This was a birthday gift, along with A Criminal Magic, from my friend Amanda, and I’m just now getting to it—which, especially when it comes to my non-fiction backlog, isn’t actually that bad of a delay! Amanda was just getting to know me at the time, so she picked two books off my to-read list. I’m not sure why I had Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety on there in the first place (or why she chose it!). But if you want to be scared shitless by stuff that happened before you were born (at least in my case), then by all means, read this book.
Eric Schlosser has created a meticulously researched narrative about the development not just of nuclear weapons in the United States but of the bureaucratic and technological measures put in place to control them. Starting from the development of the first atomic bombs (you know the ones), he chronicles the inter-service rivalries as the Army, Air Force, and Navy jockeyed for the money and control over nuclear weapons. He explains how the thinking of politicians, generals, and their advisers about how to wage nuclear warfare against the Soviet Union evolved over the decades, often swinging back and forth between “total war” and “limited war” but without any real capability to ever effect such a switch. He examines the safety issues around these devices—and in particular, he weaves throughout the book an intense, close retelling of “the Damascus accident”, the 1980 explosion of a Titan II missile in its silo.
I’m very fascinated by the systems that affect our lives, so that’s likely why I was initially attracted to this book. I like learning about things that we don’t often know about, the little hidden edges and wrinkles to our history, like women computers, or the physical infrastructure of the Internet. Command and Control reminds us that nuclear weapons aren’t just these abstract bombs that live in a warehouse until the president decides to launch one. There is this whole, vast ecosystem entirely dedicated to maintaining these weapons, including some in a state of active alert and readiness, tipped on missiles poised to fire, either first or in response to an attack.
Maybe I should back up and position myself: I was born in 1989, just a few months before the Wall fell. I grew up blissfully innocent of the Cold War, of nuclear scares. I never really learned much about it in school, because our history classes always seemed to get up to World War II and then suddenly it was summer time, so everything after 1945 just kind of felt like a blur. I’ve pieced it together since then, but this is why I like reading books about the late twentieth century: to older people, obviously it feels like just part of their life, yet to me it’s just as inaccessible and unknowable as Tudor England.
Another bias, one that might not be so obvious, is that I have grown up embedded in a society where computers are small, fast, and most importantly, iterative. I was very young when we got a PC in our house for the first time, and I do remember dial-up Internet … but that soon became high-speed. I’m typing this on a laptop next to a desktop and to a mobile phone, with a tablet and an iPad gathering dust on the storage unit directly behind me … and then there’s the Chromecast and Raspberry Pi hooked up to the TV in the living room. I’m from the generation that just expects things to work, that is used to this invisible mesh of Wi-Fi and radio signals travelling around and through me so that all these devices work the way I want.
And what Command and Control must remind a younger person like myself is that, for the vast majority of the twentieth century, computers were not much in evidence in these systems. Yes, ENIAC and MANIAC were manifest from the very early days of the nuclear weapons program … yet they were not dominant. Whereas I now take it for granted that every room in a command centre would have a computer hooked up to a secure network or something, Schlosser talks about dumb switches and plane avionics that still work on vacuum tubes, because of course they would if they were built in the 1940s.
So I necessarily can’t tell you what you’ll think of this book if you’re older and you have lived through some of this history. Speaking for myself, as a young person, it’s a stark reminder that the systems that pervade our lives are often older and more obsolete than we care to think about. The idea that we are on the cusp of some AI Singularity seems laughable in the face of Schlosser’s descriptions of how difficult it is to coordinate all of these disparate systems.
As I read the book, my mood fluctuated between fascination and respect (for the people who put their lives on the line to manage these weapons) to horror, despair, and disgust. Just … the rhetoric of some of the people in this book, the reasons given for building so many weapons of mass destruction. I’ve never been “pro” nuke, but Command and Control has definitely solidified my “anti” nuke sentiments. There’s just no up-side to anyone having any nuclear weapons; deterrence is a joke philosophy; and nuclear weapons are not safe. If there is one takeaway from this book, it’s that the world avoided a nuclear war more on luck than any policy or procedure decisions. I’ve never actually watched all of Dr. Strangelove (sorry), but suddenly it doesn’t seem that far-fetched after what I’ve learned here.
At just over 600 pages, this book is definitely a doorstopper, and as you might expect, it occasionally reads like one. I don’t think one could successfully make a case that Schlosser’s work is not detailed enough. About 25% of this book is end material: notes, 28 pages of sources, and a hefty index (I do love me an index). This is a damned meticulous piece of work right here: respect. It took me a while to get through it, because the level of detail does not exactly invite skimming. There were times when I was a little tired of how deeply Schlosser dives into each person’s personal backstory … yet I recognize the tactic there, the way he is trying to remind us that all of the players in this decades-long enterprise are real people, with families and flaws, and that’s why nuclear weapons will always be flawed.
Command and Control is a little too specialized and long and detailed for me to say everyone should read this book. You need a certain amount of endurance and interest to read this book and get a lot out of it. And it is a very sobering read. I actually got a little emotional towards the end, as Schlosser details the aftermath of the Titan II explosion and what happened to some of the survivors … smh. Sad and angry, I am. But anyway, if these kinds of accounts fascinate you, if you want to learn more about the history of nuclear weapon development and deployment, you can’t go wrong with this one.