Alexander John wrote: "Bryan, I highly recommend Kaplan's "Wizards of Armageddon" (although rather dated) and Rosenbaum's populist, flawed but interesting "How the End Begins" as good companions to this. I've been meanin..."

Rosenbaum sounds like a competitor to Schlossel.
Got any more info on this C3?
Thanks, John!


Bryan Alexander John wrote: "Freedman's "The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy" is also very interesting."

Good catch.

How about fiction? I'm looking for anything after 1990, print or other media.


Sean O'Hara In recent fiction, there's Genocidal Organ by "Project" Itoh, a sci-fi novel set in a future where the War on Terror has turned nuclear.

Media-wise, there was a movie in the late 90s called Deterence with Kevin Pollack. I've never been able to find it, but I remember the Siskel and Ebert review made it sound fascinating.

And if you haven't seen it, there's the 1990 HBO movie By Dawn's Early Light, which I believe was the last nuclear war movie made during the Cold War.


message 8: by John (new) - added it

John Morgan Rosenbaum refers to C3 in his book. It's in English. It used to be available for sale from some defense institute in Washington, but seems to have gone out of print and I can't find any used copies.


Bryan Alexander Sean wrote: "In recent fiction, there's Genocidal Organ by "Project" Itoh, a sci-fi novel set in a future where the War on Terror has turned nuclear.

Media-wise, there was a movie in the late 9..."


Thank you, Sean!
I have seen both Deterrence and By Dawn's Early Light, which were very interesting. Deterrence had a nice retro feel to it, plus the single-room drama.
Dawn's was much better, including so many classic atomic war issues: SIOP, presidential succession, command and control, and, of course, widespread destruction.

I've been meaning to look into Project Itoh.


Bryan Alexander John wrote: "Rosenbaum refers to C3 in his book. It's in English. It used to be available for sale from some defense institute in Washington, but seems to have gone out of print and I can't find any used copies."

Sounds tantalizing. I wish there were more biblio info on it: author, pub, etc.


message 11: by John (new) - added it

John Morgan C3: Nuclear Command, Control, Cooperation by Valery E. Yarynich (Washington, DC: Center for Defense Information, 2003). Courtesy of Worldcat.


Bryan Alexander John wrote: "C3: Nuclear Command, Control, Cooperation by Valery E. Yarynich (Washington, DC: Center for Defense Information, 2003). Courtesy of Worldcat."

Excellent; thanks.

What a fascinating guy. He even worked on Perimeter.


message 13: by John (new) - added it

John Morgan Let me know if you ever find it.


Bryan Alexander John wrote: "Let me know if you ever find it."

OK.
Goodreads doesn't track it.


message 15: by John (new) - added it

John Morgan The Dead Hand, which was written by the same guy who wrote that article, is also a very good read. Less about the nuclear side of the Cold War than about the Soviets' pursuit of germ warfare (quite a shocking story), but just as hair-raising.


message 16: by John (new) - added it

John Morgan Bryan wrote: "OK.
Goodreads doesn't track it."


Since I found it in Worldcat, presumably you could get it through ILL.


Bryan Alexander John wrote: "Bryan wrote: "OK.
Goodreads doesn't track it."

Since I found it in Worldcat, presumably you could get it through ILL."


Time to rev up the engines!


message 18: by Tim (new)

Tim Pendry Excellent review, This is a book I wanted to read when it came out but somehow I chose others and I regret that now. I should return to it.


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