Thursday, October 3, 2013

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

The author, best known for Fast Food Nation, examines the history and shocking risks of SAC and the Atomic Energy Commission from World War 2 into the Cold War and beyond. Narrated by Scott Brick in often grave but lilting tones, COMMAND AND CONTROL by Eric Schlosser bears the subtitle Nuclear Weapons, the Damacus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Damascus, Arkansas was the site of an accident at a Titan 2 missile silo, which escalated to near nuclear disaster when an operator dropped a tool between the missile and silo wall, and it rebounded and caused a fuel leak. The leak lowered the pressure in the tank, which led to fuel mixing with oxidizer, resulting in an explosion leveling the facility but (luckily) not exploding the warhead, which landed in a ditch. (Then the Air Force tried to cover it all up.) Fifty-five men were killed in another silo fire. Schlosser uses the fictional device of leaving his subject at critical times to provide background history, knowing he's got your attention. That's a useful tool in itself, given that there is much history to cover running the gamut of nuclear development, deployment, politics, technical information, and a series of other near accidents, including, at one point, a mistaken Russian missile attack on par with the movie War Games, in which NORAD misstook the full moon rising over Norway as evidence of a launch. (What stopped the panic was finding out Nikita Khrushchev was visiting the UN in New York, and it wasn't likely, the Pentagon reasoned, that the other team would sacrifice their star quarterback.) The lies and gamesmanship of the arms race is evident throughout the book (big boys like their billion dollar toys), and although President Eisenhower decried the military/industrial complex for having its own agenda, he couldn't make the handling and deployment of nuclear weapons completely safe. Schlosser is good at laying out the big picture, and punctuating it with closeups of the players---from bombardiers and test engineers to politicians and service crews. Given the massive stockpiles of superbombs out there, (enough to raze the Earth several times over), is it still possible, as it was during the Cold War, for a dropped (or shot down) nuke to go off or be stolen? Is it possible for a Dr. Strangelove scenario to occur, resulting from the theft of such a city killer? The answer is yes. And that makes this one scary book. Because, as we all know, there are no shortage of nut jobs and religious fanatics wanting Armageddon to happen in their lifetime, too. Audiobook of the Month.

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