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

( 36 )

Overview

A myth-shattering exposé of America’s nuclear weapons

Famed investigative journalist Eric Schlosser digs deep to uncover secrets about the management of America’s nuclear arsenal. A groundbreaking 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...

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Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion ofSafety

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Overview

A myth-shattering exposé of America’s nuclear weapons

Famed investigative journalist Eric Schlosser digs deep to uncover secrets about the management of America’s nuclear arsenal. A groundbreaking 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. While the harms of global warming increasingly dominate the news, the equally dangerous yet more immediate threat of nuclear weapons has been largely forgotten.

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, policy makers, 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 people 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.

2014 Pulitzer Prize Finalist for History

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

On September 18th, 1980, an accident involving an airman inadvertently dropping a single socket narrowly missed creating a nuclear catastrophe on American soil. That little-known Arkansas incident serves as an entry point for this jolting new examination by versatile investigative journalist and author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation; Reefer Madness). Command and Control shows how Cold War priorities, pervasive secrecy and public ignorance about the volatility of radioactive material have led to an false illusions of safety. This call for awareness is strengthened by recently declassified government records and interviews with military leaders and others at the "peace time" front lines.

The New Yorker - Louis Menand
…an excellent journalistic investigation of the efforts made since the first atomic bomb was exploded, outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, to put some kind of harness on nuclear weaponry. By a miracle of information management, Schlosser has synthesized a huge archive of material, including government reports, scientific papers, and a substantial historical and polemical literature on nukes, and transformed it into a crisp narrative covering more than fifty years of scientific and political change. And he has interwoven that narrative with a hair-raising, minute-by-minute account of an accident at a Titan II missile silo in Arkansas, in 1980, which he renders in the manner of a techno-thriller…Command and Control is how nonfiction should be written.
Publishers Weekly
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.)
TIME Magazine - Lev Grossman
A devastatingly lucid and detailed new history of nuclear weapons in the U.S. … fascinating.
New York Times Book Review
Disquieting but riveting… fascinating… Schlosser's readers (and he deserves a great many) will be struck by how frequently the people he cites attribute the absence of accidental explosions and nuclear war to divine intervention or sheer luck rather than to human wisdom and skill. Whatever was responsible, we will clearly need many more of it in the years to come.
Mother Jones
Easily the most unsettling work of nonfiction I've ever read, Schlosser's six-year investigation of America's 'broken arrows' (nuclear weapons mishaps) is by and large historical—this stuff is top secret, after all—but the book is beyond relevant. It's critical reading in a nation with thousands of nukes still on hair-trigger alert.
Library Journal
★ 09/15/2013
Best-selling author Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) explores the history of America's attempts to make its nuclear weapons available for the purposes of deterrence while still safely storing them. The record, according to Schlosser, is very mixed, with thousands of minor to major accidents over the past 60 years. He recounts the major accident involving an armed nuclear missile silo in Damascus, AR, in September 1980, to show how complicated systems involving human actors inevitably fail and can easily result in catastrophe. Basing his conclusions on extensive interviews with those involved in the Damascus incident and many others, as well as on recently declassified records, Schlosser emphasizes that the U.S. military's demands for reliable nuclear weapons have prevailed over the concerns of weapon designers and civilian leadership about the need for safe weapons storage that would ensure low risk of accidental detonation. While Americans found intentional nuclear war a frightening prospect during the Cold War, accidental nuclear disasters were an unrecognized danger. VERDICT This is a welcome addition to a field dominated by books by nuclear-weapons and strategy experts. It will appeal to a general audience as an engrossing read about Cold War history as well as to those interested in nuclear weapons and U.S. national defense policy.—Mark Jones, Mercantile Lib., Cincinnati
Kirkus Reviews
The chilling, concise history of America's precarious nuclear arsenal. Investigative journalist Schlosser's (Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, 2003, etc.) vivid and unsettling treatise spreads across a 70-year span of the development and control of nuclear weaponry. At the core of the author's scrutiny is the suspensefully narrated back story of the Arkansas-based Titan II military missile silo. A disastrous mishap in 1980 involving an accidentally punctured fuel tank caused a near-detonation and collapse of the missile, killing a young repairman and sparking an investigation into the hazardous nature of all military nuclear armaments. Schlosser frames this incident around four decades of the Cold War, the Eisenhower and Truman administrations, the Cuban missile crisis, the bravery of servicemen like Gen. Curtis LeMay, and the eerily accurate predictions and statistical determinations of nuclear strategist Fred Iklé. Testimony from a massive list of scientists and engineers further elucidates what Schlosser considers to be the nation's perpetual military defense conundrum: "the need for a nuclear weapon to be safe and the need for it to be reliable." Throughout, he chillingly extrapolates the long-standing history of nuclear near-misses with the engagement of a fiction writer. He also examines the heavily endorsed anti-nuclear foreign policies proselytized by politicians and probes the operational processes of nuclear missiles and warheads, though the specter of decimation at the hands of a weapon of mass destruction looms over each chapter. With this cautionary text, Schlosser, who pinged processed food and the underground economy onto America's cultural radar, succeeds in increasing awareness for more stringent precautions and less of the casual mismanagement of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, he respectfully memorializes those Cold War heroes (and countless others, like nuclear weapon safety lobbyist Bob Peurifoy) who've prevented nuclear holocausts from being written into the annals of American history. An exhaustive, unnerving examination of the illusory safety of atomic arms.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594202278
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 9/17/2013
  • Pages: 640
  • Sales rank: 41,233
  • Product dimensions: 6.68 (w) x 9.38 (h) x 1.91 (d)

