Techno thrillers have got nothing on this true-life account of the United States’ misadventures with nuclear weaponry. There is genuine heart-in-your-throat suspense in Eric Schlosser’s accounting of the big hits and near-misses during the past half-century of the nuclear age. Just a few pages into “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety” (ISBN 978-1-59420-227-8) a Titan II missile begins leaking fuel inside its launch silo and The Scare begins to wrap itself around you.
The Titan II, nine stories tall, was essentially a huge canister containing engines, rocket propellant, and a W-53 thermonuclear warhead with a yield of nine megatons, which author Eric Schlosser points out is “about three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic bombs.”
Feelings of trepidation, fear, and dread stay with you for the next several hundred pages of clear, concise prose that seems calculated to stir up demand for better command and some measure of control of the world’s vast arsenal of nuclear weapons.
There was sheer terror for everyone involved in the mishap affecting the Titan II missile housed in Launch Complex 374-7 near Damascus, Arkansas — and the jolts and shocks keep building throughout the whole book. The sense of impending doom is felt even while Schlosser takes you back and forth through some of the world’s efforts to marshal the monstrosity called the A-Bomb, the H-Bomb, the Big One, and many other names.
The accident eventually concludes with a shattering explosion and a night of panic that you’ll find to be — but we shouldn’t give away too much here. Let’s just say that the twenty-seven pages of the chapter entitled “Like Hell” will be some of the most hair-raising you are likely to read for a while.
Only part of the fear associated with nuclear weapons lies in the initial destructive power of their blasts. True, they have “the potential to raise the temperature, at the point of detonation, to tens of millions degrees Fahrenheit — and increase the air pressure to many millions of pounds per square inch.” When the U.S. was still conducting live tests of nuclear weapons, there were some shocking results:
One of the world’s first electronic, digital computers had been assembled at Los Alamos to perform many of the necessary calculations. The machine was called MANIAC (Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator, and Computer), and the device that it helped to create, “Mike,” looked more like a large cylindrical whiskey still than a weapon of mass destruction. Mike was about twenty feet tall and weighed more than 120,000 pounds. The device was housed in a corrugated aluminum building on the island of Elugelab. When Mike detonated, the island disappeared. It became dust and ash, pulled upward to form a mushroom cloud that rose about twenty-seven miles into the sky. The fireball created by the explosion was three and a half miles wide. All that remained of little Elugelab was a circular crater filled with seawater, more than a mile in diameter and fifteen stories deep.
But that’s just the first step on the road to hell.
An even larger issue is what occurs after detonation, as seen in the governmental report of the “obstacle course to recovery” we would all face after a nuclear war. On that list are such minor items as “Epidemics and diseases” lasting from 2 weeks to a year; “Economic breakdown” lasting from 1-2 years; “Late radiation effects” lasting from 5-20 years; “Ecological effects” lasting from 10-50 years; and “Genetic effects” lasting from 2-several generations. The implications of those simple words should be enough to keep you awake every night.
Did any of that halt the development and testing of more weaponry? Nope. Here is Schlosser’s description of a test of something called an atomic cannon:
For the test in the Nevada desert, all sorts of things were placed near ground zero to study the weapon’s effects: trucks, tanks, railroad cars, aircraft panels, oil drums and cans of gasoline, household goods and materials — denim, flannel, rayon curtains, mops and brooms — a one-story brick structure, steel bridges, buildings that resembled motels, one hundred tall pine trees, field crops, flowers, insects, cages full of rats and mice, fifty-six dogs tethered inside aluminum tubes, forty-two pigs dressed in U.S. Army uniforms whose skin would respond to thermal radiation in a manner similar to that of human skin, and more than three thousand soldiers…
One of the ongoing battles throughout the development of nuclear weapons in the U.S. is the answer to the question of who gets to be in charge of them.
Eager to defend the civilian control of nuclear weapons from military encroachment, John F. Kennedy and Robert McNamara had fought hard to ensure that only the president could make the ultimate decision. But they hadn’t considered the possibility that the president might be clinically depressed, emotionally unstable, and drinking heavily — like Richard Nixon, during his final weeks in office. Amid the deepening Watergate scandal, Secretary of Defense [James] Schlesinger told the head of the Joint Chiefs to seek his approval before acting on “any emergency order coming from the president.” Although Schlesinger’s order raised questions about who was actually in command, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
At several places in the book, Schlosser lists some of the accidents involving the handling of nuclear weapons. Several of these incidents could be quoted here, but gosh, which ones? There are just a few from which to choose. Like, say, those mentioned on pages 56, 94-95, 113, 160, 167-70, 184-85, 191, 196-99, 245-49, 262, 307-08, 309-11, 314, 316-19, 324, 327, 334, 339-46, 372, 374-77, 380-85, 423, 440, 449-50, 452, 460, 465 and a couple of others I’m sure I’ve overlooked.
A fast skim of the index reveals such ominous entries as “Accident risks – accidental detonation odds,” “Radioactive fallout – dangers to humans,” “Accidents – bomb falls from aircraft,” “Plutonium – accidental release,” “Accident prevention – military/bureaucratic resistance to,” “Missile Potential Hazard Net – malfunction of,” and “Accident risks – warning system flaws.”
That index is generally good, although it does not have a listing for the Hanford nuclear plant that is mentioned on pages 39, 85, and 95; and the listing for the RAND Corp. omits the think tank’s appearance on pages 149, 251, 272, 274, 280, 287, 297, 302, 359, 370, and 434. (My sensitivity to these can be understood by a brief reading of a couple chapters of “Secret Sex,” which deals with some of my childhood spent near the Hanford plant when my father ran part of their computing installation; and as a kid I spent some time inside the RAND edifice when my dad held a position there.)
Schlosser has a wicked and subtle sense of humor in his writing. For example, he quotes a joint statement from the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission on how the possibility of an accident involving nuclear weapons “is so remote as to be negligible.” And this is his first sentence following that proclamation: “Less than a month later, Walter Gregg and his son, Walter Junior, were in the toolshed outside their home in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, when a Mark 6 atomic bomb landed in the yard.”
As an aside, I must salute Jennifer Jerde and Scott Hesselink of Elixir Design for the superb book jacket design of “Command and Control.” As a kid, I often saw my dad reading from manuscripts with those blue government-clunky covers. The graphic created by Jerde/Hesselink instantly took me back to the Tri-Cities area around the Hanford facility.
First and Last
At one point in the book, Schlosser plunks you down at the first test of a nuclear weapon, an event with the code name of Trinity. He writes about how one observer stepped out of the control bunker right before detonation and saw “the fireball and was knocked to the ground by the blast wave. He was about six miles from where the tower had just stood. This is what the end of the world will look like, he thought — this is the last thing the last man will see.”
Command and Control video featuring Radiohead’s “Four Minute Warning” —
More information about the book from its publisher: http://www.us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9781594202278,00.html .
This original review is Copr. © 2013 by John Scott G and originally published on PublishersNewswire.com – all commercial and reprint rights reserved. No fee or other consideration was paid to the reviewer, this site or its publisher by any third party for this unbiased article. Editorial illustration based on book jacket created by Christopher L. Simmons. Reproduction or republication in whole or in part without express permission is prohibited except under fair use provisions of international copyright law.