Command and Control

Michael Goodman explores an idiosyncratic take on the US's attitude to nuclear weapons during the 20th century

CommandandControl125-7c29f7e

Reviewed by: Eric Schlosser
Author: Eric Schlosser
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £25

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Command and Control, we are told at the outset, “explores the precarious balance between the need for nuclear weapon safety and the need to defend the United States from attack”. Journalist Eric Schlosser, the author of 2001’s Fast Food Nation, has produced an engaging and captivating story, written in a slightly unconventional manner. There are two strands to the book: the first is an account of the ‘Damascus accident’ in September 1980 at a US air force base in Arkansas, when an American Titan II ballistic missile developed a serious problem. The other aspect is a chronological account of the development of the US’s nuclear weapons inventory, including technological breakthroughs and issues of command and control.

There are various contrasts to the ways in which these two aspects are retold. The Damascus accident is depicted in painstaking detail. A tool, accidentally dropped during routine maintenance, dented part of the missile, resulting in a panic-stricken and tense situation in which there was genuine concern that the missile might explode (which, in the end, it did, destroying the silo and killing an airman – although the safety features of the warhead meant that it did not detonate). This episode may be familiar to nuclear weapon aficionados, but will be unknown to most. It is fascinating. Schlosser uses government reports and has tracked down participants to convey a very real sense of the all-pervading fear as the minutes ticked by.

In contrast, the other chapters attempt to portray how the US nuclear arsenal has developed and grown. This is a much more familiar path and so Schlosser has tried, largely successfully, to outline the chronology from the perspective of the scientists, engineers and technicians, rather than political and military figures. This makes for an interesting account, but it’s a shame that he doesn’t really tackle effectively the question of who drove the technological arms race.

Both strands are interwoven in the book. To start with this makes for quite a novel read, but by the time the reader is halfway through, he or she might be left utterly bewildered by the huge number of individuals involved. Perhaps for this reason Schlosser provides a ‘cast of characters’ at the start. This helps, but continually referring back to it proves frustrating.

Command and Control is an example of popular science writing, much in the vein of Richard Preston’s work. Although the content is factual, it’s written as if it were fiction, the narrative strewn with conversation and atmosphere. To emphasise this, when new characters are introduced, Schlosser quickly and effectively reveals something about their nature and characteristics. The result is a fast-paced and highly readable account.

It remains hard to know quite what to make of the book. It is about much more than just nuclear weapons chronology, command issues and safety. On one level, it tackles a relatively well-known story, but emphasises the human aspects. On another, it spends too long dissecting the Damascus accident while whistling through nuclear weapons chronology. What is certain is that Schlosser has produced an enthralling work full of fascinating gems. While its polemical conclusion might not appeal, his book is certainly worthy of attention.

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Michael Goodman is co-author of the Routledge Companion to Intelligence Studies (Routledge, 2013)