Read an Excerpt

On September 18, 1980, at about six thirty in the evening, Senior Airman David F. Powell and Airman Jeffrey L. Plumb walked into the silo at Launch Complex 374-7, a few miles north of Damascus, Arkansas. They were planning to do a routine maintenance procedure on a Titan II missile. They’d spent countless hours underground at complexes like this one. But no matter how many times they entered the silo, the Titan II always looked impressive. It was the largest intercontinental ballistic missile ever built by the United States: 10 feet in diameter and 103 feet tall, roughly the height of a nine-story building. It had an aluminum skin with a matte finish and U.S. AIR FORCE painted in big letters down the side. The nose cone on top of the Titan II was deep black, and inside it sat a W-53 thermonuclear warhead, the most powerful weapon ever carried by an American missile. The warhead had a yield of 9 megatons—about three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic bombs.

Day or night, winter or spring, the silo always felt the same. It was eerily quiet, and mercury vapor lights on the walls bathed the missile in a bright white glow. When you opened the door on a lower level and stepped into the launch duct, the Titan II loomed above you like an immense black-tipped silver bullet, loaded in a concrete gun barrel, primed, cocked, ready to go, and pointed at the sky

The missile was designed to launch within a minute and hit a target as far as six thousand miles away. In order to do that, the Titan II relied upon a pair of liquid propellants—a rocket fuel and an oxidizer—that were “hypergolic.” The moment they came into contact with each other, they’d instantly and forcefully ignite. The missile had two stages, and inside both of them, an oxidizer tank rested on top of a fuel tank, with pipes leading down to an engine. Stage 1, which extended about seventy feet upward from the bottom of the missile, contained about 85,000 pounds of fuel and 163,000 pounds of oxidizer. Stage 2, the upper section where the warhead sat, was smaller and held about one fourth of those amounts. If the missile were launched, fuel and oxidizer would flow through the stage 1 pipes, mix inside the combustion chambers of the engine, catch on fire, emit hot gases, and send almost half a million pounds of thrust through the supersonic convergent-divergent nozzles beneath it. Within a few minutes, the Titan II would be fifty miles off the ground.

The two propellants were extremely efficient—and extremely dangerous. The fuel, Aerozine-50, could spontaneously ignite when it came into contact with everyday things like wool, rags, or rust. As a liquid, Aerozine-50 was clear and colorless. As a vapor, it reacted with the water and the oxygen in the air and became a whitish cloud with a fishy smell. This fuel vapor could be explosive in proportions as low as 2 percent. Inhaling it could cause breathing difficulties, a reduced heart rate, vomiting, convulsions, tremors, and death. The fuel was also highly carcinogenic and easily absorbed through the skin.

