COMMAND AND CONTROL: NUCLEAR WEAPONS, the DAMASCUS INCIDENT, and the ILLUSION OF SAFETY by Eric Schlosser

After reading Eric Schlosser’s COMMAND AND CONTROL: NUCLEAR WEAPONS, THE DAMASCUS INCIDENT, AND THE ILLUSION OF SAFETY, I felt a sense of wonderment that mankind has survived the Cold War and the nuclear age in general.  Schlosser, who earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his work, has written a forceful indictment of American nuclear policy and a realistic assessment of what has gone wrong with the American nuclear program; including strategy, safety, and the lack of transparency and honesty that a democratic system of government is entitled.  The book presents a general history of the development of nuclear weapons dating back to World War II through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  In reviewing the history of the nuclear age Schlosser narrates and analyzes the different approaches of each administration from Harry Truman through the first President Bush.  In telling his story Schlosser intersperses alternate chapters dealing with the Damascus incident, an accident that took place on September 18, 1980 at a nuclear missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas that contained a Titan II missile armed with a nuclear warhead.  The book reads like a fast moving suspense thriller as Schlosser takes the reader inside the Titan II complex and step by step leads you on various missions designed to defuse the crisis that resulted from a technician dropping a socket from a wrench inside the missile silo that pierced the Titan II rocket resulting in a fuel leak.  The book is a sobering and yet fascinating narrative of the danger posed by the numerous examples of the mishandling American nuclear weapons.

The Titan II missile contained a warhead with a “yield of 9 megatons-about three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic bombs.” (3)  Though Schlosser concentrates a significant part of his thrilling narrative on the Damascus incident, another accident had taken place outside Searcy, Arkansas on August 9, 1965 involving a Titan II launch complex that resulted in the death of 53 men, and what is equally disturbing is that the same missile that had been in the silo near Searcy was involved in the accident in Damascus fifteen years later.  After introducing these accidents, and providing the backgrounds of the individuals involved, Schlosser turns his attention from the discovery of the Titan II problem to July, 1945 and the assembly of the atomic bomb.  A mini-history of the Manhattan Project and the scientists involved is provided as Schlosser blends the political and military history relating to nuclear research and strategy following World War II.  The author reviews the contentious arguments between the military and civilian branches of government as to who should have ultimate decision making power over nuclear weapons.  This is a theme that will be carried out well into the 1980s and the Reagan administration, even though the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 which the military sought to undermine, placed the weapons under civilian control.  Schlosser offers the standard account of the causes of the Cold War and the development of the containment policy.  There are no major breakthroughs offered, but the narrative is concise and thoughtfully dealt with.   The inter-service competition among the military branches, particularly the Navy and Air Force over control and implementation of nuclear strategy are detailed, with particular emphasis on the role of General Curtis LeMay, who headed the Strategic Air Command following the Berlin Air Lift.  Schlosser moves on to discuss the major issues of each administration turning to  Eisenhower’s New Look, that relied less on conventional weaponry and more on the nuclear option as he trimmed the defense budget, as the administration called for “more bang for the buck.”  Following the discussion of Eisenhower, under the leadership of John F. Kennedy we see a shift in nuclear strategy as the president was faced with two crises, one in Berlin and one in Cuba that almost resulted in a nuclear confrontation. Under Lyndon Johnson the war in Vietnam dominated and with the Nixon presidency the Soviets were confronted with Kissinger’s ideas of limited nuclear war with tactical nuclear weapons, and the use of the “madman concept,” based on the unpredictable nature of the president.  In all cases the idea of “mutual assured destruction” (MAD) dominated our approach in that the Soviets would not launch an attack as it was fully aware of the consequences.

The concept that bothered me most about the book was the practice of employing mathematical probabilities to our nuclear strategies.  What were then odds that an accident would take place under a certain scenario?  What would be an acceptable amount of destruction and death if a certain sequence was introduced into our nuclear preparation, was 1 in 100,000 acceptable, or should the odds be better.  Schlosser takes the reader through countless discussions in dealing with this zero sum game and as I read it I became very unsettled as I kept thinking about the B-52 bombers loaded with nuclear warheads that experienced numerous accidents since the plane was first put into service in the 1950s.  Government officials put their dilemmas very clearly as they wrestled with two interconnected questions: “What was the ‘acceptable’ probability of an accidental nuclear explosion?  And what were the technical means to keep the odds as low as possible?” (171)  The countless accidents that Schlosser describes, makes it a wonder that a nuclear catastrophe has never occurred. As General George Lee Butler, who became head of the Strategic Air Command in 1991 has stated, “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)

The most wrenching aspect of the book is Schlosser’s detailed description of the events that led up to the Titan II accident at Damascus in September, 1980, and the way the event was treated by the military following the explosion that took place.  Schlosser’s approach is worthy of the best suspense novelists.  His narrative is very telling and puts the reader on the edge of their seat, i.e.,   “Kennedy reached the top of the stairs and stepped into the night air.  It felt good to be out there.  The cloud of fuel vapor was insane; he’d never seen anything like it.  Kennedy was tired.  He decided to sit for a moment on the concrete curb outside the access portal.  It had been a hell of a night.  Livingston switched the fan on and came back upstairs.  He was a foot or two behind Kennedy when the Titan II exploded.” (392)  Following the explosion, chaos resulted, in part because of human nature, but also because of the lack of planning and communication due to bureaucratic incompetence.  The Air Force refused to publicly admit what had occurred and the danger involved.  Schlosser grows incredulous at the obstinacy and carelessness of the military as they confront the crisis and to cover themselves, Kennedy and Livingston, two “Explosive Ordinance Disposal” technicians are blamed for the explosion.

Schlosser’s descriptions are based on impeccable research through interviewing the participants and familiarizing himself with the pertinent secondary and primary source material.  His command of the events narrated allow him to take the reader inside the stair wells, behind the blast doors, into the command center as people are met with deadly fumes.  The narrative points to an inability to integrate the necessary safety conditions by employing available techniques to make our nuclear assets safer.  Even in the 1980s, when it was realized that the Titan II needed an overhaul, attitudes existed to not institute safety changes in the Titan II rationalizing that since they were much older than the newer weapons the money to make them safer was not a priority.  Positions such as this make the reader boil and it is with a measure of hope that one can point to the retirement of the Titan II during the Reagan administration.  However, one must not feel too secure as Reagan spent $1.5 trillion on new weaponry during his administration, but at least $18 billion went to rectify some of the safety issues and address the concerns dealing with who was in charge and who would make decisions concerning nuclear weapons, better known as command and control.  Schlosser’s book is extremely unsettling in the post Cold War world where countries like Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran either have nuclear weapons or are very close to developing them, but despite the discomfort of learning the story Schlosser tells, he is to be commended for telling it.

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