by Eric Schlosser; The Penguin Press, 2013; 632 pages; $36
We live in an age of improbable doomsdays. Cable television devotes hour after hour to the possibility of a catastrophic asteroid impact, geomagnetic reversals or the eruption of massive, hidden volcanoes. Zombies roam the big screen, proving apocalypse need not be realistic or precedented to inspire fear.
Curiously, there's little talk about the threat that's most likely to kill us all, or at least millions of us at once: The United States, Russia and China still maintain scores of aging rockets, topped with nuclear weapons, that can be launched across the globe within a few minutes. We fret about the spread of those weapons to rogue nations or terrorist groups, but we ignore the fact that the Dr. Strangelove scenario — a nuclear exchange caused by an accident or misunderstanding between the two biggest nuclear powers — isn't any less likely than it was 50 years ago
Eric Scholsser's "Command and Control" should be enough to put nuclear annihilation back on our list of doomsday fears. On one level the book is a real-life technothriller about a 1980 incident at a Strategic Air Command missile silo in Damascus, Ark., where a dropped wrench led to the explosion of a Titan missile, sending a nuclear warhead flying several hundred yards. While telling that story, Schlosser gives us a sprawling history of America's nuclear forces, a history littered with breathtaking mishaps.
Had the Damascus warhead detonated, the death toll would have eclipsed that of Sept. 11 — with only the American military to blame. The downwind effects, both literally and figuratively, would have been incalculable. And it was far from the only nuclear near-miss in the Cold War’s 40-plus years. Nuclear-armed airplanes have crashed and burned in South Carolina, California, Libya and Greenland, among other places. Crews members have accidentally dropped bombs simply by pulling a wrong lever. A nuclear-armed A-4 Skyhawk once rolled right off the deck of an aircraft carrier. The military always told the public these accidents posed no danger of detonation, but Schlosser shows us the other side — the thinkers within the defense establishment who worked to calculate the odds of an eventual unintended explosion. One bomb might have a minimal chance of exploding in a given year, but multiply that by thousands of bombs over dozens of years, and the math is unnerving.
While those weapons may be largely forgotten by the public, they're still with us, making news because of failed safety inspections, misplaced warheads or the sacking of military higher-ups for personal misbehavior. By most accounts, morale among America's missile troops is not good in 2014.
No one will be able to accuse Schlosser of harming that morale. He doesn't pull punches when recounting mistakes that nearly led to disaster, but he does give the Damascus missile accident the "Black Hawk Down" treatment, mining stories of individual heroism out of a military blunder. It's hard to remember the last time anyone painted an ICBM crew in a favorable light, or bothered to take notice of them at all. Woven throughout the book is the notion that the only thing standing between us and our own weapons is the personal discipline and conscientiousness of America's missileers — people with families and hopes and a dangerous, unglamorous, exacting job.
This book should be a favorite among those who've served in America's nuclear forces, if only because it makes their work visible, and it’s already won praise from disarmament advocates. Those two groups — Cold Warriors and zero-nuke advocates — aren't mutually exclusive. Schlosser notes, almost offhand, that Robert McNamara, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger and George H.W. Bush have all supported the call for nuclear reductions in recent years.
One of Schlosser's sources, a former SAC general, compared the nuclear deterrence mission to holding an angry tiger by the tail: "And like almost every single Air Force officer, weapon designer, Pentagon official, airman and missile maintenance crew member I interviewed about the Cold War, he was amazed that nuclear weapons were never used, that no major city was destroyed, that the tiger never got loose."
Capitol and statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star