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

AuthorWilley, Scott A.
PositionBook review

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety. By Eric Schlosser. New York: The Penguin Press, 2013. Illustrations. Photographs. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xxiii, 632. $36.00 ISBN: 978-1-59420-227-8

Eric Schlosser is an investigative journalist who was educated as an historian at Princeton and Oxford. Though he never served in the military and, twenty years ago, probably didn't know which end of a Titan missile the fire came out of, he demonstrates a better understanding of the overall nuclear enterprise in this country than most officers who ever served in the Strategic Air Command (SAC).

What Schlosser does in this book is present a superb history of nuclear weapons from the beginning through today. His twenty-page synopsis of the Manhattan Project, culminating in the August 1945 attacks on Japan, is as fine a description of this effort as I've ever read. Having just participated at a leading U.S. university in the development of an online course on the advent of the atomic bomb, I particularly appreciated Schlosser's presentation on this subject. But the thrust of this work deals with the safety and command and control of nuclear weapons which, of course, cannot be discussed without addressing how they would be used--deterrence and attack.

The central story of the book--and there are many intertwined stories--is the September 1980 incident at Launch Complex 374-7 near Damascus, Arkansas, when its Titan II missile blew up and tossed debris around the area and the W53 thermonuclear warhead into a local ditch. I say "central story," because the reader views this major nuclear incident in many segments interrupted by the other stories that make up the whole picture: weapons incidents, safety and design issues, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), the Worldwide Military Command and Control System (WWMCCS), political and inter-service issues and intrigues, Permissive Action Links (PAL), real-world conflicts and geopolitical relations, bombers, submarines, the Strategic Air Command (SAC), and on and on. Throughout the book, however, the subtle message is that the nuclear enterprise is, above all else, people. So Schlosser gives the reader not only the hardware, technology, and geopolitics, but also backgrounds of individuals involved: Generals LeMay and White, U.S. Presidents, maintenance troops, combat crews, Governor Clinton, wing commanders, and many others. That's a lot to...

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