Command and Control

July 8, 2014

by Eric Schlosser

My reading list recently has been chock-full of light-hearted and mood-lifting material: some Irvine Welsh novels (always guaranteed to shed a gentle light on all that’s best about the human condition), a long book about clinical depression, M. R. Carey’s interesting sort-of-zombie apocalypse/extreme mycology novel, The Girl With All The Gifts, de Becker’s The Gift Of Fear, a book all about fear and violence, and Piper Kerman’s prison memoir, Orange Is The New Black (which did spoil the mood a little having a few sparks of hope in among the gloom).

Among all this bleakness and blackness, Command and Control somehow manages to stand out as a particularly grim monument to human folly and our collective crimes against all sense and reason. It’s a book about nuclear weapons, so it never really had much chance of being too jolly, but even so, Schlosser’s decision to focus in parallel on US nuclear doctrine and nuclear weapons safety makes for some horrifying reading. It’s something of a mystery how we made it through the Cold War without either a “hot” war or at least some sort of unintended detonation of a nuclear weapon.

There are two main threads to the book. The first is the development of nuclear weapons and associated military doctrine in the US from the Second World War to the present day (with limitations on what it’s possible to say about recent conditions because of classification). Schlosser says little about Soviet weapon development and military doctrine, mostly because the documentation on the Russian side needed to write about this stuff just isn’t available. Most of the sources used in Command and Control are US government materials declassified relatively recently.

The second strand of the book is the story of the “Damascus Incident”, an accident involving a Titan II ICBM at a silo near Damascus, Kansas in 1980. A minor accident (a worker dropped a socket wrench during a fuel tank repressurisation operation) eventually led to the missile exploding, destroying the silo, killing one crew member involved in trying to make the thing safe, and throwing the missile second stage and the warhead into the air. The warhead ended up in a ditch some distance from the silo, outer casing broken, physics package exposed. The nuclear components of the weapon weren’t compromised and the warhead was safed and removed the next day.

Schlosser does a very good job of conveying the number of moving parts involved in an incident like this. I’ve read some reviews of Command and Control that complain that the description of the Damascus incident is too fragmented and confusing. It is fragmented and confusing, but I think that’s the point: when things go to shit with an ICBM and there’s potential for a 9 megaton thermonuclear detonation, hundreds of people become involved very quickly, there is confusion, desperately needed information just isn’t available (remember, this was in 1980: there’s no internet, there are no cell phones, the only way to find out what’s going on in the silo is to look at gauges in the control room; even now, I’m guessing that ICBM silos are isolated – you wouldn’t trust that kind of thing even to nominally “secret” networks). If you wanted to give an exact and detailed recitation of every significant event that occurred during the incident, you’d do things differently, but to give a feeling of the sense of confusion and panic surrounding an incident like this, Schlosser’s approach is just right. It’s also worth saying that Schlosser interviewed a lot of people involved directly in the incident, including members of the refuelling and command team in the silo at the time and the disaster response team who arrived on the scene later. The details in Command and Control are almost certainly accurate, and I think that Schlosser’s presentation gives a good feeling for the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt that must go with dealing with an accident like this.

But the Damascus incident isn’t the most frightening nuclear accident reported in the book. That distinction has to go to an accident in Goldsboro, North Carolina in 1961, when a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, releasing a pair of nuclear bombs. The only thing that prevented one of the bombs from detonating was a simple low-voltage switch – the rest of the arming and detonation sequence ran as expected, and if this single switch had tripped, there would have been a 3.8 megaton detonation, killing everyone within a 25-kilometre radius and spreading fallout across the whole of the eastern seaboard of the United States.

One thing that comes across very strongly in all of this is the resistance of the military to the addition of safety features to nuclear weapons. They were concerned only with making sure that weapons went bang when they asked them to, not preventing them from going bang when not required. Given the almost ridiculously bad consequences of even a “fizzle” of a nuclear weapon, that attitude seems misguided at best.

In fact, the military doesn’t come off too well in Command and Control. I used to hope that Dr. Strangelove was a product of Kubrick’s imagination, but it seems as though much of it has a basis in fact. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command (the part of the US Air Force responsible for nuclear bombing) from 1948 until 1957, when he became Chief of Staff of the USAF, was in favour of a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Still, he was better than his successor at SAC, Thomas S. Power, who sounds like a real dick: “Putting aside all the fancy words and academic doubletalk, the basic reason for having a military is to do two jobs – to kill people and to destroy the works of man”. I guess he wouldn’t be so keen on peacekeeping operations…

The ultimate insanity of American nuclear war planning was manifested in the SIOP, the Single Integrated Operational Plan. This was the US’s plan for a global thermonuclear war. Once authorised by the president, the process of the SIOP could best be described as “Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill everything! Kill ALL the everything!”. Schlosser quotes a number of people whose first indoctrination in the SIOP left them reeling in horror. These included well-known peaceniks like Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. The SIOP had no provisions at all for limited war. The president of the US would have to decide within ten or fifteen minutes whether or not to launch a plan that would kill millions of people.

Again, Schlosser does a good job of getting all this across. He’s pretty level-headed about the way he approaches the subject, and that’s about all that you can do when confronted with this kind of insanity. If anything, the precise journalistic approach here only heightens the sense of horror. This is all real, it’s all documented, it was the way the world was for most of the second half of the 20th Century.

From what I understand, nuclear weapons safety in the US is better now, with much more sophisticated control mechanisms, an emphasis on safety in weapon design and so on. Unfortunately, the US doesn’t make the lessons it’s learnt available to other countries because of security concerns. We also don’t really know what the exact situation is because more or less all information about nuclear weapons design, deployment, strategy and so on is all classified. The first we might know about something going wrong is a Bright White Flash, as the jargon goes.

Anyway, if you want some dark and bleak, Command and Control is worth a look.