Review: Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control (2013, London: Allen Lane)
It is not often that a historical study can have readers turning page 500 with the same furious intensity reached by page 5. Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, however, is an excellent example of how academic history can be scholarly, reliable and riveting for even the most general of readers. Schlosser’s history of the United States of America’s nuclear weapons programme in the twentieth century is an excellent public history work which has something to offer for both academic and general readers of all backgrounds, being at once terrifying, fascinating, informative and, most importantly, eminently readable.
The book has a dual structure that intertwines two parallel narratives of contrasting scope. The first is a broad but detailed account of how US Nuclear Weapons policy evolved from its inception and development in the Manhattan project, and beyond the end of the Cold War. The second thread narrates, in excruciating detail, how a trivial industrial accident at a nuclear silo deep in the American countryside resulted in the deaths of US air force servicemen and was a near miss for all-out nuclear war. The interlacing of multiple threads (think Game of Thrones narrative structure meets Octopussy subject matter) makes the account read like a spy novel, and is made all the more chilling because of its basis in fact, personal testimony and plausibility of interpretation.
As far as this brief review is concerned, three things are of key significance with regards to why this is such a successful work of academic history:
Firstly, Schlosser exploits the full narrative range offered by his dual structure. With fluid ease, the history switches from the most intimate focus on personal or individual accounts to the widest possible levels of systemic global analysis. At one extreme, the account describes the consequences of a humble trainee engineer innocuously dropping a spanner somewhere in the sleepy heartland of America. At the other, Schlosser describes how the nuclear programme affected changes in the international ‘balance of power’ over half a century and shaped the lives of entire civilizations.
For the reader, this combination of scope is like looking into Borges’ Aleph. One sees all aspects of the story at once: the vast and the minute, the seemingly insignificant to the most public and major of political and international moments. Schlosser manages these multiple angles so effectively that the history reads with a feel of quasi-cosmic, ‘butterfly-effect’ interconnectivity. At the same time, the account never seems anything other than academically measured and coherent.
Secondly, the level of detail Schlosser has gone into gives his account an impressive sense of academic credibility. As an indication of this it is worth highlighting that the notes and bibliography add more than 100 pages to the book, bringing the overall length to well over 600 pages (useful for those looking to pursue the topic further). The variety of official government and industry sources, personal testimonies, and background technical information, though spanning the entire evolution of nuclear technology and its ‘command and control’ systems over the twentieth century in the USA, is specific and detailed throughout. And, in spite of the borderline-anorak obsession with, for example, specific technical differences between two particular iterations of a particular safety feature on a particular model of a specific type of bomb, the account somehow never loses pace or broadness of perspective. That Schlosser is able to effectively bring the non-specialist up to speed on details that could easily have been completely incomprehensible is no mean feat.
The third main point, and arguably the most significant with regards to the overall effect of Schlosser’s historical account, is that it leaves the reader with a sense of terror and disbelief that such potent technology could be handled so haphazardly. Indeed, if there is one ‘message’ that Schlosser leaves the reader with, it is that twentieth century advances in destructive power of nuclear technology far outstripped the capacity of US military-industrial safety culture to manage and contain it. The quantity and severity of the near misses, of which one specific instance is recounted in detail with many others discussed more briefly, would be quite simply unbelievable were it not for Schlosser’s meticulous historical work compiling them. It seems that those ‘in the know’ might always have been fully aware of the chasm between nuclear power’s destructive potential and human ability to control it. Indeed, according to Schlosser even the Manhattan project’s own pioneering scientists were of this opinion in the mid-twentieth century.
However, to anyone brought up in a twenty-first century health and safety culture, or anyone who may still retain some illusion that world leaders in the twentieth century might have had some idea what they were doing, it is an utterly traumatic read bringing home quite how precarious much of the last hundred years really was. I can think of no better way to describe the impact of Schlosser’s work than to summarise it quite simply: it makes the reader look back at the twentieth century in utter shock thinking, “bloody hell, that was close.”