A Titan II missile in a launch duct at the Titan Missile Museum in Sahurarita, Arizona
A Titan II missile in a launch duct at the Titan Missile Museum in Sahurarita, Arizona © AP

Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser, Allen Lane, RRP£25/Penguin Press, RRP$36, 656 pages

Command and Control ranks among the most nightmarish books written in recent years; and in that crowded company it bids fair to stand at the summit. It is the more horrific for being so incontrovertibly right and so damnably readable.

Page after relentless page, it drives the vision of a world trembling on the edge of a fatal precipice deep into your reluctant mind. In so doing it forces the conclusion that if, as it claims, only luck and courage have kept humanity from disaster many times over, then failures of one or both of these qualities will undo us before long.

Eric Schlosser, an American journalist whose Fast Food Nation (2001) helped to prompt a recoil from fast food while accurately forecasting a global spread of obesity, writes here in the same detail-rich, closely researched style. But while Fast Food Nation dealt with relatively simple processes – how, for example, frozen French fries became the convenience food of choice in the US – Command and Control confronts the formidable complexities of the development, manufacture, upgrading, maintenance and storage of nuclear weaponry. Inevitably, the more technical passages can be hard to follow, and they need repeated readings by the non-specialist. But the tone, at once dispassionate and urgent, propels you on.

Over the decades, the politicians, in particular the US president on whose decision Armageddon would be unleashed, strove to grasp a strategy that would render these weapons safe while in their military’s possession and yet deadly when loosed upon the enemy – for most of this story, the Soviet Union. Schlosser weaves together the postwar history of nuclear missiles, pen portraits of the major and minor characters, and a narrative of the scientific and political struggles for control of a relentlessly spreading “military-industrial complex” (as Dwight Eisenhower described it at the end of his presidency, which had so much increased it). The result is a work with the multilayered density of an ambitiously conceived novel.

Spread throughout the book, in half a dozen closely reported episodes, is the story of an accident in September 1980 – a kind of thriller below the documentary. The scene is Launch Complex 374-7, which housed a Titan II missile near the town of Damascus, Arkansas. The Titan II, though by then ageing and increasingly unstable, was the most powerful missile in the US armoury, delivering a nine megaton yield – that is, an explosion equal to 9m tons of TNT. The “Fat Man” bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in 1945 had a yield of 20,000-22,000 tons of TNT.

Things started to unravel with the dropping of a wrench, which tore the missile’s casing and caused a leak of the toxic propellant. The resulting explosion blew the second stage of the missile, carrying the nuclear payload, out of the silo, where it flew briefly parallel to the ground and then exploded a few hundred yards from the complex, throwing the warhead into a ditch. Two men in their twenties – Sergeant Jeff Kennedy and Senior Airman David Livingston – had gone voluntarily into the underground complex to try to deal with the effects of the leak, and were overcome with the noxious fumes. Rescued, Livingston soon died, while Kennedy just survived (though he died relatively young). Their heroism, tardily recognised by the military, was emblematic of the teams across America who tended the missiles, and whose interventions saved millions of lives. Miraculously, the Titan II warhead did not explode, and Arkansas – then governed by a young Bill Clinton, who uncharacteristically plays a tiny part in this tale – was spared a self-inflicted nuclear strike.

In Schlosser’s telling, the gathering crisis in the silo counterpoints the growth of missile stocks in the US and the USSR and then – as these stocks were cut – the more deadly spread of nuclear technology beyond the initial quartet of the US, USSR, France and Britain, a process that is continuing and is probably now out of control. The now-ness of the story is the point. Schlosser covers a period of 70 years, in which first China, then Israel (undeclared), then India and Pakistan, then North Korea have joined the ghastly club; Iran waits in the wings. The US stocks are among the best-kept in the world yet Schlosser shows that potentially horrific accidents happened regularly – two of them occurring at the same time as, in October 1962, the US and the USSR faced each other down over the placing of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

The installations are safer now than they were in the first decades of hair-raising sloppiness, when accidents were routinely denied and covered up. But vast errors still occur, and new dangers threaten. In August 2007, six cruise missiles with nuclear warheads were mistakenly shipped from one US base to another, and were unguarded for a day and a half until accidentally found. This year, a report by the US Defence Science Board warned that no one knew how vulnerable the command and control system was to a cyber attack – which might, deliberately or accidentally, trigger a launch.

There is little comfort to be drawn even from the fact that, for all the near-misses, no warhead has ever been detonated inadvertently on American soil. As Schlosser points out, nuclear weapons are the most dangerous technology ever invented. “Anything less than 100 percent control of them, anything less than perfect safety and security, would be unacceptable. And if this book has any message to preach, it is that human beings are imperfect.”

Schlosser has done what journalism does at its best when at full stretch: he has spent time – years – researching, interviewing, understanding and reflecting to give us a piece of work of the deepest import. We cannot – as we could after reading Fast Food Nation – help ourselves by abjuring hamburgers and chips; the reach of the nuclear empires is not so easily evaded. But we can, in ironic company with old cold warriors turned peaceniks such as Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, press the case for the reduction and final destruction of weapons of mass destruction. It’s a cause currently dramatised by the grim images of the effects of chemical weapons used by the Syrian regime – these weapons being the least deadly of the chemical, biological and nuclear trilogy. If that pressure does not work, and political agreements cannot be made, we face – as we have for the past seven decades – annihilation.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor

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