Command and control

Eric Schlosser

Part of my attraction to this book is that I enjoyed his previous bestseller Fast Food Nation so much.

I am from the generation that took the threat of nuclear annihilation more seriously.  The cold war was still happening right through my formative years. We watched movies like "The Day After" and "The China Syndrome". The news was dominated by stories of conflict between the United States and the USSR. The debate between capitalism and democracy,  authoritarianism and communism, was very real in our lives.  Nuclear weapons and nuclear war were something we thought about often.  Damocles underpinned our lives, this existential threat, thousands and thousands of nuclear weapons that could one day end us all.

Schlosser details the invention and rise of nuclear weapons in a wonderful, readable style. The focus of the book is squarely on the US, which may be my main criticism of the book. From reading his notes I understand how intimately he got to know the people details in the stories of the book, that he wanted to tell their stories, but I would perhaps like less detail there and more of an understanding of the rise of nuclear weapons in other countries.

The main point of the book, and one which I had previously understood to be true, is that we avoided a major nuclear incident, perhaps even a species ending nuclear war, by the narrowest of margins.  As General Butler is quoted in the book after he had been asked to review the safety of the US stockpile "I came to fully appreciate the truth . . . we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”.

This book is scary. It shows how the human race can lead itself into an insane place, by its member's psychological dysfunction.  That we still have thousands of these weapons of mass murder, aimed at population centres across the globe, is an indictment on our species.

Someone has to be the first person to trust the other, to take the risk.  But given their history of nationalistic belligerence and childish power games who would trust the US, Russian, Pakistan, Indian, Israeli, British, French, Chinese or North Korean government?  The lies and self-importance of some may yet kill us all.

The two most obvious human-caused existential risks to our own existence are climate change and nuclear weapons. Both are relatively easily solvable, but most of us are psychologically incapable of taking the steps necessary to do so.  In order to save ourselves, we need to build and be better people.

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