For those of us who grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, journalist Eric Schlosser’s latest investigation is scary stuff. After famously eviscerating the fast food industry in Fast Food Nation (2001), he’s resurfaced with an alarming expose about the management of America’s nuclear arsenal.
Command and Control reads like something out of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: atomic bombs that are mishandled by poorly-trained ground crews; two hydrogen bombs accidentally dropped over North Carolina in 1961 that failed to detonate only by a single failed switch; and dozens of “Broken Arrow” incidents where nuclear weapons were at risk of detonation or outside of the control of the United States military.
Schlosser shares these frightening images around the core story of the “Damascus Incident,” a 1980 accident during which Air Force crews valiantly fought against the potential explosion of a nine-megaton Titan II ballistic missile. After an Air Force officer told him the story, he was hooked.
“Just the personal heroism that was demonstrated that night was a great story,” Schlosser says. “The incident also illustrates the bigger theme of the book, which is this notion of the illusion of control. It’s very different from the official story, which is that these things can’t go off accidentally. Now we know it was never true.”
It’s been said that Schlosser writes alternative histories; the author admits that’s true of Command and Control.
“This book presents the history of nuclear weapons from the bottom up,” he explains. “It’s about the day-in and day-out management of our arsenal and the ordinary servicemen and bomber pilots and missile crews. In a way, it really is a ‘people’s history’ of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the American public has this perception that when the Cold War ended, the problem went away. The threat of all-out nuclear war may be diminished but the threat of an American city being vaporized by a nuclear weapon may be even greater today.”
That said, it’s not all gloom-and-doom for Schlosser, despite spending six years in the dark heart of the nuclear deterrent and a largely illusionary command-and-control system.
“It’s about a very dark subject but I don’t think we’re doomed,” he says. “I don’t feel apocalyptic after so many years thinking about this subject but I do think people need to confront this reality in order for us to avoid this very real danger.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.