The missile’s oxidizer, nitrogen tetroxide, was even more hazardous. Under federal law, it was classified as a “Poison A,” the most deadly category of man-made chemicals. In its liquid form, the oxidizer was a translucent, yellowy brown. Although not as flammable as the fuel, it could spontaneously ignite if it touched leather, paper, cloth, or wood. And its boiling point was only 70 degrees Fahrenheit. At temperatures any higher, the liquid oxidizer boiled into a reddish brown vapor that smelled like ammonia. Contact with water turned the vapor into a corrosive acid that could react with the moisture in a person’s eyes or skin and cause severe burns. When inhaled, the oxidizer could destroy tissue in the upper respiratory system and the lungs. The damage might not be felt immediately. Six to twelve hours after being inhaled, the stuff could suddenly cause headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, pneumonia, and pulmonary edema leading to death.

Powell and Plumb were missile repairmen. They belonged to Propellant Transfer System (PTS) Team A of the 308th Strategic Missile Wing, headquarters was about an hour or so away at Little Rock Air Force Base.

They’d been called to the site that day because a warning light had signaled that pressure was low in the stage 2 oxidizer tank. If the pressure fell too low, the oxidizer wouldn’t flow smoothly to the engine. A “low light” could mean a serious problem—a rupture, a leak. But it was far more likely that a slight change in temperature had lowered the pressure inside the tank.

Air-conditioning units in the silo were supposed to keep the missile cooled to about 60 degrees. If Powell and Plum didn’t find any leaks, they’d simply unscrew the cap on the oxidizer tank and add more nitrogen gas. The nitrogen maintained a steady pressure on the liquid inside, pushing downward. It was a simple, mundane task, like putting air in your tires before long drive.

Powell had served on a PTS team for almost three years and knew the hazards of the Titan II. During his first visit to a launch complex, an oxidizer leak created a toxic cloud that shut down operations for three days. He was twenty-one years old, a proud “hillbilly” from rural Kentucky who loved the job and planned to reenlist at the end of the year.

Plumb had been with the 308th for just nine months. He wasn’t qualified to do this sort of missile maintenance or to handle these propellants. Accompanying Powell and watching everything that Powell did was considered Plumb’s “OJT,” his on-the-job training. Plumb was nineteen, raised in suburban Detroit.

Although an oxidizer low light wasn’t unusual, Air Force technical orders required that both men wear Category I protective gear when the silo to investigate it. “Going Category I” meant getting into a Rocket Fuel Handler’s Clothing Outfit (RFHCO)—an airtight, liquidproof, vaporproof, fire-resistant combination of gear designed to protect them from the oxidizer and the fuel. The men called it a “ref-co.” A RFHCO looked like a space suit from an early-1960s science fiction movie. It had a white detachable bubble helmet with a voice-actuated radio and a transparent Plexiglas face screen. The suit was off white, with a long zipper extending from the top of the left shoulder, across the torso, to the right knee. You stepped into the RFHCO and wore long johns underneath it. The black vinyl gloves and boots weren’t attached, so the RFHCO had roll-down cuffs at the wrists and the ankles to maintain a tight seal. The suit weighed about twenty-two pounds. The RFHCO backpack weighed an additional thirty-five and carried about an hour’s worth of air. The outfit was heavy and cumbersome. It could be hot, sticky, and uncomfortable, especially when worn outside the air-conditioned silo. But it could also save your life.

The stage 2 oxidizer pressure cap was about two thirds of the way up the missile. In order to reach it, Powell and Plumb had to walk across a retractable steel platform that extended from the silo wall. The tall, hollow cylinder in which the Titan II stood was enclosed by another concrete cylinder with nine interior levels, housing equipment. Level 1 was near the top of the missile; level 9 about twenty feet beneath the missile. The steel work platforms folded down from the walls hydraulically. Each one had a stiff rubber edge to prevent the Titan II from getting scratched, while keeping the gap between the platform and the missile as narrow as possible.

The airmen entered the launch duct at level 2. Far above their heads was a concrete silo door. It was supposed to protect the missile from the wind and the rain and the effects of a nuclear weapon detonating nearby. The door weighed 740 tons. Far below the men, beneath the Titan II, a concrete flame deflector shaped like a W was installed to guide the hot gases downward at launch, then upward through exhaust vents and out of the silo. The missile stood on a thrust mount, a steel ring at level 7 that weighed about 26,000 pounds. The thrust mount was attached to the walls by large springs, so that the Titan II could ride out a nuclear attack, bounce instead of break, and then take off.

