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


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The Oscar-shortlisted documentary Command and Control, directed by Robert Kenner, finds its origins in Eric Schlosser's book and continues to explore the little-known history of the management and safety concerns of America's nuclear aresenal.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143125785
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/26/2014
Pages: 656
Sales rank: 65,373
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.50(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

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.

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.

Excerpted from "Command and Control"
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Copyright © 2014 Eric Schlosser.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Los Angeles Times
“Deeply reported, deeply frightening… a techno-thriller of the first order.”

The New Yorker
“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.(Louis Menand)

Time magazine
 “A devastatingly lucid and detailed new history of nuclear weapons in the U.S. … fascinating.(Lev Grossman)

Financial Times
Command and Control ranks among the most nightmarish books written in recent years; and in that crowded company it bids fair to stand at the summit. It is the more horrific for being so incontrovertibly right and so damnably readable. Page after relentless page, it drives the vision of a world trembling on the edge of a fatal precipice deep into your reluctant mind... a work with the multilayered density of an ambitiously conceived novel… Schlosser has done what journalism does at its best when at full stretch: he has spent time – years – researching, interviewing, understanding and reflecting to give us a piece of work of the deepest import.”

The Guardian
“The strength of Schlosser's writing derives from his ability to carry a wealth of startling detail (did you know that security at Titan II missile bases was so lapse you could break into one with just a credit card?) on a confident narrative path.”

San Francisco Chronicle
"Perilous and gripping… Schlosser skillfully weaves together an engrossing account of both the science and the politics of nuclear weapons safety… The story of the missile silo accident unfolds with the pacing, thrill and techno details of an episode of 24."

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... Command and Control reads like a character-driven thriller as Schlosser draws on his deep reporting, extensive interviews, and documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act to demonstrate how human error, computer glitches, dilution of authority, poor communications, occasional incompetence, and the routine hoarding of crucial information have nearly brought about our worst nightmare on numerous occasions.”

 Vanity Fair:
Eric Schlosser detonates a truth bomb in Command and Control, a powerful expose about America’s nuclear weapons.”

Publishers Weekly (starred):
"Nail-biting... thrilling... Mixing expert commentary with hair-raising details of a variety of mishaps, [Eric Schlosser] makes the convincing case that our best control systems are no match for human error, bad luck, and ever-increasing technological complexity."

Kirkus Reviews (starred):
"Vivid and unsettling... An exhaustive, unnerving examination of the illusory safety of atomic arms."

Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative; Co-Chair, Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future; Director, the Center on Congress at Indiana University:
“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.”

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Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 40 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Couldn't put it down
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
AlchemystAZ More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although it is disturbing, it reads like a novel. I realize now just how amazing it is that a nuclear catstrophe has not happened. Most informative. Well done!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A chocking and revealing book. We survived evidently just by chance a nuclear blast in the US. Remember Eisenhower's warning about the "Military Complex" when he left office!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Old_time_PC_user More than 1 year ago
Eric Schlosser weaves a great story about a disaster at a Titan missile site with the history of the US atomic bomb. I had no idea of how crude these weapons were and perhaps still are. We are fortunate that we have not had several towns wiped off the face of the globe because of carelessness. Great read with full references.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Love it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Drumstyx7a More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.