Well, reading this calls for an extra Ambien tonight, with a Stoli chaser: a New Yorker review of Eric Schlosser’s new book Command And Control, about near-misses in the US government’s mismanagement of our nuclear weapons. From the rave review:

The Arkansas incident, in 1980, is well chosen as an illustration of Schlosser’s point. Objects fall inside silos all the time, he says. The chance that a falling socket would puncture the skin of a Titan II missile was extremely remote—but not impossible. When it happened, it triggered a set of mechanical and human responses that quickly led to a nightmare of confusion and misdirection. Once enough oxidizer leaked out and the air pressure inside the tank dropped, the missile would collapse, the remaining oxidizer would come into contact with the rocket fuel, and the missile would explode. Because a nineteen-year-old airman performing regular maintenance accidentally let a socket slip out of his wrench, a Titan II missile became a time bomb, and there was no way to turn off the timer.

And the missile was armed. Schlosser says that the explosive force of the warhead on a Titan II is nine megatons, which is three times the force of all the bombs dropped in the Second World War, including the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If it had detonated, most of the state of Arkansas would have been wiped out.

Few systems are more tightly coupled than the arsenal controlled by the nuclear football. Once the launch codes are entered, a chain of events is set in motion that is almost impossible to interrupt. The “Dr. Strangelove” scenario is quite realistic. The American nuclear-war plan, known as the Single Integrated Operational Plan (siop), provided for only one kind of response to an attack: full-scale nuclear war. It was assumed that tens of millions of people would die. There were no post-attack plans. For forty years, this was the American nuclear option. No doubt, the Soviets’ was identical.

Henry Kissinger called the siop a “horror strategy.” Even Nixon was appalled by it. Schlosser says that when General George Butler became the head of the Strategic Air Command, in 1991, and read the siop he was stunned. “This was the single most absurd and irresponsible document I had ever reviewed in my life,” he told Schlosser. “I came to fully appreciate the truth. . . . We escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”

The dangerous people in Schlosser’s story are the people who try to enhance the readiness of nuclear weaponry by reducing the controls on its use. The good people are not the anti-nuke activists. Schlosser is quite dismissive of them, especially the Western Europeans who protested against the Pershing IIs intended to protect them but not against the Soviet missiles right across the border that were aimed at them night and day.

Here’s a Mother Jones interview with Schlosser, about the book. Excerpt:

MJ: You describe a bunch of WarGames-type incidents during which this really happened—we got false launch signals or the Russians got false signals.

ES: There were two major false alarms during the Carter administration. One of them occurred when a training tape was accidentally put into the computer at NORAD that was supposed to warn us of a Soviet attack. It was a very realistic simulation of a Soviet attack, and so that created a great deal of concern until it was realized that it was a false alarm. Not that long afterward, during the tense period after the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, there was a computer error at NORAD that basically said that more than 1,000 missiles were on their way. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was woken up in the middle of the night and told that it looked like the US was under attack. He waited for more confirmation before calling the president, but he was fully prepared for this nuclear strike and to order a counter-attack. According to Bob Gates, who was head of the CIA and later Secretary of Defense, Brzezinski deliberately didn’t wake his wife, because if they were all going to die, he just wanted it to happen while she was sleeping. Having a launch-on-warning capability like we do, and having our missiles on alert is a very dangerous game, because once one of our missiles is launched—unlike bombers—there’s no calling it back.


MJ: Your book’s central narrative involves the deadly explosion you mentioned, which took place at a Titan II missile silo in Arkansas in 1980. What were the key lessons of that disaster, and do you think the military has learned them?

ES: I’m quite concerned. One of the lessons would be, if you’re going to have nuclear weapons, you must spare no expense in the proper maintenance of them. The Titan II was widely regarded as obsolete. They were running out of spare parts. There were frequent leaks, and the warhead was acknowledged not to have adequate safety devices. The people working on it were often poorly trained, poorly paid, overworked. There were shortages of trained technicians. In retrospect, it was completely irresponsible to have all of those things occurring with a missile carrying the most powerful warhead ever put on an Air Force missile. It’s just extraordinary! And there were high rates of drug use. I spoke to people who had been involved in sensitive nuclear positions who were smoking pot at the time. You don’t want people smoking pot and handling nuclear weapons. So those are some of the crucial takeaways. And yet our land-based missile, the Minuteman III, is upward of 40 years old. The B-52 bomber hasn’t been manufactured since John F. Kennedy was president, and some of those bombers are getting close to 65 years old. We really should either invest in our weapons systems or get rid of them.

Look at what happened with the Air Force, starting with that 2007 incident when they lost those hydrogen bombs. A few years ago, they lost communication with an entire squadron of Minutemen missiles—50 missiles!—for almost an hour. They had to decertify the maintenance crew that looks after the biggest Air Force storage facility in New Mexico. Seventeen launch officers were taken off duty earlier this year for safety violations. There’s a sense of a lack of direction, and mismanagement right now—particularly in the Air Force. And it’s intolerable. It’s unacceptable.

Seriously. And regarding Dr. Strangelove, it turns out that Gen. Curtis LeMay, the real-life model for George C. Scott’s lunatic Gen. Buck Turgidson, is, in Schlosser’s view, a hero of the nuclear age. Why? Read the interview.