The “Fast Food Nation” author on his frightening new exposé of America’s nuclear weapons mishaps.
Update (1/16/2014): The Air Force announced yesterday that it had suspended and revoked the security clearances of 34 missile launch officers at the Malmstrom base in Montana after it came to light that they were cheating—or complicit in cheating—on monthly exams to ensure that they were capable of safely babysitting the nuclear warheads atop their missiles. Eleven launch officers, two of whom were also involved in the cheating episode, were targeted in a separate investigation of illegal drug use. The revelations were just the latest fiasco in the Air Force’s handling of America’s nuclear arsenal, which military officials invariably insist is safe. Then again, as Schlosser reveals in his book, they’ve lied about that before.
The term “wake-up call” is a tired cliché, but it is appropriate in the case of Command and Control, the frightening new exposé of America’s nuclear weapons mishaps by Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser. In short, Schlosser delivers a book full of revelations that left me agape. While we still worry in the abstract about Iran and North Korea and Pakistan, it’s easy to forget that we still have thousands of our own ungodly devices on hair-trigger alert at this very moment. And even if we never drop or launch another nuke on purpose, these weapons are, in his words, “the most dangerous machines ever invented. And like every machine, sometimes they go wrong.”
That’s what the book is about. Through hard-fought documents and deep digging and extensive interviews, Schlosser reveals how close we’ve come, on numerous occasions, to a domestic nuclear detonation or an accidental war in which there are only losers. Command and Control will leave many readers with a deep unease about America’s ability to handle our nukes safely. Schlosser’s hope is that this unease will beget a long-neglected debate about “why we have them and when we use them and how many we need.” But his book is no screed. He delivers an engrossing page-turner. Would that it were fiction.
Mother Jones: The safety of America’s nuclear arsenal is far cry from fast food. What got you interested in this topic?
Eric Schlosser: I spent some time with the Air Force before Fast Food Nation came out. I was interested in the future of warfare in space: space weapons, particle-beam weapons, lasers, directed-energy devices. A lot of the people who were involved in it had started their careers as missile-crew officers. As I spent time with them, I became more interested in their stories from the Cold War about nuclear weapons than I did in the future of warfare in space.
MJ: How long did it take to research the book?
ES: A lot longer than I thought it would. I originally was going to write a relatively short book about this accident in Damascus, Arkansas, which was an extraordinary story. But the deeper I got, the more I realized that the subject of nuclear weapons accidents hadn’t really been written about, and that the threat was much greater than I thought it was. So what started out as a two-year project turned into six—and an extraordinary amount of digging around in strange places.
MJ: My general takeaway is that, given our history of near misses, it’s essentially dumb luck that we haven’t had an accidental nuclear detonation on American soil, or an accidental launch.
ES: If we don’t greatly reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world, or completely eliminate them, a major city is going to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon. It’s remarkable—it’s incredible!—that a major city hasn’t been destroyed since Nagasaki. We can confront this problem or we can accept that hundreds of thousands or more will be killed. And I don’t think that’s inevitable. The book was really written with a notion of trying to prevent that.
MJ: But is it inevitable if we maintain our current course?
ES: My background, academically, is history. I hate the word “inevitable” because I feel like things don’t have to be the way they are. But we really need to change our policies. I think Obama has done a terrific job of trying to raise awareness about nuclear weapons. But we really need to sit down with Russia, China, England, France, India, Pakistan, and think about how to greatly reduce, if not eliminate, these weapons. And that may sound totally absurd and unrealistic, but when I was in my 20s, if someone had said that the Soviet Union would vanish without a nuclear war and the Berlin Wall would come down and all this would happen without tens of thousands, or millions, of deaths, people would have thought that was absurd.
MJ: What do you think might befall our society were an accidental detonation to occur? I mean, suppose that H-bomb had exploded in North Carolina?