Sunday, September 15, 2013

Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety NEW YORK TIMES September 12, 2013 Atomic Gaffes By WALTER RUSSELL MEAD COMMAND AND CONTROL Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety By Eric Schlosser 632 pp. The Penguin Press. $36. A little over 50 years ago a South Carolina doctor (and the grandfather of this reviewer) treated a family for injuries sustained when a sudden, inexplicable explosion tore through their backyard. The injuries were not serious, and after spending the night at the doctor’s house they returned home to discover that the object in the 50-foot crater left behind their house was an atomic bomb that had fallen from a passing Air Force plane. The bomb had not been “armed” with its nuclear core; the blast came from the explosives intended to trigger a chain reaction. The crater can still be seen today. That incident, which led to an anti-¬nuclear movement in Britain, where the plane was bound, is one of many stories Eric Schlosser, the author of “Fast Food Nation,” tells in “Command and Control.” During the cold war, nuclear bombs fell out of the sky, burned up in plane ¬crashes and were lost at sea. In the incident Schlosser describes in greatest detail, “the Damascus accident” of Sept. 18, 1980, the warhead from a Titan II missile was ejected after a series of mishaps that began when a repairman dropped a socket wrench and pierced a fuel tank. Tactical nuclear weapons scattered across Europe had minimal security; misplaced tools and failed repairs triggered serious accidents; inadequate safety procedures and poor oversight led to dozens of close brushes with nuclear explosions. People have died in these accidents, sometimes as a result of their own carelessness or bad luck, but often while doing their best to protect the rest of us from an accidental nuclear blast. Schlosser’s disquieting but riveting book looks at every aspect of nuclear risk, examining problems with the command and control systems that in theory were supposed to provide presidents with the information they would need to make the decision on whether the United States should retaliate against a Soviet strike. Constructing the complex systems needed for this task — linking radar sites and monitor stations around the world into a single network for analysis and control — was well beyond the technological capacity of American engineers for much of the cold war, but they did the best they could. The system they created, which led among other things to the technology that gave us the Internet, was not only subject to glitches and crashes, it was also too brittle to survive any serious Soviet attack, too inflexible to give presidents good choices at what would have been the most critical moments in world history and too subject to error to be relied on. At various points, flocks of birds, sunshine reflecting off clouds and the rising moon over Norway set off alarm bells. One false alert went high enough up the command chain that a general woke the national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in the middle of the night; as he waited for confirmation before calling President Carter, Brzezinski decided not to tell his wife that Soviet missiles were on their way. “Command and Control” is organized a bit like a Caribbean cruise. The main part of the voyage is Schlosser’s fascinating account of one of the most serious accidents in the history of the American nuclear program: the crisis near Damascus, Ark., when a Titan missile exploded in a fiery blast, sending its warhead into a ditch 200 yards away. From eyewitness accounts and exhaustive research Schlosser has pieced this story together in great detail. But the cruise ship also stops at several ports along the way, where passengers disembark for tours of various other topics related to the history of American strategic thinking, the development of war-fighting systems, and other accidents involving nuclear weapons and missiles around the world. Almost everything in the book is well reported and clearly explained, but the events and ideas tend to blur. And gripping though the Damascus narrative is on its own terms, readers may have trouble picking up the broken threads of this highly complex multi¬character tale after so many involved and absorbing excursions — for example, Schlosser’s detailed treatment of the bitter interservice rivalries that affected the development of America’s nuclear systems and doctrine. For many readers, the most dismaying revelations will not be the ones about accidents and near accidents. Nuclear bomb scares are fun to read about, but after all, the bomb that fell on South Carolina was not armed, and none of the countries making and storing nuclear weapons since 1945 have had to cope with the consequences of an accidental nuclear blast. Substantially more troubling is the story Schlosser tells of the poor strategic thinking at the heart of the nuclear enterprise. For much of the cold war, the plans for using America’s nuclear weapons were rigid and inflexible. Compared with them, the mobilization timetables that locked the general staffs of Europe into an inexorable march toward disaster in 1914 were models of flexibility and restraint. As far as Schlosser can tell, the American arsenal is safer than it used to be (though some troubling weak spots remain), and since the end of the cold war we have stepped back from the nuclear brink. But in a world with many other nuclear powers, some much worse at basic safety and security precautions than we are, the chances of accidental nuclear explosions or terrorists capturing nuclear weapons are much too high. Worse, it is very likely that the plans in countries like India and Pakistan are as rigid as those Americans developed a generation ago, and that a collection of misunderstandings might launch a nuclear juggernaut on a course that could not be stopped. All that said, it is hard to see how the nuclear nightmare can be brought to an end. Schlosser traces the many disarmament proposals and efforts from Harry Truman’s effort to vest control over nuclear weapons with the United Nations up through President Obama’s efforts to outlaw the weapons through international agreement, but he offers small hope that they can ever be abolished. (Schlosser does not even mention one reason countries like Russia and China are dead set against universal nuclear disarmament: America’s conventional superiority is so overwhelming that both countries feel they need nuclear arsenals to offset Washington’s nonnuclear might.) Over all, Schlosser is a better reporter than policy analyst, and his discussion of what we should do about the problem he so grippingly describes is disappointingly thin. Nevertheless, his core recommendation that the United States explore the possibilities of operating a minimal deterrent, the smallest number of nuclear weapons needed to prevent adversaries from contemplating a nuclear attack on us, may be the most hopeful direction in which we can look. But as technological progress makes nuclear weapons cheaper and easier to build, and creates new and ever more dangerous weapons of mass destruction, the intractable problems of safe storage and nuclear war-fighting doctrine are likely to remain with us for the long term. The human race was smart enough to build these bombs. So far we appear to lack the intelligence needed either to get rid of them or to store them safely. Schlosser’s readers (and he deserves a great many) will be struck by how frequently the people he cites attribute the absence of accidental explosions and nuclear war to divine intervention or sheer luck rather than to human wisdom and skill. Whatever was responsible, we will clearly need more of it in the years to come. Walter Russell Mead is the James Clarke Chace professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College and editor at large for The American Interest. © 2012 The New York Times Company Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to "The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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