Review: Command and Control, By Eric Schlosser


We know the risks of nuclear holocaust did not end with the Cold War, but until recently we have remained in happy ignorance of just how accident-prone atomic bombs are. After mining controversies around junk food (in Fast Food Nation) and cannabis (Reefer Madness), Schlosser has now scrutinised the prospects of involuntary Armageddon.

Command and Control centres on the explosion of a Titan missile in an Arkansas silo in 1980. Schlosser’s account of the US Air Force teams battling to save the Titan is gripping. Luckily, the missile’s H-bomb did not detonate, but this incident was far from isolated – notably, in 1961 a B-52 accidentally dropped a bomb that could have spread lethal fallout over Washington and New York.

If Schlosser’s historical and technical context slows down his main action, the book as a whole is a salutary warning. He has scrutinised official documents to reveal the horrifying extent of the blunders. In 1957, US experts stated the chances of an accidental H-bomb explosion were one-in-five in each decade. Even this terrifying statistic was based on overly optimistic assumptions.

Almost 5,000 warheads remain in US hands. Worse, as Schlosser reminds us, today’s nuclear club contains several countries of dubious stability.