Earlier today I finished Eric Schlosser’s excellent book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Using a deadly 1980 incident at a Titan-II missile silo in Arkansas as the entry point, Schlosser examines the history of nuclear weapons from the Manhattan Project to post-9/11.
Highly readable, the narrative frightens, astonishes and angers in turns. Mishaps and near mishaps are detailed, as are bureaucratic infighting among the military branches, doctrinal disagreements between politicians and generals, and the personal bravery of many who worked to keep the bombs safe from the drawing board to those in and around them in the field.
Schlosser’s vivid recreation of the silo incident at Damascus, Arkansas, is spread throughout the book, an editorial concept that I found brilliant. The focus shifts from that claustrophobic, spiraling-out-of-control situation to overviews of how the United States developed its nuclear warplans and stockpiles, peppered with plenty of stories of mismanagement and mistakes that somehow didn’t end up with a nuclear detonation. Some reviewers found the back-and-forth disorienting, but I thought it worked exceptionally well to tell both stories, the tactical and the strategic, as it were.
These days we are apt to worry first about terrorism, when we think about security issues, and forget that it really was not so long ago that the US and USSR were squared off in the Cold War. The sobering fact is that even if we don’t remember the Cold War, the physical reminders are still out there, in silos and armories throughout the world:
AS OF THIS WRITING, the United States has approximately 4,650 nuclear weapons. About 300 are assigned to long-range bombers, 500 are deployed atop Minuteman III missiles, and 1,150 are carried by Trident submarines. An additional 200 or so hydrogen bombs are stored in Turkey, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands for use by NATO aircraft. About 2,500 nuclear weapons are held in reserve, mainly at the Kirtland Underground Munitions Maintenance and Storage Complex near Albuquerque, New Mexico.
— Schlosser, Eric (2013-09-17). Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion ofSafety (p. 476). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
After reading this book, you will look at the numbers above and feel very uncertain. I highly recommend Command and Control, and give it Five Stars.
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I’m a child of the Cold War: born in 1961, my first birthday was a month after the Cuban Missile Crisis ended, and I remember crawling under my desk in grade school during “atomic attack” drills and seeing Fallout Shelter signs posted in my school and church. The threat of nuclear war in large part defined my generation, so I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the movies that I’ve seen in which it was addressed. Mr. Schlosser discusses most of these in Command and Control.
On the Beach (1959). A global nuclear war leaves only Australia habitable, but drifting radiation will soon cover Down Under. With the government issuing suicide pills, a death-race version of the Australian Grand Prix, and Gregory Peck as a US Navy submarine captain, there is a lot going on in this movie, which ends in suitably somber fashion.
Fail-Safe (1964). Tension so thick you can cut it with a knife, I first saw this movie at about eleven or twelve years of age and it scared the be-gosh out of me. Through a series of mistakes and malfunctions a squadron of American bombers is sent on an attack run into the Soviet Union, going past the “fail-safe” point where they normally loiter on strategic patrols. There is also a later version of this film, made by and starring George Clooney, but I haven’t seen it.
The Bedford Incident (1965). Richard Widmark as a US Navy destroyer captain locked in a grim game of cat and mouse with a Russian submarine, a game that escalates to a nuclear exchange. The ending, in which the pinging of atomic-tipped torpedoes is broadcast over the ship’s loudspeakers as Widmark stands passively by, unable to stop them, is gripping.
Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964). I think I’ve actually only seen the full movie once or at most twice. Hailed as a black comedy, I never liked this film and didn’t find much to laugh at. I was probably way to serious as a kid. 🙂 Maybe I should watch it again now, as a reasonably mature (?!) adult.
Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977). Read the book, saw the movie and I thought the book was better. Burt Lancaster plays a renegade Air Force general who breaks out of military jail and takes over a missile silo to ransom it in exchange for money and the release of a document stating the US never intended on winning the Vietnam War. Sounds muddled? It was, but still an interesting peek at the time period.
WarGames (1983). A cautionary tale about both nuclear war and computer automation with a pre-Ferris Bueller Matthew Broderick and pre-Breakfast Club Ally Sheedy. Fun, fast-moving and loosely based on a real incident that is detailed in Mr. Schlosser’s book, but the beginning scene of the movie is quite grim and much out of character with the rest.
The Day After (1983). A TV movie some estimates say was watched by half the adult population of the US when it was first broadcast by ABC in 1983. There is an almost documentary feel and the focus is the civilian population, which nervously watches news reports on TV sets and the radio as the US and Soviet Union slowly drift into a war. The war leads to a nuclear exchange, followed by scenes of civilians attempting to survive in the aftermath. Powerful stuff; I saw this after I enlisted in the Navy.
Did I miss any? (Of course I did!). Let me know in the comments below or by email (see contact tab above).