In addition to the W-53 warhead and a few hundred thousand pounds of propellants, many other things in the silo could detonate. devices were used after ignition to free the missile from the thrust mount, separate stage 2 from stage 1, release the nose cone. The missile also housed numerous small rocket engines with flammable solid fuel to adjust the pitch and the roll of the warhead midflight. The Titan II launch complex had been carefully designed to minimize the risk of having so many flammables and explosives within it. Fire detectors, fire suppression systems, toxic vapor detectors, and decontamination showers were scattered throughout the nine levels of the silo. These safety devices were bolstered by strict safety rules. Whenever a PTS team member put on a RFHCO, he had to be accompanied by someone else in a RFHCO, with two other people waiting as backup, ready to put on their suits. Every Category I task had to be performed according to a standardized checklist, which the team chief usually read aloud over the radio communications network. There was one way to do everything—and only one way. Technical Order 21M-LGM25C-2-12, Figure 2-18, told Powell and Plumb exactly what to do as they stood on the platform near the missile. “Step four,” the PTS team chief said over the radio. “Remove airborne disconnect pressure cap.” “Roger,” Powell replied. “Caution. When complying with step four, do not exceed one hundred sixty foot-pounds of torque. Overtorquing may result in damage to the missile skin.” “Roger.” As Powell used a socket wrench to unscrew the pressure cap, the socket fell off. It struck the platform and bounced. Powell grabbed for it but missed. Plumb watched the nine-pound socket slip through the narrow gap between the platform and the missile, fall about seventy feet, hit the thrust mount, and then ricochet off the Titan II. It seemed to happen in slow motion. A moment later, fuel sprayed from a hole in the missile like water from a garden hose. “Oh man,” Plumb thought. “This is not good.”

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 36 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 36 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2013

    Reads like a novel...scarey that it's not

    Couldn't put it down

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2013

    Engrossing and unsettling

    How close we came so many times and how, by pure luck, we somehow managed not to start WWIII or blow ourselves up is the general theme. Reads like Dr. Strangelove but this was real life. We have been very, very fortunate. Detailed and well-written, and will keep you turning pages well into the night.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2013

    What do you think of when you think of nuclear weapons? Do you t

    What do you think of when you think of nuclear weapons? Do you think of bunkers full of the most technologically sophisticated equipment in the world? Do you think of layers of security and safety protocols to ensure that an accident is next to impossible? Do you think of all the "command and control" structures to make sure that every weapon is accounted for and never used in response to a false alarm or by a rogue group or individual?




    My assumption had long been that the most powerful weapons in the world would have merited the best of all the above. In "Command and Control" Eric Schlosser pulls back the curtain and reveals just how close we came over and over again to nuclear disaster in the past sixty years. He uses the accident in Damascus, AR as the main narrative thread for the book. But what really makes the book stand out is how he weaves the account of the disaster in Arkansas with a history of nuclear weapons in the United States and the many near misses that should have made the government far more safety conscious than it was at the time of the explosion in Damascus. At first, it seems like he's just providing a little historical color when he gives the history of the nuclear arsenal and the near misses but he pulls all the threads together in the end and the result is a nail-biting conclusion and a truly well crafted book.




    Schlosser brings a great deal of narrative skill to the book. It doesn't read like dry history but rather has a pacing more in line with a fictional techno-thriller. This is a book that will keep you up far past your bedtime in an effort to get in just a few more pages to find out what happens next. Educational, sobering, and a real page turner. Pick this one up if you have the opportunity.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 8, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    I'm an insider on nukes from that time, and this book is the abs

    I'm an insider on nukes from that time, and this book is the absolute truth. A long book that is hard to put down, eating up a week, but worth it. Reading the accident description out loud was jaw-dropping for my family. This history shows what incompetents run the Gov, and still do. There are websites defending the AF and nuke safety, but don't be fooled by them.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2014

