It all started when a repairman dropped a socket wrench, hitting a fuel tank. After several mishaps, the event concluded with an explosion. A warhead flew into the ground 200 yards away. At first, investigative journalist Eric Schlosser's latest book "Command and Control" reads like a novel. However, he moves on to discuss the often-worrisome history of nuclear weapons in America and foreign policy.
The last two days reading the book have been eye opening. While I was familiar with most of the history from high school U.S. history, I had no knowledge of just how precarious our nuclear weapons really are. Schlosser's book details numerous near misses, situations where we were mostly just lucky more damage didn't result from bombs. It also examines all of the lesser-discussed risks of nuclear weapons?delving into early failures to look into the psychiatric and drug histories of the people handling the weapons and how various presidents built upon the country's command and control systems.
This latter point about the command and control systems is exhaustively researched and described. The rigidity of the system. The relatively cavalier attitudes of the people that advised Americans to build an underground shelter, all while realizing these shelters probably wouldn't help if we were hit by Soviet hydrogen bombs and building a much deeper shelter underground for the president. The decision to blame two young men who were just following orders for the Damascus explosion.
While Schlosser describes these systems as safer now than they were at the midpoint of the last century, a reader is still left feeling it's all too precarious, all too dependent on the judgment of human beings who may be brave, but are certainly fallible. It's a wonder we haven't had more nuclear accidents?many experts seem to believe this is simply a matter of luck.
I first read Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" in 2001 and was horrified, particularly by the account of meatpacking industries. It was not that I hadn't known that the situation with meat processing was bad, it was that I hadn't understood how dire the situation was. I remember a conservative friend remarking, "Well, how true is any of that? He's got to be making some of that up." Of course, since that book's publication, many, many documentaries and reports have since revealed even more dark facts about our food industry.
In 2003, I read Schlosser's "Reefer Madness." At that time, California was a vanguard state, having legalized medical marijuana. Many other places in the country still saw marijuana as a gateway drug, as dangerous, as not really having medical benefits. However, now, ten years after the book's release, both medical and recreational marijuana are slowly becoming legalized, state by state. And this year, finally, medical marijuana gained acceptance by CNN's chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta.
What's so fascinating about Schlosser is that he is always a few steps ahead of almost everyone else?he spots the issues that all Americans should be concerned about long before most of us catch on to how dire the situation is. The safety of our nuclear weapons is the most critical issue that he's taken on to date. And it's one most of us are only vaguely aware of. "Command and Control" will probably change all that. It's a must-read.
Meet Eric Schlosser and listen to him talk about "Command and Control" on Thursday, October 3 at at 7:00 pm at Books, Inc. in Mountain View. Let me know what you think of "Fast Food Nation," "Reefer Madness" or "Command and Control" or the concerns they raise in the comments below.