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Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safetyby Eric Schlosser
Synopses & Reviews
The author of Fast Food Nation blends a riveting minute-by-minute account of an H-bomb accident with a chilling assessment of the grave threat we face from nuclear weapons.
At the height of the cold war in the American heartland, a combination of human error, aging equipment, mismanagement, and bad luck threatened to set off a nuclear weapon far more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In unprecedented you-are-there detail, Schlosser uses this long-forgotten incident to examine the nuclear near misses of the past sixty years. He also pays tribute to the American scientists, engineers, and military officers who struggled to ensure that nuclear weapons wouldn't go off by accident or by the deliberate acts of madmen and fanatics. It is miraculous, Schlosser concludes, that an American city has not yet been destroyed by a nuclear weapon. And there is no guarantee that such good luck will last. A former secretary of defense and a former dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government have both suggested the odds are about even that a nuclear weapon will be detonated on American soil by the end of this decade. More than global warming or economic upheaval, this is the greatest danger we now face.
Command and Control takes us into nuclear weapons laboratories, missile silos, and the cockpits of B-52 bombers to show how perilously close we have come to disaster. Schlosser does not offer a simplistic condemnation of military warmongers or irresponsible leadership. Indeed, he finds much to admire in the men and women who risked their lives — and sometimes lost them — in order to keep America safe in the nuclear age. It is a saga of technological ingenuity and blind faith in science, of personal heroism and bureaucratic incompetence, of a desperate need for control and the ultimate illusion of control. It is a sobering account of how many lives can depend on the proper functioning of a single switch.
Command and Control unveils the risks faced by every country that chooses to possess nuclear weapons. Drawing upon recently declassified documents and interviews with arms designers, defense mavens, and the crews who manned our arsenal, Schlosser does far more than sound the alarm about today's nuclear threat. In much the same way that Fast Food Nation used our industrial food system to paint a sweeping portrait of American society, Command and Control shows how a system designed to control our nuclear weapons has come to endanger and control us.
"In 1980 in rural Damascus, Ark., two young Air Force technicians (one was 21 years old, the other 19) began a routine maintenance procedure on a 103-foot-tall Titan II nuclear warhead — armed intercontinental ballistic missile. All was going according to plan until one of the men dropped a wrench, which fell 70 feet before hitting the rocket and setting off a chain reaction with alarming consequences. After that nail-biting opening, investigative reporter Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) goes on to tell the thrilling story of the heroism, ingenuity, mistakes, and destruction that followed. At intervals, he steps back to deliver an equally captivating history of the development and maintenance of America's nuclear arsenal from WWII to the present. Though the Cold War has ended and concerns over nuclear warfare have mostly been eclipsed by the recent preoccupation with terrorist threats, Schlosser makes it abundantly clear that nukes don't need to be launched to still be mind-bogglingly dangerous. Mixing expert commentary with hair-raising details of a variety of mishaps, the author makes the convincing case that our best control systems are no match for human error, bad luck, and ever-increasing technological complexity. 'Mutually assured destruction' is a terrifying prospect, but Schlosser points out that there may be an even more frightening possibility: self-assured destruction. Agent: Tina Bennett, WME Entertainment. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Vivid and unsettling... An exhaustive, unnerving examination of the illusory safety of atomic arms." Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"The lesson of this powerful and disturbing book is that the world's nuclear arsenals are not as safe as they should be. We should take no comfort in our skill and good fortune in preventing a nuclear catastrophe, but urgently extend our maximum effort to assure that a nuclear weapon does not go off by accident, mistake, or miscalculation." Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative; Co-Chair, Blue Ribbon Commission on Americas Nuclear Future; Director, the Center on Congress at Indiana University
"The lesson of this powerful and disturbing book is that the worlds nuclear arsenals are not as safe as they should be. We should take no comfort in our skill and good fortune in preventing a nuclear catastrophe, but urgently extend our maximum effort to assure that a nuclear weapon does not go off by accident, mistake, or miscalculation." Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative; Co-Chair, Blue Ribbon Commission on Americas Nuclear Future; Director, the Center on Congress at Indiana University
"[A] chilling, concise history of America's precarious nuclear arsenal... vivid and unsettling." Kirkus (STARRED REVIEW)
Famed investigative journalist Eric Schlosser digs deep to uncover secrets about the management of America's nuclear arsenal. A ground-breaking account of accidents, near-misses, extraordinary heroism, and technological breakthroughs, Command and Control explores the dilemma that has existed since the dawn of the nuclear age: how do you deploy weapons of mass destruction without being destroyed by them? That question has never been resolved — and Schlosser reveals how the combination of human fallibility and technological complexity still poses a grave risk to mankind.
Written with the vibrancy of a first-rate thriller, Command and Control interweaves the minute-by-minute story of an accident at a nuclear missile silo in rural Arkansas with a historical narrative that spans more than fifty years. It depicts the urgent effort by American scientists, policymakers, and military officers to ensure that nuclear weapons can't be stolen, sabotaged, used without permission, or detonated inadvertently. Schlosser also looks at the Cold War from a new perspective, offering history from the ground up, telling the stories of bomber pilots, missile commanders, maintenance crews, and other ordinary servicemen who risked their lives to avert a nuclear holocaust. At the heart of the book lies the struggle, amid the rolling hills and small farms of Damascus, Arkansas, to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States.
Drawing on recently declassified documents and interviews with men who designed and routinely handled nuclear weapons, Command and Control takes readers into a terrifying but fascinating world that, until now, has been largely hidden from view. Through the details of a single accident, Schlosser illustrates how an unlikely event can become unavoidable, how small risks can have terrible consequences, and how the most brilliant minds in the nation can only provide us with an illusion of control. Audacious, gripping, and unforgettable, Command and Control is a tour de force of investigative journalism, an eye-opening look at the dangers of America's nuclear age.
About the Author
Eric Schlosser is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and The Nation.
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