by Rick Bretz
Sometimes what you don’t know can hurt you or, after a second look at atomic and hydrogen weapons, can obliterate you.
This is what you learn after reading the book “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser. The subtitle gives away the theme, “Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.”
The book moves through the early stages of the Cold War landscape where the country’s leaders addressed many thorny issues such as fixing weapons program technical malfunctions and, even tougher, how to eliminate human errors.
In the Cold War business doing things right 99 percent of the time only gets you criticized for the other one percent when things go wrong. The men and women who keep the country safe and secure while working inside missile control centers and bombers remain examples of intelligent and reliable military professionals. The military forged new territory after World War II when they had to invent procedures and checklists for managing and controlling intercontinental ballistic missiles and warheads designed to wipe cities and countries off the map.
Despite the best planning and “What If” matrices by government and defense professionals in the military, accidents will happen and did happen. Through sheer good fortune the nuclear weapons program didn’t accidentally kill innocent civilians like the 1961 “Broken Arrow” incident near Goldsboro, NC., when bombs went through all but one of the fail safe steps that prevented a detonation after a B-52 bomber crash. Prior to that, the government even authorized military studies such as the Army’s Office of Special Weapons Development report in 1955 titled, “Acceptable Military Risks from Accidental Detonation of Atomic Weapons.” These chapters make you sit up and read with a little more attention so you won’t miss any other revealing “that was a close one” information.
This book scrutinizes and outlines the thought processes and policy battles within the civilian and military government leadership for control of the country’s use and design of the nuclear defense program. He portrays key figures at the early stages of weapons technology like Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay and Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, who had to deal with the weapons command and control issues in the beginning. A concern raised by leaders at the start was the communication time-lapse from a Soviet Union launch to the moment the President receives word that missiles were on the way. This time period was vital for having enough time to make the correct decision to launch weapons or realize it was a false indicator. If recognition and communications were slow, the President may not have had enough time to give the OK to send missiles down range in retaliation, especially if the target was the nation’s capital.
For the baby boomer generation, this book is a trip down mutual destruction memory lane. The author liberally uses the acronyms some of us have come to know and love like MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), DEFCON (Defense Readiness Condition), ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) and even some new ones like PAL (Permissive Action Link), a term used to describe a coded device installed within a nuclear warhead or bomb, like a lock to prevent unauthorized use of the weapon that might accidentally facilitate MAD.
Several of the acronyms are downright ingenious like MANIAC (Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator, and Computer), an early electronic, digital computer used at Los Alamos to design the first hydrogen bombs.
The author Schlosser, who also wrote “Fast Food Nation”, begins with an event that occurred on September 18, 1980, in a Titan II missile silo near Damascus, Arkansas. It describes the command and control center and how, through a series of mistakes, a missile came close to contaminating a large part of the state. It’s a story thread that is woven throughout the book. The author walks you through the launch complex while giving the reader a vivid picture of what a missile looks like and the difficult job “Missileers” had keeping our country safe from communist aggression. The job was much more dangerous than conventional thinking would have you believe.
The Air Force officers and airmen mentioned in the book, working at missile silos and control centers across the United States and overseas, trained diligently for a task they were given during a tense time on the Cold War timeline. They were putting into action the Cold War Theory of deterrence. In between the face-offs and stare downs, misinformation and disinformation flowed as part of campaigns to unsettle each other’s government leadership. All the while, agency and department chiefs fought for control, budgets increased, military services developed their own weapons initiatives, and strategies shifted from deterrence and MAD to the strategy of conflict escalation during the arms race.
For some people this book will get tedious in the middle when the author outlines policy arguments and protocols. The read gets interesting when he describes the many personalities that have worked in the program. Some parts take on a solemn tone at times when he writes about young people who have given their lives while flying missions or trying to prevent a missile silo from contaminating an area.
I recommend this book if you want to read about the history of America’s arms race with the Soviet Union and how the two countries played a high stakes game of poker with millions of lives on the table. At times, America bluffed and other times the Soviet Union had the bad hand but played as if they had a straight flush.