    Blah

    Haven't read it... omg swag

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2014

    The head line is that it is cool

    Love it

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2014

    Dydhehfjf

    Good for white people

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2014

    Lol

    Lol

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2014

    This is a good book to read, i think you will like it

    GOOOD BOOK,

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2014

    Get a pink ipad

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  • Posted March 16, 2014

    Interesting read

    The "novel" approach to the writing is different .... if one is expecting a thriller they will be disappointed. There is a lot of history written between the action of the main story. To me, it reads like a History Channel or Discovery Channel documentary with verifiable facts. And that's a good thing. A lot of events documented will surprise the reader. Also the really technical items are presented in laymen terms so they are easier to grasp.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2014

    Reads like a thriller

    Schlosser weaves together a complete history of nuclear weapons with a blow by blow account of one particular nuclear accident that was narrowly averted when a Titan ICMB exploded in its silo in Arkansas. By the end the reader has a full impression of exactly how dangerous it is just to build and maintain these ultimate weapons of mass destruction. The point comes home that it is a miracle that one of the many thousands of bombs has not detonated from carelessness, mechanical fault, or plane crashes. A tense and gripping read from beginning to end.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2014

    Engrossing, captivating, and often pretty scary. The depth of de

    Engrossing, captivating, and often pretty scary. The depth of detail Schlosser presents makes this much more compelling than many books of this type. His evidence gives you a clear picture of the many issues critical to insuring nuclear safety. These range from technical, hardware topics, like arming switches and wiring, to operational training and control, to global politics. With every one of these history indicates that often a single person can be the deciding factor in whether a nuclear weapon is safe and functional, or not. This is not a light relaxing read. You need to make a commitment to it. If you do, the effort is worth it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2014

    I thought that ¿The Exorcist¿ was a scary book, but it pales in

    I thought that “The Exorcist” was a scary book, but it pales in comparison to “Command and Control", a real life horror story if ever there was one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2014

    Accurate and frightening.

    Part of my experiences were in a related weapon system and this gives a good glimpse into the LGM world. Read it and thank God for His mercy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2014

    This type of book is usually not first on my list, but I read an

    This type of book is usually not first on my list, but I read an excerpt somewhere, and decided to give it a try. I must say I am totally engrossed by it. It reads like a novel, but is a true story. There is the main story of the Damascus Incident, but also tons of historical facts about bombs woven into the book in an interesting manner. A must read. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2013

    Incredibly eye-opening. I thought it was going to be some flami

    Incredibly eye-opening. I thought it was going to be some flaming liberial diatribe full have partial truths and unsubstantiated "facts". But it most certainly is a balanced and in-depth expose' of the problems with quality and safety of the most powerful weapons mankind has developed. While I have professionally had association with the subject matter, I had never considered the logistic nightmare of the cold war. A riveting read. But at least one glaring error in my mind. A 9 Mt nuke will not obliterate half of Arkansas. Sense of scale is a bit off.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2013

    Excellent account of events during the Cold War era. We came so

    Excellent account of events during the Cold War era. We came so close to a nuclear war several times, and I don't think most Americans have ever been told.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2013

    Highly addictive

    I could not put this down, reads like a suspense thriller, then you realize it's real.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2013

    Excellent read, highly recommended, especially for those who lived through the times.

    In the 1953/54 time frame I was an Electronics Counter Measures [ECM] crewmember on a reconaisance version of the B-36 Bomber. These were designated as RB-36 and equipped with electronic receiving and jaming and photographic capability, including flash bombs. We loaded and dropped a concrete version of an atomic bomb as a training exercise. Our home base was Ramey AFB in Puerto Rico but our strike base was Sidi Slimane in North Africa[as mentioned in the book].

    In the 1960's 70's, 80's I worked for an Aerospace Company that designed and built re-entry vehicles and the arming and fusing systems for Titan, Minuteman, and MX Missiles. As a young engineer I started working in the Arming and Fusing Department and became intimately familiar with the various components: Safe and Arm Device [S&A], Inertial Timer Switch [ITS], Lockout Switch, and Impact Detectors. The design principles, to assure both safety and reliability, were scrupulously adhered to because we all knew how important this was. From my vantage point as a participant, this is an excellent book, it brought back a lot of memories and filled in a lot of blanks.

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