In this book, Eric Schlosser has two fascinating and gripping stories to tell and he does so by leaping back and forth between them, alternating sections on each narrative. The first story is a history of the nuclear weapons program in America, from just after WWII up to the present day; the second is the story of one horrible day and night in 1980 when an accident at a missile silo in rural Arkansas almost led to the explosion of a nuclear warhead on American soil. It’s kind of a toss-up which story is more unbelievable.
The story of the missile in Arkansas has tension, but the story of the nuclear program probably wins for sheer shock value. As you read about the slip-shod way in which the program developed and the weapons were handled, your mind just starts to slip into some sort of illogical netherworld. It’s most obvious in the book’s section on the Cold War, but throughout the history of the weapons program, it seems that a collective insanity has deprived the military and the politicians of all reason. Out of all the questions the book raises about the safety, the philosophy and the purpose of nuclear weapons, one question stands out above all: why in God’s name would any rational, sane person want to develop weapons like this? What could make someone want to have the power to kill, as one government official actually asks at one point, eight million people by pushing one button? Why would someone who had seen the devastation of World War II think it was a good idea to create hundreds of bombs, each of which carried the explosive force of more than ten times all the bombs exploded in World War II?
And, frankly, the book gets pretty scary as you read about time after time when things almost went sideways. And by sideways, I mean, “millions of people nearly died.” A technician in a plane accidentally pulls the “release” lever instead of the “lock” lever and a nuclear warhead drops into a backyard in a suburban neighborhood in America. NORAD goes into countdown mode when their computers incorrectly register THE RISING SUN as a cloud of Russian missiles; in that instance, the government was less than twenty minutes from purposely launching a full nuclear strike on Russia. A fire breaks out in a missile silo and spreads throughout the entire silo, killing more than fifty people because the blast doors, intended to prevent such disasters, had been propped open by the technicians because it was such a hassle to keep opening them. A secret government report coolly forecasts that a major metropolitan city will doubtless be accidentally blown up by an American nuclear weapon in the near future; and this stunning forecast also posits that the American people won’t blame the government when, say, Chicago gets blown off the map. And of course there’s never a possibility of taking this forecast as reason for shutting the program down. It’s stated in one government document that the death of twenty million civilians falls under the acceptable risk threshold. My God. You see what I mean about collective insanity?
Human error, gross incompetence, complete stupidity and extreme paranoia pervade this book and add up to a situation where it seems, frankly, unbelievable that we’re all still alive. Essentially, nuclear holocaust hasn’t happened yet by sheer, damn-fool luck. Or, if you’re a person of faith, you’ll agree with one general who muses that the “only explanation is divine intervention.” It’s a really engrossing, infuriating, darkly hilarious look at the most powerful weapons mankind has ever created and the absolutely piss-poor way we’ve managed them to date.
Gripping, disturbing, infuriating, unbelievable. Great book. Highly recommended. 4 stars.
tl;dr – history of the American nuclear weapons program reveals culture of paranoia, incompetence, stupidity, and total disregard for human life; gripping, nightmarishly hilarious, infuriating. 4 stars.