Book review: Command and Control—Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety

Command and Control—Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety

by Eric Schlosser

New York City: The Penguin Press, 2013

For a rather long work of non-fiction I tore through this book pretty quickly, mostly because it reads like a thriller and leaves the reader turning pages as promptly as if in the thick of an engrossing novel. That's a great credit to the author, a savvy and experienced investigative journalist, and also to the true story of the Damascus Incident itself, where a Titan missile was badly damaged in what at first appeared to be a very simple and rather harmless accident (a socket from a large socket wrench fell tens of feet, bounced off the missile's thrust mount and hit the missile itself) but became a major crisis as a fuel leak developed. Schlosser adeptly tells this story and introduces us to the men who worked fearlessly to keep the missile from exploding (due to this fuel leak, not due to any issue with its nuclear warhead) and also to remove and secure the warhead itself. Weaved in between the chapters telling of the crisis with the Titan missile however, Schlosser also provides a detailed technical history of the American nuclear arsenal, our command and control systems and the theories of how our arsenal would keep the Soviets at bay and, via having deadly nuclear weapons we'd hope never to use, we could win the Cold War. Schlosser includes in this comprehensive history all the major developments from the Manhattan Project up to around 1980 when the Damascus Incident takes place and does a stellar job of getting nuclear weapons technology into layman's terms while yet retaining a lot of interesting and important information often left out of popular accounts. 

Schlosser really shines when he is writing about the Air Force missile crews and their work to save the troubled Titan missile from explosion or other ruin after the accident: you really get to know these men page-by-page, their quirks and personalities and how they worked together to deal with a strange and challenging crisis. Like other great journalists doing long-form journalism concerned with historical events, such as Stephen S. Hall or Nathaniel Comfort, Schlosser is adept at making real people come to life via their histories—possibly including plenty of people he never met but got to know through interviews with those who knew them well and via primary source documents. And while you get a feeling that the author believes the massive nuclear weapons enterprise of the Cold War was a fool's errand all in all, he obviously has a great respect for the men who brought about the technological innovations that allowed it to happen and the Air Force officers and enlisted men who actually oversaw and tended to the missiles. 

The structure of the book, though, in having a chapter concerning the play-by-play of the Damascus Incident as it unfolds followed by a chapter about, say, the hydrogen bomb or General Curtis LeMay's building of SAC gets a bit confusing and irksome in places but probably was all in all the best approach. The only other means for inclusion of these two related but separate stories (the problem with the Titan missile and the general history of America's nuclear arsenal) would be to divide the book in two sections and have one contain all the chapters on the Titan story while the other contained all the chapters on the general nuclear weapons history, which in fact would more or less leave us with two different books. That said, when you're reading about the problems with the Titan missile only to come to the end of that chapter and encounter one about General LeMay, it becomes irritating. 

As I maintain this blog and write elsewhere on nuclear/Cold War history, I knew most of the general history of the Manhattan Project and later weapons development projects covered in Command and Control and I've also read nearly everything that isn't classified on the actual command and control of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, especially Ashton Carter's majestic works. The material presented is at times basic, as expected for a lay-readership, but useful and in general comprehensive. If you don't know already what the Teller-Ulam H-bomb design was or why it came about, you'll learn that; for those (probably most reading this blog) who know these basics, you can skip over these passages, however, sometimes there are small gems of personal information about the scientists and engineers involved in the Manhattan Project and early AEC efforts that I've not seen elsewhere and probably came to light via intense research by the author. To that end, it's clear Schlosser has studied up, interviewed the right people, and read the right books to produce this volume—make no mistake about it. No, it's not a technical or policy publication like you'd find from the RAND Corporation, but for a popular book that tells an engaging story while furnishing quality information on the bigger picture of nuclear forces from the 1950s to the fall of the USSR, it could hardly do better than it has.