About Time I Read It: Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

One fall Friday evening in 2013 while drinking with friends at the pub someone recommended Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Sadly, like many great book recommendations I’ve received over the years it took me forever to act on my friend’s advice. I even borrowed a copy from the public library not once but twice  only to later return it unread. Last week, just like I did with Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad I decided to give Command and Control another chance. I secured a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work reading Schlosser’s 2013 book. And just like I Was Told to Come Alone I kicked myself for not reading it sooner.

Schlosser made a name for himself with his best seller Fast Food Nation but could he tackle the high stakes and technical world of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons and the global arms race they spawned? Any doubts I might have had were quickly put to rest mere pages into this book. Command and Control isn’t just a history of that arms race. It’s also a detailed and fascinating history of the costly and sometimes deadly accidents that’s plagued the weapons’ history. Anchoring this history is Schlosser’s recalling of a routine maintenance operation gone horribly awry leading to the explosion of a Titan II ICBM outside Damascus, Arkansas in 1980.

I came away from this book shocked by the sheer number of serious accidents involving nuclear weapons that have occurred over the decades. More shocking than that, it feels miraculous none of them resulted in any warheads accidentally detonating. (Although in 1961, when a B-52 broke apart over rural North Carolina and accidentally released two thermonuclear bombs one of them narrowly escaped detention. Had it gone off, it would have spread a plume of radioactive fall-out as far north as Washington DC, and just in time for Kennedy’s inauguration ceremony.) Nor did any American military commander or his NATO counterpart go rogue and facilitate the unauthorized use of one of these weapons, even during the dark hours of the Cuban Missile Crises. Luckily still, the many false alarms experienced by our nation’s early warning systems did not mistakenly set off a nuclear holocaust.

Schlosser fears we might not be so lucky in the future. Since the 1970s more countries have developed their own nuclear weapons, or in the case of Iran are actively working toward one. Pakistan and India, neighbors with deep-seated rivalries, especially over contested territory, have come close to nuking each other several times over the last twenty plus years. It’s also assumed Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has been dispersed to undisclosed locations throughout the country in hopes of protecting it from an Indian first strike. However, this potentially creates more opportunities for Islamic terrorists or rogue elements within the military to commandeer a warhead. Overall, while some developing countries like India and Pakistan have been able to incorporate Western technology into their respective nuclear weapons programs Schlosser wonders if they have also successfully imported our culture of safety and associated protocols. With India, Pakistan and Iran all possessing significantly higher industrial accident rates than the United States perhaps we should be concerned.

I found Command and Control even better than I’d expected and easily makes my year-end list of favorite nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.

One thought on “About Time I Read It: Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

  1. Pingback: 2021 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction | Maphead's Book Blog

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