'Command and Control' by Eric Schlosser - book review

This week, I've been reading Eric Schlosser's 'Command and Control', an extensive and comprehensive non-fiction book that looks into the history of nuclear weapon safety in the U.S.A. since the Second World War. Schlosser wrote the excellent 'Fast Food Nation' and this book is just as thorough and just as alarming. Schlosser's book makes it clear, using an exhaustive list of events, that it's pretty much a miracle that a nuclear weapon didn't accidentally explode in the United States in the last sixty years.

I'm a supporter of CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and so I was keen to read this book to be as knowledgeable as possible on such an important subject. I came to the decision, several years ago, that I would rather be killed by a nuclear weapon than be even partly responsible for dropping one on millions of other people. There are many visceral examples of what such a nuclear strike would do in books and television, from an excellent passage in the book 'Doomsday Men', that I recently reviewed, as well as the harrowing and brilliant series 'Threads', made by the BBC (when the Beeb was being brave). I heartily recommend both items, but be aware, the Threads programme pulls no punches at all.

'Command and Control' is a thick wedge of a book. Schlosser exhaustively reports on the history of nukes in the U.S. and the cold war. To be honest, there were sections that I skipped, as page after page of descriptions of missiles and strategies can get dull. Fortunately, the book switches between this history and the recounting of a particular event; a disastrous accident that occurred at a Titan II missile silo. Schlosser's account of the accident is riveting. His writing reminded me a lot of Stephen King's 'The Stand', with the same approach of giving each character's back story, before narrating what happened to them during the accident. I wouldn't be surprised if Schlosser starts writing fiction soon, he's certainly prepared the ground.

Although Schlosser reports on the accidents, he seems to be an advocate of nuclear weapons, because of the Soviet threat. During the book, there are moments when he drifts into strange logic in support of this view. For example, on page 445, he says:

In Great Britain, membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament soon increased tenfold. A quarter of a million CND supporters attended a demonstration in London's Hyde Park during the fall of 1981, and a well-publicised Women's Peace Camp grew outside the Royal Air Force Base Greenham Common, where American cruise missiles would soon be housed. In Bonn, a demonstration against the Pershing II missile also attracted a quarter of a million people. The sense of powerlessness and dread, the need to take some sort of action and halt the arms race, led to a nuclear version of the Stockholm Syndrome. Throughout Western Europe, protesters condemned American missiles that hadn't yet arrived, not the hundreds of new Soviet missiles already aimed at them.

Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological problem where a captive starts to feel loyalty to and bond with their captor. Schlosser is therefore saying that Europeans who were protesting against nuclear weapons were somehow helping their Soviet 'captors'. He seems to have missed two clear facts. Firstly, the Soviets hadn't captured Western Europe. The fact that the USSR was aiming weapons at Western Europe was not the same. If one followed that logic, the U.S. and the USSR had captured each other. Secondly, the U.S. were placing nuclear weapons in Europe that they controlled. If the U.S. started a limited, European nuclear exchange, they would fire their weapons, cripple the USSR and the USSR would retaliate and obliterate large parts of Western Europe. Idealism aside, it's hardly surprising that a lot of Europeans didn't want U.S. nuclear weapons sited in their backyards. The late Tony Benn gave a talk years ago that I attended and during it, he stated, quite candidly, that when he was a cabinet minister in the U.K. government, he knew that Britain did not have control over the U.S. nuclear weapons sited at U.S. military bases in Britain. The cabinet all knew this, but they were supposed to talk loudly about being equal Allies and fellow fighters for freedom. Ironically, Schlosser's comment about 'Stockholm Syndrome' may be true, but not in the way he thinks.

Overall, I did enjoy the book. As a thorough study on military nuclear safety, it's excellent. Recommended.