Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Command and Control

This post comes as a recommendation from a loyal reader.  So...thanks!

There is much I find interesting in this article.

For one thing, we are reading Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser later this semester.  If you have not read that book, it will likely kill any future desire or craving you might have for fast food.  Now, Schlosser has a new book out called Command and Control.  It takes a look at what is colloquially believed an outdated (or is it?) fear: nuclear war.

Diligent readers of ESE know well my utter fear of/morbid fascination with nuclear war.  I've been that way since I was eight.  So as if Schlosser's writing was not enough of a draw, the subject matter in and of itself would have lured me.  Schlosser, as described by the reviewer from Mother Jones, fairly eviscerates the illusion of "nuclear safety" by detailing two major near-accidents with nuclear weapons on US soil that held the potential to be extraordinary disasters.  One was a B-52 crash over North Carolina in 1961 where failsafes on a hydrogen bomb began to fail one by one.  The other, and perhaps more chilling of the two, took place in 1980.

It was an incident I have vague recollections of from TV news at the time.  In Damascus, Arkansas, an explosion occurred in a silo housing a Titan II missile.  While the missile itself was on its way to be outdated, it's warhead was the most powerful nuclear weapon ever placed atop a missile at that time.  Schlosser, a master writer of the literary nonfiction genre, sets the scene this way:

"Day or night, winter or spring, the silo always felt the same. It was eerily quiet, and mercury vapor lights on the walls bathed the missile in a bright white glow. When you opened the door on a lower level and stepped into the launch duct, the Titan II loomed above you like an immense black-tipped silver bullet, loaded in a concrete gun barrel, primed, cocked, ready to go, and pointed at the sky."

Into this environment went two Air Force technicians, ages 21 and 19.  Wearing gear that resembled "space suit[s] from an early-1960s science fiction movie," the young men were charged with providing maintenance on this weapon of mass destruction.  During the course of the procedure, the 19 year-old, unqualified at that time to be doing this kind of maintenance, unscrewed a pressure cap.  The tech watched in a surreal fermata as the cap fell off, dropped down, and bounced off the missile's hide.  Fuel sprayed from an ensuing hole in the missile, prompting the technician to utter the phrase Schlosser chose as the chapter's title: "Oh man.  This is not good."

An explosion later occurred.  An explosion in a silo housing the most devastating weapon known to humans.

An ardent defender of military procedure might argue that, "All turned out well and good.  What's the big deal?" Hoo-boy.

What Schlosser's book examines in detail, the culmination of hours of research and numerous Freedom Of Information Act requests, is how the vaunted structures of command and control (hence the title) can unravel in time of crisis.  And exactly how many times we've come close to the unthinkable on numerous occasions.

Does the public at-large understand this?  We still have thousands of nukes set to "launch on warning." That has not changed one bit since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  On 9/11, our defense posture went to DEFCON-3.  That meant, among other things, that our strategic bombers were loaded with nuclear weapons and placed on the runway.  "To give the president options," as the reasoning goes.  I do not disagree with this policy or procedure.  Not at all.  I'm just trying to underscore that the potential for nuclear combat as not disappeared whatsoever since the end of the Cold War.

Plus, as the MJ article argues, if the US has had such close calls with its nuclear arsenal, do you really have any greater faith in how Pakistan, North Korea, or the former Soviet Union handles and maintains its weapons?  I know I don't.

So look for Eric Schlosser's Command and Control.  You can't fail to find it.  It's got the wonderfully satirical cover that makes the book resemble a 1960s military manual.  More importantly, the writing inside is no doubt top-notch.  I'll be reading it.

And I'll likely lose much sleep as a result.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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