by Julian Cosma
A review of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser (Allen Lane, 2013)
Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control begins in 1980 outside Damascus, Arkansas, in the rural American south, at an innocuous-looking silo housing a Titan II missile fitted with a thermonuclear warhead. Measuring 10 feet in diameter and 103 feet tall, with the explosive force of eighteen billion pounds of TNT – about four pounds of high explosives for every person alive in that year – it lay in wait like the barb of a bee. Tension builds as Schlosser alternates between the quotidian minutes of maintenance, the overwhelming sameness of all the Titan II launch pads, the Standard Operating Procedures of the Strategic Air Command and the seemingly slim chance of error. He relays in grave detail the sheer unlikelihood of a nuclear warhead being unintentionally detonated; however, that is almost what happens. Everything about the near nuclear explosion, or ‘broken arrow’, is utterly normal. That is, everything but the potential outcome. A socket from a socket wrench, dropped by an airman conducting maintenance in the silo, falls and breaks a hole in the missile’s fuel tank, causing a massive explosion. Thankfully the warhead itself doesn’t explode. As he phrases it:
The Titan II explosion at Damascus was a normal accident, set in motion by a trivial event (the dropped socket) and caused by a tightly coupled, interactive system (the fuel leak that raised the temperature in the silo, making an oxidizer leak more likely). That system was also overly complex (the officers and technicians in the control centre couldn’t determine what was happening inside the silo).
Schlosser’s point in penning this catalogue of error, both human and mechanistic, which could have wiped out the state of Arkansas, is clear. His book investigates the systems of command and control that surround nuclear weapons, systems of authority put into place to ensure that weapons be deployed exclusively by a legitimate political authority. As the Damascus incident demonstrated, with nuclear weapons the flap of the butterfly’s wing and the typhoon are separated by only a few degrees.
It was H.G. Wells, the inaugurator of so many fictional realities, who first intuited an ‘atomic bomb’ in his 1914 novel The World Set Free. Wells writes of a nuclear holocaust that would consume most of mankind in a grand conflagration. In his typical didactic tone, Wells claims the destruction would unchain the manacled mind of those who survive, leading to – what else! – peace through world government. This burdensome thesis did, as Schlosser recounts, have an appreciable affect. The Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd, who had met with Wells in the hope of acquiring the publishing rights to The World Set Free, was so shaken by the notion of such a weapon in the hands of the Third Reich that in 1939 he recruited Albert Einstein to send a letter to President Roosevelt warning of the potential German threat. The eventual response was the Manhattan Project.
The development of the Manhattan Project and its consequences was given its best treatment in Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer-Prize-winning tetralogy The Making of the Nuclear Age (The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Dark Sun, The Twilight of the Bomb). Nonetheless Schlosser, by looking specifically at systems of command and control, does an admirable job of finding new edges to this admittedly well-worn pebble. The research that led to the bomb was originally prophylactic: the goal was to prevent the Nazi regime from deploying a bomb (which the Reich was keen on creating). However, the system devised by General Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, proved overwhelming. First, there was the importance of strict compartmentalisation. If you were working on how effectively to deliver the payload from a certain type of plane, there was not much room for deviation from that line of inquiry. J. Robert Oppenheimer’s role was more or less as the facilitator of all this; he was less the father of the bomb than the headmaster of the sprawling academy from which it emerged. This model of organisation, a strict vertical and horizontal hierarchy, was the future model for command and control. To each player a part; to each function a functionary.
The second was the geopolitical implication, which General Groves was quick to capture. In March of 1944, well after it was clear that the Germans would not build a bomb of their own, Groves said the bomb’s raison d’être was to impose US power on the USSR. There is a not inconsiderable argument among historians as to whether this same Cold War impetus was the driving force behind the immolation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, for President Truman, the bomb had the potential of being a substitute for a large and costly standing army. He was not dissuaded when late in the War he received a letter from Szilárd, who after seeing the immolation of Tokyo had developed cold feet about the atom bomb, signed by sixty-eight other Manhattan Project scientists and counselling that the introduction of the bomb would have ‘devastating’ consequences. For Truman, atomic weapons were a way to counterbalance the Soviet Army, a military force which outnumbered US troops in Germany ten to one.
