Command and Control

61hBKCSlSwLAn extract of this was pretty widely promoted, and was enough to get me hooked.

The book does a good job of covering the US side of the history of atomic weapons, mixing in enough about the personal lives, and detailed reportage of a specific Titan II disaster, that it becomes hard to put down.

I’d expected to find it an unsettling read, but the disconnect between the sense of US supremacy and the reality of a paranoid Strategic Air Command ends up being closer to farce. The primitive nature of the plans for first strike, the dawning realisation that even a small nuclear exchange would be impossible to de-escalate, that the US was caught between having an easy to decapitate centralised leadership, and a hair-trigger, rush to war, distributed command and control, makes you realise that we are actually luck to still be here. And, that’s before getting into the jerry-rigged nature of most of the weapons, the endless accidents with live weapons, and the false positives produced by the early warning systems.

The attitude of the SAC, DoD, DoE officials feels very similar to the paranoia exhibited by the equivalents currently serving with the NSA and GCHQ. The projection of absolute knowledge that cannot be challenged without it being a show of weakness to the enemy. Not that such people need an actual enemy – even after the fall of the soviet block, both sides still maintain (only just in the case of the russians, one would imagine…) stockpiles large enough to destroy europe many times over. There is a lot of money to be made keeping us on the knife edge.

Having grown up terrorised by Threads, snorts of sarcastic laughter was not what i expect from this book. We’re presumably further from the edge than when i was a kid, but that we got this far without losing a few cities along the way now seems all the more surprising.