Review of “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety” by Eric Schlosser

For those who like very scary horror stories, you can do no better than reading about the real history of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, and all the things that can go and have gone wrong (or perhaps worse, can go right). As Schlosser says, if you think having some 3,000 Americans killed as they were on 9/11 was bad, contemplate the possibility of having at least half a million killed not even in a war but in an accidental nuclear detonation.

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This story uses a 1980 accident at the missile silo complex in Arkansas to frame the history of the command and control of America’s nuclear arsenal since its beginning. In the course of the frightening exposé of America’s nuclear weapons mishaps, you’ll be covering your eyes (not actually good while driving, as I did) when you hear about the litany of accidental fires, crashes, explosions, near misses and barely averted disasters. Most of them were not disclosed to the public, nor were warnings about the plutonium released in many of the incidents (not to mention, from the testing).

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You can only shake your head when you hear about how, for instance, the armed services objected to safety features on bombs because it implied they weren’t careful, and they wouldn’t even approve of safety devices unless they were given more euphemistic names. (Wait, you ask, are we talking about the 68 words banned by General Motors employees when documenting potential vehicle-safety issues, such as “safety” “problem” and “defect”? No, the GM revelation is a current issue. But interesting how some (bad) things never change….)

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You will cringe when hearing about the bomb that dropped in 1958 in someone’s yard in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, after a hapless air crew member inadvertently grabbed a manual bomb release lever to support himself (the conventional explosives detonated on impact but not the nuclear device); tremble over the hydrogen bomb dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina in 1961 when a SAC B-52 disintegrated in mid-flight (only one of the bomb’s six safety devices functioned, barely saving the East Coast from a nuclear holocaust); shudder over a blown-out airplane tire in Morocco resulting in a fire that could have led to a nuclear explosion, or the time a seat cushion caught on fire on a B-52 bomber in 1968, causing the crew to bail out, the bomber to crash onto sea ice in North Star Bay, and the nuclear payload to rupture and disperse, resulting in radioactive contamination. (The contaminated snow was packed up and shipped for burial in South Carolina.)

Site of the Greenland accident

Site of the Greenland accident

Then there was the training tape that was accidentally put into the computer at NORAD with a very realistic simulation of a Soviet attack, almost triggering an all-out “counter attack.” Not that long afterward, during the tense period after the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, there was a computer error at NORAD that falsely indicated more than 1,000 missiles were on their way. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was woken up in the middle of the night and told that it looked like the US was under attack. He waited for more confirmation before calling President Carter, but he was fully prepared for this nuclear strike and to order a counter-attack. And the examples go on and on. In fact, the author found evidence that at least 1,200 nuclear weapons had been involved in “significant” accidents between 1950 and March 1968.

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There is also a recital of many instances in which armed services personnel working with nuclear weapons were suspended or arrested for drug use on duty (including marijuana, hashish, cocaine, and LSD).

All that is old history, you say, and everything is “safe” now? How about this announcement in January 2014:

“The Air Force announced yesterday that it had suspended and revoked the security clearances of 34 missile launch officers at the Malmstrom base in Montana after it came to light that they were cheating—or complicit in cheating—on monthly exams to ensure that they were capable of safely babysitting the nuclear warheads atop their missiles. Eleven launch officers, two of whom where also implicated in the cheating episode, were targeted in a separate investigation of illegal drug use.”

Evaluation: As far as I’m concerned, this should be required reading (or listening) for every American. Even if you don’t want to take the time to read or listen to the book, I hope you will at least check out this interview with the author, who reviews some of the findings in his book here.

Nuclear bomb test conducted at the Nevada Test Site in 1957

Nuclear bomb test conducted at the Nevada Test Site in 1957

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Ordinarily I get frustrated when narrators don’t use proper pronunciation. Indeed, with this book, hearing Scott Brick pronounce “err” as if were “air” was like fingernails on the blackboard for me, and I thought the pronunciation of “Leicestershire, England (home of Bruntingthorpe Air Base)” as “lestershire” instead of “LES-ter” was quite unfortunate. (…not, however, as unfortunate as the often invoked name of Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico, consistently mispronounced as SAN-dee-ah instead of San-DEE-ah. Seriously? How unreasonable is it to expect a narrator to find out the correct pronunciation of a word you will be saying over and over again?)

But I forgive the narrator everything because of his wonderful mispronunciation of the name of Lewis Strauss. Strauss, a major figure in the development of nuclear weapons in the United States, was, in my opinion, an evil man who, inter alia, was the driving force in the destruction of the reputation and career of the brilliant Robert Oppenheimer – possibly because of a social slight, which the arrogant and vicious Strauss could not tolerate. But more to the point, Strauss, pretentious among other faults, famously insisted that his name be pronounced like “straws” instead of “strouse.” The narrator pronounces it incorrectly as “strouse” and every time he did so, I gave a little cheer and hat tip to Oppenheimer.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published unabridged on 17 CDs (20.5 listening hours) by Penguin Audio, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2013

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10 Responses to Review of “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety” by Eric Schlosser

  1. I have the audio on CDs and had a feeling this was an important book. It might be a good choice for our next road trip. Thanks, Jill.

  2. trish422 says:

    This sounds awesome and really really scary. But seriously the idea of a narrator mispronouncing words makes me think my no-audio-for-me stance is a good choice.

  3. BermudaOnion says:

    I think that would scare the pants off of me.

  4. I couldn’t do the audio (thanks for the heads-up….what a horrible editing job) but my library tell me that I can my hold on the dead tree version is waiting for me to pick up tomorrow morning. So squee. (!)

  5. And I really need to stop commenting on blogs via iPad. Look at that mangled comment. Gah.

  6. stacybuckeye says:

    I must read this and I’m pretty sure Jason would like it too!

  7. Ti says:

    Looks endlessly fascinating, and also something the Hub would actually read.

  8. stacybuckeye says:

    Just got this audio from the library today. Don’t know if Jason or I will get to it anytime soon, but thanks for the recommendation!

  9. Care says:

    Scary stuff. The bit about safety features reminds me of a heated discussion in a work design class in college where a few thought we were dumbing down products too far in favor of safety and if stupid people wanted to be stupid we should let ’em. 🙂 I believe the convo moved to liability issues. Fun class, actually. I learned a lot.
    Interesting about the narrator – he is usually one of the lauded best of the bunch. I have a feeling that I would avoid this if I actually bought the print version so if/when I do get to this, I will go with audio.

  10. stacybuckeye says:

    Jason is listening to this right now and VERY impressed that I chose it for him. He e talked about it for at least 15 minutes at dinner last night. Good call Jill!

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