His successor, President Eisenhower, followed in his path by building up nuclear weapons in lieu of conventional forces, amassing an overwhelming nuclear stockpile. The attraction of nuclear weapons on the conventional battlefield faded, quite understandably, once the Soviet Union was able to achieve second-strike capability. However, one of the most important consequences of this mutual build-up – a phenomenon that spanned the entirety of the US-Soviet relationship – was the ever-present possibility of a mistake, on either side, initiating fear of an imminent strike, which, in turn, would summon an immediate response. The result, as the novelist Martin Amis phrased it, would ‘bring about the Book of Revelation in a matter of hours’ (albeit with salvation most probably remaining absent).
It is on this point where Command and Control is most interesting: the built-in potential for annihilation, especially for nuclear weapons under a precarious and unstable system of control. Paul Bracken said as much in his ground-breaking 1985 book Command and Control of Nuclear Forces. In all the studies that came in its wake, including the book under review, a unifying theme emerges from all the jargon of Single Integrated Operational Plans, Distant Early Warning Lines, and ‘pre-delegation’: it is luck, rather than sapient methods of organisation, which should be credited with the lack of nuclear war and nuclear accident in the latter half of the twentieth century. General George Lee Butler noted in 1999 that ‘we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.’
There are roughly three types of crisis: accidental, intentional, and an admixture of both. The first is less well-known: the inadvertent moments of heightened tension fuelled by human error and speculation. The number of instances listed in Command and Control make those who declare the fundamental security of our nuclear arsenal look like Chaucer’s Pardoner; just substitute his Latinate phrases for ‘nuclear umbrella’ and ‘SRAM’. Major or near-major accidents: 1948 over Berlin, a little known dimension of the Suez Crisis, 1958 in Morocco, and domestically 1960, 1979, 1980 – this list being far from comprehensive. The moving cause was not bellicosity; rather, asymmetric information and the daily grind of military life (working with nuclear weapons, as this book makes clear, has an enervating effect on military personnel).
In 1983, as Reagan’s simple and simplistic phrase ‘evil empire’ was being broadcast across the airwaves of America, tensions between the US and the USSR were ascending to dizzying heights: the ‘Star Wars’ program had been announced, and more than 30 billion dollars would be allocated to building a panopticon of lasers and missiles, which from the lofty heavens would put paid to any potential Soviet missile attacks. A variant on the ‘peace through strength’ campaign slogan of the 1980 election, it was, as the statesman George Ball called it, not a policy of ‘purchasing security’ but one of ‘nuclear escalation’. The effect at the Kremlin was one of heightened suspicion and emulation. This was to be expected in an anarchic international system, as Robert Jervis pointed out, where defensive measures are often indistinguishable from offensive ones. In 1983, as more Pershing II missiles were being moved into West Germany, a Soviet fighter jet mistakenly downed South Korean Flight 007, killing all of its passengers. The Soviets disclaimed any responsibility, and it was only after the US released audio recordings of Soviet pilots being ordered to shoot down the plane that the Soviets made a public admission of culpability. Soon after, five Minutemen missiles were spotted on the radar screens of soldiers under the command of a certain Colonel Stanislav Petrov. With unflinching equanimity, he told his superiors that they were not about to become the second country on which the US unleashed nuclear weapons and should not launch a volley of their own. Petrov is just one example of the many previously unsung heroes in Command and Control whose coolness held back almost inconceivable misery.
