Command and Control

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This well-researched, fascinating and terrifying book is a history of nuclear weapons told through the story of a nuclear accident. The narrative alternates between an emergency at a nuclear facility storing a Titan II missile and the history of the development, use and proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Schlosser has researched the people responsible for developing these weapons to humanise what could be a dry account and explores "the mixture of human fallibility and technological complexity that can lead to disaster". There are long passages giving detailed descriptions of systems and technology.

This is all relayed in a dispassionate narrative style, describing both the mundane and the horrific, encapsulating the alienation of the people who develop and operate these terrible weapons from the unimaginable devastation that they cause.

Whether this is intentional or not is unclear. The book is a flawless presentation of the facts with over 100 pages of endnotes but Schlosser rarely lets the reader know which side of the argument he is on.

While detailing the horrific effects of these weapons, Schlosser's insistence on "impartiality" can lead to the conclusion that there is no alternative to the reality of a nuclear armed world. While the development of these weapons and their use are placed in a solid historical context, what's missing is the context of these weapons as a part of capitalist competition.

Where the book ventures into overtly political terrain it is much weaker. The discussion of the Cold War rivalry reads like an apology for US nuclear supremacy. But even here there is still plenty of useful information that gives a picture of nuclear weapons as a key part of US post-war imperial strategy.

One of the most fascinating chapters is the one on the Manhattan Project. It shows the ingenuity of the scientists who developed the first atomic bomb. The technical obstacles they had to overcome in bringing the bomb to fruition is a cause both for marvel at what humans are capable of and also horror at the uses of these capabilities.

Similarly, the story of Strategic Air Command sending a helicopter out to a missile base with spare parts for a repair, rather than have the missile taken off alert, gives the lie to the argument that the state is inefficient. It demonstrates the levels of organisation it is capable of and provides a condemnation of its priorities.

Focusing mainly on the technological aspects of nuclear armament, rather than the overtly political, the whole book is a staggering illustration of the Marxist idea that society progresses and moves backwards at the same time.

This book is a thoroughgoing history of nuclear weapons in the USA. If Schlosser's attempt at evenhandedness becomes grating, this is made up for by the hugely detailed account presented. This on its own is enough of a condemnation.

Command and Control, Eric Schlosser, Allen Lane, £25 pounds (GB).

Available at Bookmarks, the Socialist bookshop.