Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser (and some movies too)

Command and Control
Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
by Eric Schlosser
5 stars - chilling
ALR Blue

Command and Control is the story of the age of nuclear warfare. Beginning with the development of the atomic bomb that ended World War II and ending in the present, Mr. Schlosser draws on recently declassified documents and extensive interviews to lay out the nuclear history of the United States in all its horrific detail.

Interwoven with the historical narrative is the tale of one of the most alarming near misses in United States history. That being the accidental release of fuel and the subsequent perfect storm of oversight, human error, poor judgement, and ignorance that resulted in a Titan II missile in Damascus Arkansas blowing out of its silo in 1980.

I confess to having trouble getting through this book. While Mr. Schlosser's prose is quite readable, the subject matter quickly becomes overwhelmingly nightmarish. Reading about decades of in-fighting over control of the nuclear arsenal, reckless experimentation, and dangerous budget cuts can leave one with a feeling of despair. However, it's an important book and I encourage you to read it and consider the implications.

It could leave you yearning for simpler times when the Cold War was fully operational and the primary focus of the nuclear program was a series of posturing and bluffs between the Soviet Union and the United States. Now, with the major military powers realizing that "controlled nuclear warfare" is a fantasy, less circumspect countries around the globe are building up their nuclear arsenals. If nothing else, you'll have a renewed interest in news reports regarding the weaponry of countries like North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran (to name a few).

The reader will also be reminded of the manipulative rhetoric of both politicians and military leaders as well as their own primal inclinations to yield to fear mongering, the desire to feel safe, and trust in modern technology. Just as the systems and controls around our nuclear program have suffered from neglect and human foibles, so too, does our current government control of technological defenses. Make no mistake.

Here are just a few of the things I learned along the way...

  • During World War II and the years following, our military strategy was focused on maximizing civilian loss of life. Yup, no "collateral damage." In fact, statisticians developed models for how best to target civilians to tip a nation from determined patriotism to total psychological defeat.
  • The Berlin Wall went up in my lifetime (sure I knew it came down recently, but I'd always thought it went up right after WW II).
  • The US felt it was too dangerous to fly fully assembled nuclear weapons over US soil, so they convinced their allies to store bits and pieces resulting in the ready to go devices only being flown over countries like England, France, and Spain (well at least we weren't going to blow up the US).
  • Figuring out how to arm, transport, fire, and safely detonate a nuclear weapon is a lot harder than it looks and there were so many transportation mishaps that one wonders how we ever survived.
My parents' book shelf contained a small paperback book about how to survive all sorts of horrific events (I can't find the exact title since there have been many, similarly themed, books published in the succeeding decades). As a youngster, I read it many times so as to always be prepared, but the chapter I read over and over was the one on how to survive a nuclear attack.

The advice consisted primarily of covering your ears, closing your eyes, and curling into a ball to minimize the amount of your body that would get scalded by the blast. And I confess that even as a naive youth, the information never quite jived with me. I practiced the position in my room and I reread the details on the many ways an atomic bomb will kill you and it just never seemed like any of us were going to make it. Not only that, but that most of us were going to perish in agony. I think I understood nuclear war very well.

For readers that enjoy a good movie now and then as well as those who might not feel they can stand up to almost 500 pages of stomach clenching history, here's a sampling of five star movies to watch.

Fail Safe
directed by Sidney Lumet
5 stars

I didn't see this movie when it came out, but I do recall watching it on television when I was in my early teens. It made such an impression that I can still visualize the final moments. The plot? American planes are sent to deliver a nuclear attack on Moscow, but it's a mistake due to an electrical malfunction. Now what? Because, yeah, both the US and the Soviet Union scrambled their bombers on several occasions when one or the other had an early warning system that glitched due to bird formations, rays of sunshine, and once when a worker loaded the thermonuclear warfare simulation tape into the system by accident.

Dr. Strangelove
directed by Stanley Kubrick
5 stars

Here's a movie that deals with the tug of war between military and civilian control of nuclear weapons when a general sets off the system of bells and whistles towards nuclear war. Makes you a bit more worried about countries today with their nuclear program totally in the hands of the military. Plus, this movie was directed by Stanley Kubrick and stars Peter Sellers and George C. Scott (worth it just for that).

If you want a movie a bit less disturbing, but also somewhat eye opening, try Wargames.

directed by John Badham
5 stars

An impossibly young Matthew Broderick confuses the United States nuclear launch system with a fun filled computer game and sets to playing Thermonuclear War, blithely unaware that he's actually launching missiles. This one might make you worry about "hackers just wanna hack" types who try to break in to secure networks just for fun.

The Day After
directed by Nicholas Meyer
5 stars

According to the book, Command and Control, when president Ronald Reagan saw this movie it scared the bejesus out of him and led him to a strong commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons stockpiling and seek better checks and balances on the weapons at hand.

I can imagine. It sure scared me. This movie deals primarily with the aftermath of a nuclear blast and, yes, it's totally icky and makes you kind of want to be at ground zero if the big one ever drops.

1 comment:

  1. I remember War Games and The Day After, and thinking about them was indeed beyond sobering. I also remember the Nuclear Attack Drills in school - like fire drills, only indoors - where we had to sit facing the wall in the hallway, in a ball, covering our heads. Don't let the Russians nuke your brains. Well, that just gave me the warm fuzzies even at age 10. My kids laugh when I tell them about those drills, not realizing that this was a real hot button topic back in the decade or so following the Cuban Missile Crisis. Insofar as preparedness, I'd rather just bury my head in the sand, because if we get nuked, we're all toast anyway. Unless we follow the lead of that movie about the family who moved into their bomb shelter for 20 years - the name escapes me, but it was sort of humorous.