A nuclear blast with mushroom cloud

Eric Schlosser: 'Command and Control'

According to author Eric Schlosser there are still an estimated 17,000 nuclear weapons out there somewhere, every one of them 'an accident waiting to happen'. So, how much of a threat do they really pose?

Although historians haven't reached a consensus yet, most mainstream observers will agree that the Cold War ended in or around 1991. What this means for readers of E&T is that most of us were alive while the world armed itself for nuclear Armageddon. Those of us who grew up under the spectre of mutually assured destruction – where the outcome of engagement between superpowers in the East and the West was measured by overkill factor – may recall that everyday life was sometimes like living in a John Wyndham novel.

It's tempting to think that with the Cold War safely behind us we can sleep safely in our beds and that rogue nuclear states are being carefully monitored and that everything in the garden is rosy. If you do think that, perhaps you shouldn't read Eric Schlosser's extraordinary analysis of what he calls "the illusion of safety". In his book 'Command and Control', out in paperback just in time for Christmas, he presents us with a deeply frightening portrait of a world where there are "still about 17,000 nuclear weapons. Every one an accident waiting to happen. The dangers these weapons pose never went away." Most people, Schlosser continues, may think that they did go away or are even simply in a state of denial. But one thing is certain: the nuclear weapons never went away.

'Command and Control' is a book that could not have been written 30 years ago, simply because most of the information that Schlosser presents was classified in those days. When asked why he's chosen to write the book now, it's simply due to the availability of source material. "The stories are pretty remarkable, not only for the technological challenges they present, but also for the tremendous heroism that helped to avert nuclear catastrophes."

Such catastrophes seemed inevitable in that age of ever-accelerating weapons proliferation known as the Arms Race. As superpowers in the West and the East stockpiled nuclear arsenals in such vast quantities that military superiority was calculated in terms of how many times you could annihilate your enemy, the much-trumpeted nuclear holocaust seemed inevitable. To understand what was going through the minds of Pentagon officials at the time Schlosser says that instead of demonising them, "I listened to them. What they said was truly frightening. Despite public assurances to the contrary, they often feared that the system might spiral out of control." He goes on to say that the stress on military officials was enormous, while none of them particularly wanted to fight a nuclear war with the Soviets. The most frightening of all, Schlosser says that almost everyone he spoke to was "amazed that a city hadn't been destroyed by a nuclear detonation since August 1945."

'Command and Control' has its origins in a period of the author's life when he was researching the future of warfare in space, spending time with the Air Force Space Command, where many of the officers had begun their careers in ballistic missile launch crews. "They started telling me stories about nuclear weapons accidents in the Cold War. I found the stories incredible, especially the one about the accident in Damascus, Arkansas." Schlosser hurriedly put aside studying space warfare in order to write an investigative piece about nuclear war. The subsequent book is based on interviews with those who ran America's nuclear enterprise from the bottom up, and on many thousands of pages of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. "This information is important. It was deliberately hidden from the public. And it pertains to the greatest national security threat that we face today."

Does Schlosser seriously think that we are currently living under the threat of nuclear attack? "Today, the members of Nato face a much lower threat of an all-out war than they did 30 years ago. But the risk of a single nuclear detonation somewhere may be higher than it was back then. A lot of the weapons and weapons systems are ageing and there is an enormous amount of fissile material that needs to be safeguarded. In many ways the nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan now resembles that of the United States and the Soviet Union."

But, says Schlosser, the flight time for a missile between India and Pakistan is shorter, and the degree of hatred between the sub-continental rivals is deeper.

While he maintains that the probability of the technology being used in anger might still be very low, that probability is still "greater than zero, which means we should remain deeply concerned. The consequences of a single city being destroyed by a nuclear weapon would be unimaginably high."

One thing that comes across in the book is that when dealing with nuclear weapons there are so many factors that could contribute to disaster, including human error, computer error, management failure, lack of communication and diplomatic incompatibility. In view of this, should we consider ourselves fortunate that we are here at all? "I think we are incredibly lucky that none of the many tens of thousands of weapons on alert in the Cold War were ever used. Well-meaning people can do very wrongheaded things and the guiding philosophy of many official bureaucracies is too often that it is better to be wrong than alone. The problem with luck is that eventually it runs out."

My final question to Schlosser is about the future. Is it simply a case that the only thing history teaches us is that history teaches us nothing, or will the governments of the 21st century learn from the Cold War and prepare us for a future free from nuclear weapons? "There is a strong desire among the leadership of Nato to abolish nuclear weapons. I hope those aims can somehow be fulfilled. Things aren't inevitable, so things don't have to be the way they are."

After seven years immersed in the minutiae of nuclear weapons research, Eric Schlosser doesn't feel doomed or apocalyptic. But he does feel concerned. 

'Command and Control' by Eric Schlosser is now out in paperback from Penguin Books, £9.99

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