Written with the vibrancy of a first-rate thriller, Command and Control interweaves the minute-by-minute story of an accident at a nuclear missile silo in rural Arkansas with a historical narrative that spans more than fifty years. It depicts the urgent effort by American scientists, policymakers, and military officers to ensure that nuclear weapons can’t be stolen, sabotaged, used without permission, or detonated inadvertently. Schlosser also looks at the Cold War from a new perspective, offering history from the ground up, telling the stories of bomber pilots, missile commanders, maintenance crews, and other ordinary servicemen who risked their lives to avert a nuclear holocaust. At the heart of the book lies the struggle, amid the rolling hills and small farms of Damascus, Arkansas, to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States.
While I’ve read books about nuclear power this was my first about nuclear weapons and woah. By all rights we should all be dead by now, maybe ten times over. There are two interleaving story arcs, one about the history of nuclear weapons from the Manhattan Project through the early 2000s, and another that covers a Titan II missile accident.
I had no idea that there were so many mishaps, mistakes, and close calls – planes holding H-bombs catching fire on the runway, nukes lost at sea, early warning systems that misinterpret the moon rising over Sweden has incoming ballistic missiles. I thought everyone would be behind more safeguards against human error because no one wants to blow up their town by mistake, but it turns out the military was largely against safety measures. A well-protected weapon requires more checklist steps and time before launch, and those minutes would be crucial in a nuclear attack.
The narrative structure is similar to Columbine in that two separate timelines are alternated – here the history of atomic weapons and a missile accident in Arkansas. I had never heard of the accident and didn’t know how it ended up so Schlosser’s account kept me riveted. It also serves to break up the history portions and keep the narrative fresh.
I listened to this as an audiobook and really enjoyed it. I had no problems with the reader and was able to push the speed over 2x, which is a help when the book is over 20 hours long.
My school history books didn’t do a good job covering the Cold War so Command and Control helped me reach a much needed deeper understanding. We should all know this history, if only to make sure we don’t repeat it.
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Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters by James Mahaffey