'Command and Control:' Eric Schlosser's scary-but-true tales of America's nuclear weapons

Near-miss nation


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"Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety," by acclaimed journalist Eric Schlosser, sometimes reads like a political thriller and sometimes like a science fiction novel.

It's easy to forget that the stories within it are true. Mr. Schlosser is a tremendously adept investigative reporter. His 2001 best-seller, "Fast Food Nation," examined the history of fast food restaurants in the United States and the social and industrial mechanisms that have allowed them to thrive.


"COMMAND AND CONTROL: NUCLEAR WEAPONS, THE DAMASCUS ACCIDENT AND THE ILLUSION OF SAFETY"

By Eric Schlosser
Penguin Press ($36).


In "Command and Control," Mr. Schlosser returns to the two-tiered story format, pairing the history of nuclear weapons, policy and safety in the United States with a thorough account of the 1980 accident at a Titan II missile silo in Damascus, Ala.

Most of his source material comes from recently declassified government documents. From White House transcripts to Air Force manifests, we learn of the numerous near-miss accidents involving nuclear warheads from the days of the Manhattan Project to the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of these close calls came to light recently when Mr. Schlosser shared documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act with news outlets.

In 1961, a routine airborne alert mission ended in the accidental release of two nuclear warheads over Goldsboro, N.C. Although Air Force officials assured the public that there was never a risk of nuclear explosion, the accident was a dramatic illustration of the shortcomings of the safety features on the warheads, the missiles used to launch them and the planes used to transport them around the world.

Many of these accidents were the result of inadequate safety features on the missiles used to launch warheads or the planes used to transport them around the world. Although none of these accidents resulted in the detonation of a warhead, the tenuousness of life in the early nuclear age is still frightening after all these years.

Perhaps the scariest stories in "Command and Control" are those that show just how close the United States came to engaging in a global nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union. From training exercises gone awry to rogue electrical currents, it's hard to imagine a world where the future of the human race relied so heavily on supercomputers with the processing power of calculators or the much-rumored red telephone direct to the Kremlin.

In contrasting a 50-year history with 24 hours in the life of a nuclear accident, Mr. Schlosser shows the effects of nuclear policy and practice on the ground.

Although the historical chapters can be dense, the Damascus chapters are incredibly gripping. The balance between the two provides a unique understanding of nuclear protocols and frustration with the many layers of bureaucracy that accompany them.

Overall, Mr. Schlosser's quick, journalistic writing style makes the subject matter easy to understand though it is occasionally difficult to follow the cast of military personnel, White House officials, scientists and engineers.

The easiest-to-follow personalities are the U.S. presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. With the change of each administration, Mr. Schlosser also shows the shifts in nuclear policy -- specifically those pertaining to a U.S. response to Soviet aggression.

Once again, Mr. Schlosser has provided readers with another aspect of American life to be simultaneously riveted and repulsed by. The scientific and engineering feats that created nuclear power are admirable, but the question of ultimate purpose has given even the creators pause from the very beginning.

Throughout the book, the necessity of nuclear weapons is considered by those who worked to create them, those who worked to protect them, and those whose decision it is to put them to use.

Looking at the 10 presidential administrations from World War II to the end of the Cold War, it's clear that political ideology has not necessarily been a determining element in the debate for or against nuclear weaponry. As more nations have gained nuclear capabilities in the past 20 years, our awareness or fear of nuclear war seems to be hidden behind other threats.

With nine nuclear capable nations around the world, the primary fear isn't entirely the use of these weapons in a global conflict. As Mr. Schlosser notes, nuclear weapons are the most dangerous technology ever created, and though they may have a near-perfect history of safety, they are in the hands of nature's most imperfect beings -- humans.

The United States has had more than 70 years of research, testing, improvement and good luck in its nuclear history. The odds may not favor emerging nations as well.

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Elliott Mower is the assistant director of external affairs at Pittsburgh Public Theater.


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