Command And Control, Or: All The Times We Almost Blew Ourselves Up

It’s October 2016, and a vile, hateful, inhuman slug obsessed with revenge, wealth, and his fat, stubby fingers has been put up as a presidential candidate by what was once considered a serious political party, thus revealing them for what they truly are: mentally stunted, misogynistic, xenophobic, violent man-children entirely devoted to taking a giant shit on top of the world, and burying us all beneath it.

The idea that such a person could be president is alarming for every reason imaginable, but one in particular comes readily to mind: he would have, as they say, his finger on The Button, i.e., the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Would a man who has threatened to both jail and have murdered his political opponent, who rants and raves at the tiniest of perceived personal slights, who openly rails against all non-white peoples of the world, who desires power, power, and still more power—would such a man shrink from launching missiles at any who oppose him?

My honest answer: I don’t know. I don’t know. That is not an acceptable answer. The answer for anyone running for president is and must be: NEVER AGAIN.

Boom.

Titan II make big boom.

It doesn’t usually come up in presidential elections these days, the worry that a given candidate, if elected, will have the nuclear launch codes at hand. The Cold War is over. Nukes have settled well into the background of daily life. If they’re worried about at all, it’s that another country will start making them, or a terrorist group will get their hands on one. A WWIII induced nuclear winter dooming hundreds of millions is not given much thought.

But it was.

At one time, in the ‘60s, the U.S. had over 30,000 nuclear weapons ready to go. Thirty thousand. Think that’ll do it? One Titan II warhead contained more explosive power than every bomb dropped by every combatant in all of WWII, including our two atomic bombs, combined. From ’63 to ’83 we had about 60 of them ready to launch at any given moment. And that’s just the Titan II. We had B-52s in the air 24/7 laden with nukes, we had subs, we had everything, everywhere, in our country, in other countries. It’s no wonder Kubrick turned Red Alert into a comedy. The absurdity of it boggles.

Silo in Arkansas, 1980.

Silo in Arkansas, 1980.

One might wonder, with so many missiles—in silos, aboard planes, etc.—ready to launch, why haven’t there been any accidents? Why hasn’t anyone screwed up and detonated a nuke by mistake?

They almost have. Often. Thousands of times, in fact. Or in any case, there are thousands of recorded incidents of accidents surrounding nukes during the Cold War years. The military did not make knowledge of those accidents public. Not even to their own people in charge of safety.

command_and_control movie posterAll of this and more is covered in the new doc Command and Control, based on the book of the same name by Eric Schlosser (of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness (the book, not the ‘36 movie) fame). Schlosser wrote the movie, too, in collaboration with its director, Robert Kenner. They condense the massive info dump of the book into a fast-paced film centered, as was the book, around the 1980 Damascus, Arkansas Titan II missile explosion.

You remember that, right? Me neither. Kind of a big deal the time, though, what with a nuke almost blowing up Arkansas. Not that the government admitted such a thing. Just a mishap in a silo, nothing to worry about, folks.

So what happened? In ’80, in a Titan II silo in Arkansas, during routine maintenance, a 19-year-old employee dropped a socket he was unscrewing from the missile with a socket wrench. It fell some 80 feet, bounced off a strut, and hit the rocket, putting a hole in its fuel tank. Fuel began to spew.

Uh oh.

“Uh oh,” the first words the men in the command center located elsewhere in the silo complex heard from the two guys working on the missile. Things only went south from there. Unlike the many, many other nuke mishaps, this one couldn’t be kept quiet. Newsmen swarmed the site as the disaster unfolded. The military told nobody nuthin’ as they first evacuated the silo, then realized they needed someone inside to check pressure readings, and sent more men back into it.

Nice place to work

Nice place to work

Not to give anything away, but the missile eventually exploded. That is, its fuel tanks did. The warhead itself? It was only thrown, well, somewhere, by the explosion. Where? Nobody knew. But it’s cool; they found it in a field eventually. And hey! It didn’t even detonate! Good news, everyone, we can all sleep soundly again.

What this story makes you do is wonder how in the world we’ve never (yet) blown up a nuke here at home due to someone or something screwing up. Because it’s not human ingenuity that’s saved us (so far). It’s luck.

Command and Control works well enough for what it is. It combines actual footage from the event with re-enactments of what was happening inside the silo, though it never identifies what footage is real and what isn’t, which kind of drove me crazy. Most of the time it’s obvious, but what about all the shots of army bigwigs on phones in offices dicking around on computers? Is that just random stock footage of “’60s military stuff” they dug up?

Heading into the silo...

Heading into the silo…

Mainly it’s a talking heads movie. Fortunately most of the people directly involved in the incident are still alive and were interviewed for the movie. It’s intense to watch them tear up remembering this disaster from 35 years ago—a disaster they’ve not for a single day forgotten. When you’re about 20 years old and find yourself in a nuclear missile silo with leaking fuel and a warhead that might go off at any second, likely killing millions, it leaves a lasting impression.

The U.S. still has over 7,000 active nukes. Enough to protect us? From the rest of the world, uh, yeah. I think that might do it. But from ourselves? 7,000 warheads are a lot to keep track of. A lot to keep safe. A lot to maintain as they age.

As one interviewee puts it, we may have had a lot more weapons in the ‘60s, but we were also acutely aware of them. Today we have fewer warheads, but who’s thinking about them? Who’s worrying about safety?

I know one person who isn’t: the spittle-flecked, orange-ade-brained slugbeast running for president.

But enough about him. God, please, enough.

Command and Control, though: worth one’s time, in either book or movie form. It won’t quite scare the pants off of you—hey! It all happened in the past! No nukes went off!—but I can’t guarantee you won’t find yourself shaking your head slowly and muttering, “we are so doomed,” over and over again under your breath after watching it.

Aftermath of the silo

Aftermath of the silo

4 responses on “Command And Control, Or: All The Times We Almost Blew Ourselves Up

  1. Unfortunately we’re entering a new Cold War, one that is already much warmer than its predecessor. Our nuclear arsenal is being upgraded so that we can shuffle the idea of MAD off into the dustbin of history and enter an era of supposed Nuclear Supremacy. Russia is once again the Bad Guy, and the sabers are rattling hard. It’s all so damn ’80s I just want to go find my old Ray-Bans and bang my head to Slayer all night.

  2. And juuust as I finish commenting semi-jokingly about nuclear apocalypse on your colleague’s post, I start reading this. Ye gods. I probably should turn in some kind of PolSci geek badge, if we had one (secret handshakes are cheaper), for not knowing the sheer devastating number of weapons aging, rusting, undergoing alpha decay and beta decay and aiiiieeeeEEEEEE…

    Ahem. Right. So. I think I’ll read the book. Because Zombo is right–it’s the Cold War come again, with hackers thrown into the mix–and that prospect plus the election itself has me wound tighter than an alleycat on acid. (Not the most elegant of comparisons, but four months of relentless fear do coarsen one’s prose.) I can put a book down for a few days without losing the narrative thread; the same can’t be said of a movie.

    • Yes, if you’re prone to reading books, read the book instead. I read it awhile ago. It’s not necessarily better than the movie, but it is of course far more detailed and packed with information. You’ll definitely stop sleeping at night for awhile after reading it.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.