High Anxiety: Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAOn January 24, 1961, a B-52 developed a fuel leak while being refueled mid-air. Unable to jettison the fuel inside its left wing, it went into an uncontrolled spin and began to break up over North Carolina. Four of its crew parachuted to safety. One died in the attempt and two died in the crash. The two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs it was carrying fell from the plane. In the process, various locking pins and arming wires were yanked out of one of them and the bomb responded as if it had been deliberately armed. The bomb hit the ground crushing crystals inside the nose, the firing signal. “But the weapon did not detonate.”  (246 Command and Control). A simple switch in the ‘safe’ position had saved the eastern seaboard from devastation. The other bomb, unarmed, hit the earth, part of it burying itself more than 70 ft deep, never to be found.

A news item in the National Post on September 23, 2013 telling that long-secret story indicated that Eric Schlosser had revealed it in his new book, Command and Control: nuclear weapons, the Damascus accident and the illusion of safety.

I snapped to attention. I remembered that day very vividly. I was in a state of high anxiety myself. I was about to give birth to my first child and true to the wisdom of the day, I was all alone in a cold room high above a wintry street, listening to the shrieks of the woman down the hall who definitely wanted “Momma Mia”.

I saw the day in an entirely new perspective. Instead of latching-on problems in mid-January 1961, I could have been dealing with radiation sickness in a semi-destroyed civilization.

I didn’t want to know that. And yet, knowing it, I rushed out to buy the book. The book seller said, if I liked Fast Food Nation, I would love this. I hadn’t read Schlosser’s best seller, figuring I didn’t need to be convinced that many people eat badly. I’m a born-again feeder myself, converted by bad health. And goodness, what a thick book – over 600 pages.

The framework story around which Schlosser builds his book is an accident in a Titan II, ballistic missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980, which began when a mechanic dropped a socket. Ordinarily, a dropped tool just ended up in the W-shaped support at the bottom and had to be retrieved. This one ruptured a fuel tank. Warning lights came on all over the command panel. The silo crew evacuated. Now it was impossible to say exactly what was happening inside the silo, except that it was dire. Schlosser feeds us this story bit by bit, concluding it at the end of the book. In between the Damascus chapters, he recounts the story of atomic weapons, the struggle to make them, to determine who would control them and how to use them. Throughout it all, the public was lulled as much as possible in spite of unbelievably inept handling, accidents and near misses, like the time the rising moon over Norway was mistaken for a fleet of Soviet bombers.

Schlosser’s research is topnotch. He seems to have interviewed everyone involved in the Damascus incident, for example and the many characters involved come to life because of the detail. If you do get confused, there’s a handy glossary at the front, not only of the major players, but also of acronyms and abbreviations.

Some of you will understand the physics Schlosser outlines better than I do. It’s true that at school, some of my best friends were physicists and I lived across the road from the university’s reactor, but, no matter how many times I am told the difference between fusion and fission, I don’t get it. I’m pretty much stuck at really big bang and lots of destruction and unimaginably big bang and destruction. The latter would be the Mark 39, H-bomb.

So my baby daughter came home un-radiated, never did learn to latch on, but took to a bottle readily enough. She learned to walk and loved her baby brother deliriously. They were both short enough to walk upright into the crawl space of our new house. That was a good thing because we were likely going to have to live there for weeks, drinking out of the hot water tank and consuming stockpiled cans of food, after the Soviet missiles took off from Cuba.

But that didn’t happen either.

Still Schlosser doesn’t want us to be lulled into a false sense of security. And I’m willing to inform myself when a book reads this well. I’ll finish it and then slip back into willful ignorance.

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