Mike Pozulp

August 23, 2015

Cold War Close-One

A review of Eric Schlosser's dramatic nuclear history, Command and Control.

Command and Control is a sobering look at nuclear weapon accidents and the inescapable probability of accidental nuclear war. With great research effort and literary ability, Schlosser takes the reader through a Cold War chronology interspersed with a recounting of the Titan II explosion at Damascus. The chronology is focused, adept, and engaging. Surprisingly, the Damascus accident is not. In the end, a powerful explosion lends a powerful crescendo, and the curtain is drawn on a satisfying journey through a climactic microcosm set to the nuclear-political background of the Cold War.

Schlosser begins and then periodically comes back to a progressive recounting of Damascus. The uninitiated reader of military history receives a baptismal waterfall of acronyms that sets a solid foundation for the rest of the book. In fact, Schlosser provides a few pages of acronyms up front after the table of contents. They are a helpful inclusion. The military's proclivity for acronyms is as voracious as their consumption of the federal budget.

Recounting the events of Damascus begins slowly and carefully. Each participant is characterized at length by their entry to the story. Most often, a serviceman leaves his young wife and young children to respond to the call of duty of a young military career. Wasted youth is thematic.

The pace of the retelling is mirrored in the event itself. Most of the action consists of standing around and waiting. Schlosser makes awkward use of profanity in attempts to accelerate the pace. For instance, in the chapter titled "Like Hell," the first sentence is, "The outer door was a real bitch." This is not dialogue. Why Schlosser chooses to borrow writing from the toolbox of adolescent-boy fiction authors, I do not know. More likely, Schlosser is remembering a discussion he had with a primary source, one of the tens of retired servicemen and public servants that Schlosser tirelessly interviewed to write this book.

The extensive Cold War nuclear history and revelations from recently-unclassified documents are far more interesting than the long, drawn-out Damascus accident. The Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) is the biggest shocker. The official nuclear war plan from 1960 to 2003, the SIOP was commissioned to coordinate nuclear strike targets amongst different branches of the military in order to prevent overkill. It was so secret that it was only shared with the Secretary of Defense, and in the forty years of its existence it shocked and sickened many an administration's Secretary. Thousands of nuclear weapons were to be dropped on hundreds of cities in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and Eastern Europe. The conservative casualty estimate was an inconceivable 220 million, or ten times the total number of deaths during World War II. The SIOP was staggering. It would have been humanity's final act.

Nuclear war today, while not imminent, is still eminent. Schlosser's Command and Control demands that we not forget the complexity or chaos of the Cold War, its history of accidents, and our nearness to unbridled destruction. There is nothing more terrifying than the precariousness of human existence. Teetering on the edge of nuclear genocide, the follies of politicians and the military very nearly initiate nuclear war by accident, repeatedly, for a half-century. This is Schlosser's masterpiece. For his trespasses into unfortunate diction he is resoundly forgiven.