Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety, by Eric Schlosser

Today I'm looking at Command and Control by Eric Schlosser which is divided into roughly two parts. The first part deals with the Damascus Incident in 1980 where a Titan II missile, armed with a nuclear warhead, exploded within its own silo outside the rural town of Damascus, Arkansas. The other half of the book deals with a significant chunk of America's history with nuclear weapons from the Manhattan Project of World War II, to what little information is available about current U.S. deployments of atomic weapons. The result is a very frightening picture of how the most lethal and dangerous weapons humanity has ever created, capable of wiping out life on the planet, have nearly done so through human error and it's almost sheer luck that the Cold War passed without an atomic exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The biggest thing I question about this book is Schlosser's decision to divide the focus of the book. The book starts with the beginning of the Damascus Incident where a technician, adjusting fuel levels inside the rocket, dropped a socket from a gantry. The socket then bounced off the missile but not before piercing its skin and creating a fuel leak. The situation only got worse from there. The book then shifts focus and goes back to the Manhattan project and the very first atomic weapons, which were such extremely ramshackle affairs that it's almost a miracle they worked. Schlosser then talks about the ensuing fight among the armed forces for control of the atomic stockpile, which in 1946 consisted of approximately one functional bomb.

At the start of the book it's kind of a weird division because you jump back and forth between the narrow story of a situation rapidly getting out of hand at Damascus and the broader history of America's atomic weapons policy. Over time I sort of understood why Schlosser made the decision. As the staff at the missile silo try to resolve the problem before an accidental atomic detonation occurs, they run into the extensive bureaucracy of Strategic Air Command which wastes precious hours dallying about how to best solve the problem before coming up with a solution the people on the ground find confusing or downright stupid. Schlosser then spends time explaining how exactly that bureaucracy, which was originally created to prevent unauthorized use of atomic weapons, came into existence. Schlosser also spends a good chunk of the book going into a lot of close calls and near misses, including a time we scattered plutonium dust over Greenland, which illustrates how the Damascus Incident, rather than being an unusual outlier, was actually uncomfortably close to the mean.

 It does raise the question of why Schlosser chose to focus on Damascus out of all the other examples. It is fairly late in the Cold War, which means numerous policies that had been developed through the fifties and sixties would now be in place. Furthermore it's an example of an obsolete weapon system, utilizing highly dangerous liquid fuels in leaking, poorly maintained rockets which made an accident almost guaranteed. It is nearly miraculous that the warhead, which was blown out of the silo and landed in the Arkansas countryside after flying a thousand feet into the air, was mostly intact and did not contaminate miles of Arkansas. But compared to numerous other examples from Greenland to Morocco to airbases in the United States, Damascus is just one of countless examples of things inevitably going wrong. It is only that with atomic weapons the risk is so, so much greater.

The impression I got most from this book is how dangerously uncontrolled America's atomic arsenal has been in the past and continues to be. The first atomic bombs were almost ad hoc in their construction and certainly should not have been loaded into bombers which would then fly on alert in case the Russians launched a surprise attack. The fact that B-29 and B-52 bombers have a frightening tendency to crash or catch on fire, especially as their flight times began to rack up thanks to constant airborne alerts, makes it no less distressing. There are unfortunately multiple incidents where a fire or crash of a B-52 bomber imperiled its nuclear payloads and in some cases spread plutonium dust over a wide area. To say nothing of bombs which were accidentally released through a crewman pulling the wrong lever at the wrong time.

On top of this considering how tense relations between the United States and Soviet Union were through the Cold War, as well as an almost fatalistic assumption that an atomic war wasn't a matter of if so much as when, it's almost a miracle that we're sitting here right now with only two atomic bombs having been used in warfare to date. (And hopefully it stays that way.) After all, an important contributing cause of World War I was the widespread assumption in Europe that a war was bound to break out sooner or later to the point it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The almost constant accidents involving atomic weapons, as well as numerous false alarms caused by aging computers or faulty detection systems for organizations such as NORAD, and scant security the military employed around atomic weapons, made atomic war all that much easier to cause by accident. Most chilling of all, the lack of Strategic Air Command for any plan beyond a devastating first strike against the Soviet Union, with thousands of warheads, means even the American high command either did not plan for or did not expect to confront whatever happened after the missiles had landed.

Overall I think this book was rather interesting, even if I was sort of confused by Schlosser's organization. As I said, it makes a lot more sense as you get further into the book and gives you a better understanding of how the atomic arsenal has been managed in the United States. The Damascus Incident goes from being an incredibly terrifying and dangerous situation to almost being downright mundane. Make no mistake, we got off lucky and even then one serviceman was killed and several others were seriously wounded, but it's almost typical of all the other close calls we've accumulated over the years. If this is a subject you're interested in I'd definitely recommend checking it out.

- Kalpar

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