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Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (Anglais) Relié – 18 septembre 2013

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--Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché.
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On September 18, 1980, at about six thirty in the evening, Senior Airman David F. Powell and Airman Jeffrey L. Plumb walked into the silo at Launch Complex 374-7, a few miles north of Damascus, Arkansas. They were planning to do a routine maintenance procedure on a Titan II missile. They’d spent countless hours underground at complexes like this one. But no matter how many times they entered the silo, the Titan II always looked impressive. It was the largest intercontinental ballistic missile ever built by the United States: 10 feet in diameter and 103 feet tall, roughly the height of a nine-story building. It had an aluminum skin with a matte finish and U.S. AIR FORCE painted in big letters down the side. The nose cone on top of the Titan II was deep black, and inside it sat a W-53 thermonuclear warhead, the most powerful weapon ever carried by an American missile. The warhead had a yield of 9 megatons—about three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic bombs.

Day or night, winter or spring, the silo always felt the same. It was eerily quiet, and mercury vapor lights on the walls bathed the missile in a bright white glow. When you opened the door on a lower level and stepped into the launch duct, the Titan II loomed above you like an immense black-tipped silver bullet, loaded in a concrete gun barrel, primed, cocked, ready to go, and pointed at the sky

The missile was designed to launch within a minute and hit a target as far as six thousand miles away. In order to do that, the Titan II relied upon a pair of liquid propellants—a rocket fuel and an oxidizer—that were “hypergolic.” The moment they came into contact with each other, they’d instantly and forcefully ignite. The missile had two stages, and inside both of them, an oxidizer tank rested on top of a fuel tank, with pipes leading down to an engine. Stage 1, which extended about seventy feet upward from the bottom of the missile, contained about 85,000 pounds of fuel and 163,000 pounds of oxidizer. Stage 2, the upper section where the warhead sat, was smaller and held about one fourth of those amounts. If the missile were launched, fuel and oxidizer would flow through the stage 1 pipes, mix inside the combustion chambers of the engine, catch on fire, emit hot gases, and send almost half a million pounds of thrust through the supersonic convergent-divergent nozzles beneath it. Within a few minutes, the Titan II would be fifty miles off the ground.

The two propellants were extremely efficient—and extremely dangerous. The fuel, Aerozine-50, could spontaneously ignite when it came into contact with everyday things like wool, rags, or rust. As a liquid, Aerozine-50 was clear and colorless. As a vapor, it reacted with the water and the oxygen in the air and became a whitish cloud with a fishy smell. This fuel vapor could be explosive in proportions as low as 2 percent. Inhaling it could cause breathing difficulties, a reduced heart rate, vomiting, convulsions, tremors, and death. The fuel was also highly carcinogenic and easily absorbed through the skin.

The missile’s oxidizer, nitrogen tetroxide, was even more hazardous. Under federal law, it was classified as a “Poison A,” the most deadly category of man-made chemicals. In its liquid form, the oxidizer was a translucent, yellowy brown. Although not as flammable as the fuel, it could spontaneously ignite if it touched leather, paper, cloth, or wood. And its boiling point was only 70 degrees Fahrenheit. At temperatures any higher, the liquid oxidizer boiled into a reddish brown vapor that smelled like ammonia. Contact with water turned the vapor into a corrosive acid that could react with the moisture in a person’s eyes or skin and cause severe burns. When inhaled, the oxidizer could destroy tissue in the upper respiratory system and the lungs. The damage might not be felt immediately. Six to twelve hours after being inhaled, the stuff could suddenly cause headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, pneumonia, and pulmonary edema leading to death.pPowell and Plumb were missile repairmen. They belonged to Propellant Transfer System (PTS) Team A of the 308th Strategic Missile Wing, headquarters was about an hour or so away at Little Rock Air Force Base.


They’d been called to the site that day because a warning light had signaled that pressure was low in the stage 2 oxidizer tank. If the pressure fell too low, the oxidizer wouldn’t flow smoothly to the engine. A “low light” could mean a serious problem—a rupture, a leak. But it was far more likely that a slight change in temperature had lowered the pressure inside the tank.

Air-conditioning units in the silo were supposed to keep the missile cooled to about 60 degrees. If Powell and Plum didn’t find any leaks, they’d simply unscrew the cap on the oxidizer tank and add more nitrogen gas. The nitrogen maintained a steady pressure on the liquid inside, pushing downward. It was a simple, mundane task, like putting air in your tires before long drive.

Powell had served on a PTS team for almost three years and knew the hazards of the Titan II. During his first visit to a launch complex, an oxidizer leak created a toxic cloud that shut down operations for three days. He was twenty-one years old, a proud “hillbilly” from rural Kentucky who loved the job and planned to reenlist at the end of the year.

Plumb had been with the 308th for just nine months. He wasn’t qualified to do this sort of missile maintenance or to handle these propellants. Accompanying Powell and watching everything that Powell did was considered Plumb’s “OJT,” his on-the-job training. Plumb was nineteen, raised in suburban Detroit.

