Saturday, January 25, 2014

Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

American journalist Eric Schlosser revisits a 1980 nuclear missile accident, weaving around this gripping narrative a fascinating and frightening 70 year history of the US's nuclear arsenal. The result is a must read, providing a new angle on the cold war from the people who were there working at the ground level. 

Eric Schlosser is well known to readers for his 2001 book Fast Food Nation, which, amongst other things, investigated industrial food production, especially the hazardous work practices of modern abattoirs. Command and Control continues this theme of work place safety, but on a much, much larger scale. The book works as a dual history of nuclear accidents and the Cold War, brilliantly interweaving the two: the practical and the theoretical. It also raises many profound and critical questions about technology and how much control we have over it. This is one of those books that will genuinely scare you.

Command and Control's main set piece is the 1980 Titan II missile accident that occurred in Damascus, Arkansas. Schlosser has interviewed the surviving participants of that explosion, giving his retelling of events an edge-of-your-seat urgency. Every so often the narrative shifts, and we are taken back to the history of nuclear weapons, a history that is necessarily a heavily political one. It’s to Schlosser’s credit that he so skilfully interweaves these two narratives into a cohesive whole, allowing the reader to see how individuals are caught up in history's sweep.

The Damascus accident that the book concentrates on highlights just how complex, and hence fragile, nuclear technology is. Two fuel technicians were doing some routine work on a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile that was housed in an underground silo. The Titan II also carried a nuclear warhead. One of the technicians accidently dropped a socket down the silo, which ripped a hole in the skin of the missile. Fuel started leaking, control panels that were supposed to give accurate reading for what was happening in the silo didn’t function properly, and soon enough the missile was threatening to explode. One man eventually died and some 20 others were injured.

The nuclear political narrative that is interspersed with this story is equally mind blowing, both from a psychological and technological point of view. At first, when America dropped atomic bombs on Japan, causing a great human tragedy for that country and also ending the Second World War, Americans were proud of their technical know-how and ability. That feeling soon came to an end when Americans realised that the same could now happen to them. The arms race was on, but politicians could not think their way out of the problem.

To read the various strategies for launching a nuclear war, and the magic thinking necessary to fool military strategists into believing that it could be done ‘rationally’, with casualties minimised, can only be described as a form of abnormal psychology. Planners and strategists tried desperately to think their way out of the total war conundrum that nuclear war technology determined, but couldn't. Reading these sections of the book is like watching someone stuck in a terrible dream, running to try and escape but with legs hopelessly unresponsive. 

Nuclear war messed up everyone’s thinking. Trying to create a logical nuclear defense policy starts off hopefully, but the end game is always the same: total annihilation. Rational war planners couldn't accept this outcome, but then found themselves developing policies that would have resulted in virtual national suicide. The list of pacifists and politicians who found nuclear war abhorrent, but who nonetheless eventually signed up for all out nuclear war, is astonishing. Even Bertrand Russell, the First World War pacifist who went to jail for his views, advocated bombing the Soviet Union back to the stone age. Incredible! In the end, the US settled for an all out nuclear war policy, one that would, on conservative estimates, kill at least 54% of the Soviet population if unleashed. This policy was in place from 1960 to 2003 - that is, official policy! (It was called the Single Integrated Operational Plan, or SIOP.)

Different readers will draw different conclusions from Command and Control. What I found most fascinating is how technologies contain their own rationales and are wholly deterministic. Once nuclear bombs had been invented, it was impossible to go back. Nuclear power controlled humans, not the other way around. Nuclear power also unleased a huge amount of fear, distrust and secrecy. The amount of secret information that was even withheld from successive Presidents is extraordinary. The public were constantly misled or lied to about the danger of their own country’s nuclear arsenal.

Another interesting aspect of the book is how unbelievably complex the technology is for nuclear war heads. It’s astonishing how many serious malfunctions occurred. For example, computers processing information from missile sensors would falsely signal an all out Soviet attack was happening. When computer experts finally investigated what the problem was they found a 40 cent computer chip was faulty! But here’s the good news. The need for intergrated systems and complex data analysis meant the need for computer networks. Information had to be communicated computer to computer, and super quick: you got it, the internet.

This book completely spun me out, and in a funny way, answered a lot of questions about the mad technological world we now live in. Highly recommended!

Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser. Published by Allen Lane. ISBN:  9781846141492  RRP: $29.99