Understanding the bomb: Command and Control

This semester at university, I am studying STST2124: The Politics of Nuclear Weapons. The course has been a favourite of mine, the lectures are interesting, the readings engaging and informative, and the class discussion revealing of the interesting perspectives that surround the issue. Before the semester started I had a google around for some of the better books on the topic to read as some background reading during the holidays, and bought Command and Control by Eric Schlosser. I recognised the name from a short book I had been recommended by a friend about a nuclear weapons accident, so it seemed credible enough, and it had good reviews. This is going to be another one of those good reviews.

Schlosser concurrently describes the history of nuclear technology in the United States arsenal and recounts a major accident at a Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980. He paints a deeply detailed and informative picture of nuclear history and its problems: with a masterfully executed back and forth between the story of the broad history of nuclear weapons, from the Manhattan Project and Hiroshima to the fall of the Soviet Union, and the tragedy that killed a young enlisted man and risked the entire State of Arkansas, the concurrent structure allows Schlosser to discuss institutional problems at Strategic Air Command and the bureaucratic struggles of weapons’ design labs at Sandia and Los Alamos, while linking it back with a true and raw story of the ever present danger nuclear weapons represent to ordinary people and America’s national security. Simultaneously an excellent Cold War history and a gripping tale of the human experience, steeped in great research and excellent storytelling, Command and Control offers profound perspective and insight on nuclear war and proliferation that I am unlikely to forget any time soon.

It is difficult to choose a favourite scene or chapter of this book, but one touch I appreciate is that Schlosser often takes the time to tell the stories of people who were killed by nuclear power. From the children of Hiroshima, to the young physicist Louis Slotin, who was killed by radiation sickness while testing a core, to young Livingston, the ordinary enlisted man killed by the inhalation of oxidiser in the accident at Damascus, the book commemorates the real victims of the danger of nuclear energy. The focus on the grim detail of the destruction risked by nuclear weapons is crucial when the discussion of policy and bureaucracy becomes abstract and disconnected. It is just not possible to imagine what 250 land based missiles or 3000 active nuclear weapons looks like. It’s even hard to wrap your head around each one individually; the capacity to cause a genocide at a moment’s notice that would shake the morality of mankind for decades or centuries, housed in a little metal cone, ready to be launched at any moment. The stories of ordinary people whose lives were taken by nuclear weapons gives a human context to discussions of ‘mutually assured destruction’ and abstract conversations about deterrence theory that make their own appearances in the book. These stories made it ever more striking to see the way officials discussed ‘winning’ wars in terms of how many millions of civilians would be incinerated. However, going into technical detail of these theories allowed me to grasp the complexity of broader problem, that organisations made of thousands of individually rationally acting individuals do not always result in rational collective action.

Schlosser’s detailed account of bureaucratic handling of nuclear weapons during the Cold War is downright damning, but it challenges a crucial assumption I had made about nuclear proliferation; that the whole thing was based on people. Before reading this book, if I imagined Kennedy and Khrushchev sitting at their respective desks, I imagined the only thing affecting their decision would be personal morality and politics. That is simply not the case. Compounding layers of administration and complex organisational bureaucracy would have affected their every move, and often the control they thought they had over their nuclear arsenal would have been nothing more than an illusion. Fundamentally I thought it was the people around the whole thing that were evil, but this book has actually led me to a different, and potentially stronger pacifist view, that it is the weapon itself that cannot be tamed.

This is not my most original hot take. Many people have evoked (Schlosser included) the emotive pleas of nuclear physicists, who upon testing H bombs said things like “This is the last thing the last man will ever see”, offering a sentimental, and still good, argument for non-proliferation. But Command and Control did something special, and presented me with a seriously good empirical argument for why it is literally not possible to control these things. By talking about the circuitry inside a weapon, the flammability of oxidiser and fuel inside a missile silo, the checklists maintenance teams used in routine checks, the problems with telephone lines in the American Armed Forces, and examples of the political opinions of important officials getting in the way of due process, Schlosser puts together a Bible on just how hard it really is to even control a nuclear weapon. He points out an incredibly important paradox, that the more reliable you make a weapon; aka the more likely it is to be detonated on command (crucial to making a deterrent more credible), the more likely your weapon is to be misused or detonated accidentally. With extensive examples of mishaps and misconduct, he argues a theory about the nature of organisations; that it is impossible to safely handle anything 100% of the time. If you fail 1 in 100,000 times with a nuclear weapon, none of the millions of people you may have killed or who live in the economy and society you may have irreparably damaged will care about the 99,999 times you got it all right, especially if you accidentally spark a nuclear war. Schlosser adds the compelling point that a fail rate such as 1 in 100,000 is perhaps an optimistic one as he takes us through a detailed account of the reality of nuclear weapons.

