In his book, “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” (Penguin, 2013) author Eric Schlosser gives us a 600-page history of America’s role in the nuclear arms race with an emphasis on the tension between safety and danger.
Schlosser focuses on the known near-misses, the times when American nuclear weapons almost detonated by accident on our own soil, ending hundreds of thousands of lives, or were almost launched to the U. S. S. R. by accident, ending the world.
In U. S. military jargon, a Broken Arrow is an incident including the unauthorized launch or jettison of a nuclear weapon, any fire, any explosion, any release of radioactivity.
How many? The official list kept by the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission listed 13. A list kept by Sandia, one of the laboratories involved in the development and production of nuclear weapons, included at least 1,200 significant incidents and accidents from 1950 to March 1968.
When Schlosser filed a Freedom of Information Act request about the number of incidents and accidents, just from summer1957 to spring 1967, he received a report that was 245 pages long. The report gave brief descriptions of the major Broken Arrow incidents during that decade.
Among the highlights from “Command and Control” is how five command crews controlled fifty Minuteman missiles. Only two crews were necessary to launch all fifty missiles, and a crew giving the launch order could set a timer.
If no other crew countermanded the launch order before the timer ran out then the missiles would launch. It made sense from a combat perspective, preserving the ability to retaliate if most of the crews were killed.
However, the crew giving the launch order set the duration of the timer, anything from 6 hours to zero seconds.
Couple that with drug use by missile crews, and the world could have ended on the orders of two stoned men in a bomb-proof bunker.
Schlosser captures the tension between safety – making sure that a weapon will not detonate by accident – and readiness – making sure that a weapon will detonate when intended.
The tension is present in every weapon system, all of the way down to handguns. For example, many police are killed by their own guns, taken by suspects while wrestling for control during an arrest.
A police holster should keep the bad guy from taking the gun, but still allow the officer quick access to the gun.
In the nuclear world, a warhead or bomb should explode when needed, without impediment from a code or safety device that may not be available or effective in combat.
Schlosser’s writing style is dispassionate and the reader will find something to support any bias on nuclear weapons.
If you hate them then you will find a reason for disarmament in all of the near-misses. If you like them then you will find a reason to maintain the arsenal in what didn’t happen, the accidental detonations and the Soviet invasion of West Europe.
Schlosser’s only apparent bias is universal: there should be no nuclear accidents and no nuclear war.
Whatever your opinion, the fact is that America still has about 4,650 nuclear weapons spread among bombers and missiles based on land and on submarines. We also have a nuclear war plan with two purposes: to deter a nuclear attack on ourselves, and to launch a first strike against another country.
The weapons, the dangers, the politics, and the human nature and flaws are all still present.