Someone once told me that my mentioning of nuclear weapons as a “top fear” felt quaint. Given the looming certainty of the climate catastrophe and the fact that the cold war was already winding down when we were children — I can’t totally blame her. But after reading Schlosser’s Command and Control, I feel a bit less shy about sharing this particular existential dread.
Nuclear weapons are terrifying for a few reasons: The scope of their immediate destructive potential, the aftermath of their use manifesting in radiation sickness and destroyed lives, and the condemned lands that proliferate following nuclear explosions, are some immediate examples. But then there’s the systems of response and retaliation that have become automated in our fear of not being able to respond in a decapitation strike against leadership, or the massive infrastructure of maintenance required to keep a nuclear weapons arsenal operational (the fragility of which opens this book), or the training and testing regimes that result in dropped weapons and leaked information. The terrifying thing about nuclear weapons is that because they came into being, we are constantly living with the tenuous nature of their existing to not be used.
Command and Control is a seriously anxiety inducing book if you haven’t spent any time thinking about nuclear anything (save for perhaps the Chernobyl series) recently. What it introduces you to, is the idea that even unconsidered, the infrastructure and system of nuclear deterrence is alive around us. The fact that young men and women still don protective gear to fuel and maintain American missiles around the world should, in a way, be as scary as the fact that fissile material is finding its way into criminal networks and ambitious state — and sub-state — actors.
Basically, this isn’t a happy book. But it’s a really interesting one, and incredibly worthy of your time. Two books that it goes well with are Oppenheimer’s biography American Prometheus and the 2020 Commission Report which I wrote about recently.