WASHINGTON — Investigative journalist and author Eric Schlosser set out to follow the popular — and disturbing — “Fast Food Nation” with a book on space warfare.
Instead, he ended up with a thriller about the United States’ history of near misses with nuclear weapons.
In “Command & Control,” released Sept. 17, Schlosser recounts the Damascus accident, when in 1980 a U.S. Air Force airman dropped a socket wrench in a Titan 2 missile silo in Arkansas, piercing the rocket’s fuel tank. Hours later, the fuel exploded and the missile’s nuclear warhead was blown clear of the silo, landed within the Air Force base’s boundaries and did not detonate.
The book is steeped with information from previously classified documents and interviews with officials, including some with Air Force Space Command.
In an email exchange before the book was released, Schlosser discussed how fast-food hamburgers are like nuclear weapons, what can be learned from the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and his fascination with war in space.
You talk about how the seed for “Command & Control” was planted with a visit to Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1999 for the launch of a weather satellite and mention at the time you were interested in space warfare. What specifically intrigued you about the topic? Were you considering a book on space warfare?
While researching “Fast Food Nation,” I got to know some officers at the U.S. Space Command and the Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs — where that book was set. I learned a great deal about the importance of our space-based assets in any future conflict, and I decided to write something about the future of warfare in space. In addition to Peterson Air Force Base, I spent time at Schriever, Kirtland, White Sands, and Vandenberg, meeting with people and getting briefed on the subject. One of the officers whom I met had been in a Titan 2 launch crew and told me the story of the Damascus accident. The story stayed with me — and instead of writing about space warfare, I spent six years investigating nuclear weapon safety. I’m still fascinated with the implications of a future war in space and may write about them some day.
What underlying issues that contributed to the Damascus incident and other near-misses are still evident in defense culture today?
As the sociologist Charles Perrow has noted, our ability to build complex technological systems is far greater than our ability to control them. The Challenger disaster, Chernobyl, Fukushima, Damascus — all of these accidents should be reminders of our innate, human imperfection. We could use a lot more humility when designing complex, high risk technologies. If we’re going to have nuclear weapons, we should spare no expense with them. Otherwise, we should get rid of them.
The book works on a hypothesis that the United States — and the world — has avoided a nuclear war or accidental detonation in large part because of sheer luck. What are the chances of either happening today?
Right now, I think the odds of an all-out nuclear war are vastly lower than they were during the Cold War. But the risk of a single weapon detonating and killing civilians may be a lot greater.
Are you confident that the U.S. missile defense system offers protection against an attack?
I think it could protect the United States from an attack, in certain limited situations — if it works. And that’s a very big “if.”
What kinds of changes do you hope to see as a result of the book? And specifically, how might those changes apply — if at all — to the military space and missile defense community?
I think it’s essential that this sort of information be available to the public. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union knew more about the capabilities of our weapons and the details of our war plans than the American people knew. Some things do, in fact, need to remain secret. But most of the documents that I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act had been classified — and remained classified for years — simply to protect bureaucracies from embarrassment and maintain power over decision-making. Without disclosing trade secrets or sensitive technology, the missile defense community should be a lot more open about the possibilities and potential risks of these systems. It would be a huge mistake to promise too much and fail to deliver.
Obviously, most people know you from “Fast Food Nation.” What similarities do you see between that book and “Command & Control,” and the two subjects in general?
Both books are about powerful institutions that deliberately keep information away from the public in order to retain their power. But nuclear weapons are a hell of a lot more dangerous than fast-food hamburgers.