Zippidy Doo Da

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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Command and Control

Eric Schlosser has followed his hamburger book, Fast Food Nation, with a book about another product of World War II, atomic weapons. Command and Control intersperses a history of the development of atomic weapons, the subsequent cold war arms race, and efforts to prevent the mistaken, unauthorized, or accidental detonation of nuclear weapons with a detailed account of the Damascus Incident, a 1980 fire and explosion at a Titan II missile base in Arkansas.

This book is replete with dichotomies such as the arms race between god-bless America and the evil empire, the USSR. A big one is the crux of civilian control of the military and its arsenal versus military control of the same. And then there are the weapons themselves; early on there was a choice presented between having the bombs being safe to handle and having them be potent weapons, (not duds.) This goes back to at least the first ‘Trinity’ test, where the scientists of course wanted the device to be a success, (they were trying to save the world, after all) but they still wondered whether the blast would ignite the earths’ atmosphere. The question of whether the weapons were safe to handle was answered on a trial and error basis, as the devices went into service on planes, boats and missiles and were variously dropped, crashed, struck by lightning, and burned in fires. These were not exactly “rare occurrences,” with tens of thousands of weapons deployed around the world, a ‘one in a million chance’ could happen in a matter of decades. In the years between 1950 and 1968 the US recorded over 1,200 “Broken Arrow” incidents (accidents involving nuclear weapons.) Hell, by 1968 US nuclear weapons had been struck by lightning seventy times.

Schlosser had lots of stories I’d never heard of; I didn’t know we had a shoulder fired nuke, the Davy Crockett Atomic Rifle, part of the US tripwire in cold-war Europe. And, I had never heard of the “Demon Core,” a plutonium sphere a little bigger than a baseball that killed two atomic scientists in incidents a year apart when they accidentally shielded the core enough for it to go critical, into a chain reaction emitting lethal radiation. The core was finally used to detonate a 23 Kiloton device at Bikini Atoll in 1946.

I hope this book has at least as much effect as Schlossers’ Fast Food Nation, which was serialized in Rolling Stone before it sold over a million copies and was adapted into a film by Richard Linklater. This all–important subject gets too little attention; we need to remember that nuclear non-proliferation or de-proliferation isn’t just for other countries. As I heard Valerie Plame say on Fresh Air this week; “If we don’t get this right, nothing else matters.”


At 10:14 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Davy Crockett Nuke wasn't quite "shoulder-fired" - it was designed for use in a "recoilless rifle" - a 120mm or 155mm artillery piece designed for use by infantry.

Still, a nuclear bomb built using 1950s technology weighing about 51 lbs is not a comforting thought in an era of terrorists. Only the difficulty of extracting the right isotopes prevents the widespread use of these weapons by non-governmental actors.


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