Command, Control & the Smiles of Good Fortune

Being in my ’50s, I remember the Cold War.  In the early 1980’s, I had earnest discussions with friends about the merits of nuclear deterrence, the policies of Ronald Reagan and the threat of the Soviet Union.  While now seemingly a distant memory, the 1980’s were also the last full decade when us humans faced mass extinction via nuclear war on a global scale.  In this new century, we can now look forward to only localized extinction.

Nuclear Explosion – Courtesy of the Guardian

The 1980’s is the context for Eric Schlosser’s book, “Command And Control: Nuclear Weapons, The Damascus Accident, And The Illusion Of Safety”.  (Some of Schlossers other books include: Fast Food Nation, Chew On This, and Reefer Madness).  Schlosser paints both a sympathetic and frightening picture of nuclear weapons, their record of safety (sort of 100%) and how close we all came to extinction in the Cold War – but did not because of divine intervention or dumb luck.  Schlosser has written the near-perfect non-fiction history.  He blends a central story and the large tapestry of the nuclear weapon ‘industry’ from the late 1930’s to present day.  The story is about a tragic accident at a Titan II missile facility near Damascus Arkansas in 1980.  One airman dropped one socket which resulted in the destruction of the facility and risk of a nuclear explosion.  On that day, confusion, bravery and a system unable to cope with the unexpected reigned – and this formed the central story of Command and Control.

Missile Silo – Post Explosion

Most of the book, however, deals with the context and the events leading up to the dropped socket and its effects afterwards.  Schlosser has written an extremely balanced book.  Too often in current popular culture, the US Military, Ronald Reagan or nuclear weapons are painted in dogmatic caricatures.  Instead Schlosser provides excellent context to these people and events – without pulling punches for incompetence.  A good example of this balance is his discussion of the anti-nuclear movement in Europe against the NATO deployment of Pershing II missiles in Europe.  His wry observation is that the protestors of the 1980’s were demanding missiles, not yet installed, be removed while blissfully ignoring the Soviet and Eastern Bloc missiles already deployed and pointed at their homes.

In the end, Command and Control is about fallibility of people, systems and technology – and the role that bravery, systems, good technology – and a lot of luck – played in avoiding any serious accident in the American or NATO nuclear arsenal.  While inspiring from the perspective of good people doggedly working to make the system better, Schlosser leaves the reader with a few warnings.  First, there are still tens of thousands of weapons of various designs and states of repair in the world.  The relative peace we have had since the 1990’s has made nuclear Armageddon less likely but has also increased the chance of an accident as these weapons age, experience personnel retire, less reliable countries develop weapons and organizational culture changes while weapon custody does not.

The second lesson Schlosser imparts is that complex systems (with multiple points of contact and connection) increase the chance of an accident.  At the very least, a complex system may experience a catastrophic run away response to an otherwise small error.  Complex systems, such as the command and control of a nuclear arsenal, have inter-dependent parts that can act unpredictably when under stress or when exposed to unexpected influences.

Schlosser has written an excellent book that is very accessible.  My only critique would be the cast of thousands introduced and the difficulty keeping the individuals straight (particularly when listening to the audio version of the book).  Otherwise, a great read and highly recommended for all military and history buffs out there.

PS.  Apparently you can buy decommissioned missile bases.  For only a million dollar (ish) you can own the worlds greatest paint ball facility/deep scuba-diving tank.

View of a Titan II Complex