If accidents are easier to countenance, with some solace to be found in their inevitability, the moments of agency and intention take on an even greater weight. And in particularly contentious situations, intention and accident bow and twist together into something terrible. Initiated in the autumn of 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was probably the best-known instance where a nuclear holocaust was within sight. One example makes this point succinctly. On the 27th of October 1962, at the height of the crisis, Vasili Arkhipov, second-in-command of the Soviet nuclear submarine B-59, faced a dire situation. The B-59 was humming around in international waters. Importantly, this meant they were outside the zone of exclusion maintained by the US navy around Cuba during the crisis. Nonetheless the Americans were trying to compel the submarine upwards, by firing a barrage of depth charges. Too far submerged to receive any communication whatsoever, the situation was, as they say, ‘fluid’. There was intense disagreement on board B-59 as to whether it should fire a warhead as the captain and many of the crew believed that the USSR and America were already at war. Arkhipov dissented, inching the world back from the edge of the precipice. This was part of a larger pattern, where it became increasingly hard to determine in the necessary amount of time whether a missile was the initiation of all-out conflict or a mistake that, if responded to as an attack, would bring about the same result in slightly quicker time.
The popular rendition of the crisis has derived very little from this version of events. It traffics in the idea that Soviet aggression was met with firmness and ‘vigor’ – American virility walking away the moral and strategic victor. This notion of 1962 misses two major points: the technological and the political. In the late 1950s the US created intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. These technological improvements radically decreased the warhead’s flight time, with a missile capable of arcing from the US to the USSR in a half hour. The standard operating procedures of the Navy coupled a ‘strike first’ policy with a total lack of Russian speakers aboard any blockading ships. First off, it is true that Kennedy resisted the notion that the US should use nuclear weapons in Cuba. However, the combination of Jupiter missiles in Turkey (deployed in 1961) and a campaign of terror against Cuba (the Bay of Pigs in particular and Operation Mongoose in general) gave weight to the idea, readily apprehended by Khrushchev, that the US was more than willing to contribute to the atmosphere of aggression and distrust. This is not to elide the duplicities and aggressions of the USSR-Khrushchev repeatedly made soothing promises, at different points, to both Kennedy and Castro, to the effect that no such missiles were in or going to Cuba.
Ironically, two years after Kennedy had, from the right, criticised a saturnine Nixon for failing to realise the dangers of the Missile Gap, it was Curtis LeMay, head of Strategic Air Command, who declared that America’s ‘nuclear superiority [was] so great, that the Soviets [wouldn’t] dare to attack Berlin or the United States.’ He followed this up by playing on, nay, ripping at the Kennedy heartstrings, with the admonishment that indecision would be ‘almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich’ (One might make parenthetical mention of an anonymous Kennedy official’s note on UN Ambassador Stevenson during the Bay of Pigs invasion: ‘Adlai [Stevenson] wanted a Munich’). The Munich Agreement, viewed retrospectively as an ignominious toleration of Fascism, cast its shadow over the fraught diplomacy of the Cold War, even if the Bomb had realigned geopolitical strategy and the rules of warfare.
Might it be the case, when thinking about nuclear weapons, that the era of Munich is a more apposite one than Kennedy could have ever imagined? The origins of nuclear power lay in the intellectual landscape of World War II. The need for a decisive, eschatological weapon was, in the end, an impulse that could not be denied. But where does that leave not only the United States, which despite Barack Obama’s early cautious proclamations of international abatement still posses 5,113 nuclear warheads, but the rest of the world as well? No country, if they are determined to get the bomb, has failed, although a few countries have been dissuaded. South Africa, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan gave up their weapons with varying degrees of alacrity, and Iraq and Libya’s efforts at acquisition proved to be abortive. Nine countries now remain, both in and out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, the desire for the nuclear weapons in both small and large developing countries is an unavoidable fact (especially smaller countries – where their odds of survival, in their eyes, conspicuously increase with each addition to their stockpile). This is only to say, once the feline escapes the bag, it is not liable to re-enter without a great fuss. Globally, there are now 17,300 nuclear warheads. This number is simultaneously frightening and dizzying, as it should be. But the true value of Schlosser’s book is exploring not only what the number 17,300 means but also the unstable and tenuous web in which those multitudes are, or will be, bound.
[Originally published in the Cambridge Humanities Review, Issue 8, pp. 2-4.]