It is easy to imagine nuclear weapons simply as a force of international relations. In Command and Control I was challenged to think of a nuclear weapon not as a button that could be pushed from the football to execute any nuclear attack the President wanted. Instead, Schlosser taught me what a weapon really is. It is a metal casing containing a core surrounded by explosives that has to be manually moved around. It has to be armed and then detonated by officers and ordinary enlisted men on authority of the sound of a manually triggered siren and a war order received by radio. Radios, sirens, trucks, and most importantly people are all involved in the process, and none of those things are infallible, especially the last one. Each of the weapons is just one part of an enormous arsenal which is exposed to mundane maintenance activities all the time. Every warhead and core needs to be cleaned, parts need fiddling with and replacing, and wiring that carries an electrical signal which if sent will unleash an explosion that can wipe entire states off the map permanently and render regions uninhabitable for decades needs to be swapped in and out to prevent corrosion. Each weapon and it’s components could be crushed, dropped on the floor, set on fire, struck by lightning, or not tied to the back of a ute properly. They could be shipped to Taiwan accidentally, as occurred with six of the Air Force’s nuclear cores in 2003, or simply left lying around unaccounted for. As in Damascus, it could be propelled in its warhead by an exploding missile silo, fly 150 feet into the air and smash into the burning ground surrounded by flames as dozens of people flee in panic. Dramatically recounted, the core of Command and Control’s project is not just to recount close calls, but to show that when you put a large organisation in charge of these weapons, these events become inevitable, and the consequences could be unthinkable.

Along with enjoying the theory, I was personally struck by the human stories in the book. Seemingly countless officers and civilian officials were woken in the middle of the night at one point or another to a phone call informing them that their death and that of everyone they’ve ever known was a virtual certainty within the hour, and the image the book recounts of an officer hanging up the phone, looking at his sleeping wife, and deciding whether to wake her up and tell her they are all about to die is a deeply emotive one. I imagined lying in my own bed, looking at the ceiling, and knowing for certain that we would all be dead within the hour. That a hot wall of fire would come from one of any of the four walls of plaster in which I’d spent my childhood and swallow me up, that whatever comes next would be forced upon me with no time to prepare myself, and that all of the people around me would be gone too. Grasping the loss of human experience like that is so hard that it’s not really possible, but I valued giving it a go. Knowing people were actually exposed to that experience and learning their stories encouraged me to think deeply about those moments in history, and it was a very rewarding experience.

Despite it’s arguably grim aspects, Command and Control gave me perspective about the fragility not just of our international order, but human life generally. Whether it’s a nuclear explosion or a car crash, we are just made up of cells that could be burned up in an instant if our environment changes suddenly, and we don’t get the option to live without that knowledge. We pursue the things we love and care about, and try and enjoy every day, but in the background the end looms large, and the possibility of it being forced on the world suddenly was brought to the fore for me by this book. Both in its more theoretical arguments and its human element, the book did my favourite thing: it made me think. The history of the Cold War is not one I have gone in depth with before, and learning more about the people and machines that were involved in one of humanity’s most dangerous moments was sincerely fascinating. Some of the content may be a bit grim at times, but if you’re looking to think in a new way about the dangers of the world we live in, and learn a whole lot more about how close we really came to changing things forever, Command and Control is an amazing way to do so.

I will end, as usual, with a moment that stuck with me. In the wake of the Bravo hydrogen bomb test in 1954, Prime Minister Churchill decided Great Britain would develop it’s own thermonuclear weapons.

Speaking to his staff, he said, “We must do it, it’s the price we pay to sit at the top table.”

An adviser started to argue, and Churchill interrupted, it is the next part that rung true.

“Our influence depends on the possession of force, our place in the world on our willingness to kill”. 

He’s right, and I hate it.

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