On September 18, 1980, two American servicemen descended from the sleepy pastureland of Damascus, Arkansas, into a labyrinthine underground silo to perform some routine maintenance on a fully armed nine-megaton Titan II nuclear missile. A momentary lapse by one of the soldiers – a dropped ratchet – triggered a chain of events that led the Titan II to detonate within the launch duct, causing the death of one serviceman, seriously injuring dozens of others, and very nearly turning the Ozarks into a crater.
The extent of the Damascus tragedy is revealed in full for the first time in ‘Command and Control,’ Eric Schlosser’s deeply unsettling look at America’s nuclear program. The book serves as a necessary reminder that the most dangerous and destructive weapons ever invented are still with us, “buried off backcountry roads, near small farms and little towns,” as Schlosser writes, like a communal death wish.
Schlosser, author of ‘Fast Food Nation,’ spent six years poring over formerly classified documents from Cold Warriors like Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara and interviewing those who dealt most closely with the weapons: the servicemen who maintained them. These people, says Schlosser, are the ones calling most adamantly for the abolition, or at least the radical downscaling, of the world’s stock of nuclear weapons.
The U.S. still has approximately 4,650 nuclear weapons, and Russia about 3,700. China builds more every day, and nations such as Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and India – locked in territorial, religious, and political disputes – together have hundreds. These weapons, designed as “nation killers,” aren’t slumbering safely, Schlosser reminds us, waiting to be awakened by a declaration of war – they’re susceptible to sabotage, theft, hacking, and, like everything, human error.
“There’s a growing amnesia today about what nuclear weapons can actually do,” says Schlosser, one he hopes ‘Command and Control’ will combat. Not by a return to Cold War paranoia but by “provoking thought and providing awareness” about the only weapon that can truly wipe us all out. “I don’t live in fear of a nuclear weapon detonating at any moment,” says Schlosser, “but the possibility is there, and the risk can be diminished.”