Although an oxidizer low light wasn’t unusual, Air Force technical orders required that both men wear Category I protective gear when the silo to investigate it. “Going Category I” meant getting into a Rocket Fuel Handler’s Clothing Outfit (RFHCO)—an airtight, liquidproof, vaporproof, fire-resistant combination of gear designed to protect them from the oxidizer and the fuel. The men called it a “ref-co.” A RFHCO looked like a space suit from an early-1960s science fiction movie. It had a white detachable bubble helmet with a voice-actuated radio and a transparent Plexiglas face screen. The suit was off white, with a long zipper extending from the top of the left shoulder, across the torso, to the right knee. You stepped into the RFHCO and wore long johns underneath it. The black vinyl gloves and boots weren’t attached, so the RFHCO had roll-down cuffs at the wrists and the ankles to maintain a tight seal. The suit weighed about twenty-two pounds. The RFHCO backpack weighed an additional thirty-five and carried about an hour’s worth of air. The outfit was heavy and cumbersome. It could be hot, sticky, and uncomfortable, especially when worn outside the air-conditioned silo. But it could also save your life.

The stage 2 oxidizer pressure cap was about two thirds of the way up the missile. In order to reach it, Powell and Plumb had to walk across a retractable steel platform that extended from the silo wall. The tall, hollow cylinder in which the Titan II stood was enclosed by another concrete cylinder with nine interior levels, housing equipment. Level 1 was near the top of the missile; level 9 about twenty feet beneath the missile. The steel work platforms folded down from the walls hydraulically. Each one had a stiff rubber edge to prevent the Titan II from getting scratched, while keeping the gap between the platform and the missile as narrow as possible.

The airmen entered the launch duct at level 2. Far above their heads was a concrete silo door. It was supposed to protect the missile from the wind and the rain and the effects of a nuclear weapon detonating nearby. The door weighed 740 tons. Far below the men, beneath the Titan II, a concrete flame deflector shaped like a W was installed to guide the hot gases downward at launch, then upward through exhaust vents and out of the silo. The missile stood on a thrust mount, a steel ring at level 7 that weighed about 26,000 pounds. The thrust mount was attached to the walls by large springs, so that the Titan II could ride out a nuclear attack, bounce instead of break, and then take off.

In addition to the W-53 warhead and a few hundred thousand pounds of propellants, many other things in the silo could detonate. devices were used after ignition to free the missile from the thrust mount, separate stage 2 from stage 1, release the nose cone. The missile also housed numerous small rocket engines with flammable solid fuel to adjust the pitch and the roll of the warhead midflight. The Titan II launch complex had been carefully designed to minimize the risk of having so many flammables and explosives within it. Fire detectors, fire suppression systems, toxic vapor detectors, and decontamination showers were scattered throughout the nine levels of the silo. These safety devices were bolstered by strict safety rules. Whenever a PTS team member put on a RFHCO, he had to be accompanied by someone else in a RFHCO, with two other people waiting as backup, ready to put on their suits. Every Category I task had to be performed according to a standardized checklist, which the team chief usually read aloud over the radio communications network. There was one way to do everything—and only one way. Technical Order 21M-LGM25C-2-12, Figure 2-18, told Powell and Plumb exactly what to do as they stood on the platform near the missile. “Step four,” the PTS team chief said over the radio. “Remove airborne disconnect pressure cap.” “Roger,” Powell replied. “Caution. When complying with step four, do not exceed one hundred sixty foot-pounds of torque. Overtorquing may result in damage to the missile skin.” “Roger.” As Powell used a socket wrench to unscrew the pressure cap, the socket fell off. It struck the platform and bounced. Powell grabbed for it but missed. Plumb watched the nine-pound socket slip through the narrow gap between the platform and the missile, fall about seventy feet, hit the thrust mount, and then ricochet off the Titan II. It seemed to happen in slow motion. A moment later, fuel sprayed from a hole in the missile like water from a garden hose. “Oh man,” Plumb thought. “This is not good.” --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .

Revue de presse

Los Angeles Times
“Deeply reported, deeply frightening… a techno-thriller of the first order.”

The New Yorker
“An excellent journalistic investigation of the efforts made since the first atomic bomb was exploded, outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, to put some kind of harness on nuclear weaponry. By a miracle of information management, Schlosser has synthesized a huge archive of material, including government reports, scientific papers, and a substantial historical and polemical literature on nukes, and transformed it into a crisp narrative covering more than fifty years of scientific and political change. And he has interwoven that narrative with a hair-raising, minute-by-minute account of an accident at a Titan II missile silo in Arkansas, in 1980, which he renders in the manner of a techno-thriller…Command and Control is how nonfiction should be written.(Louis Menand)

Time magazine

 “A devastatingly lucid and detailed new history of nuclear weapons in the U.S. … fascinating.(Lev Grossman)

Financial Times
Command and Control ranks among the most nightmarish books written in recent years; and in that crowded company it bids fair to stand at the summit. It is the more horrific for being so incontrovertibly right and so damnably readable. Page after relentless page, it drives the vision of a world trembling on the edge of a fatal precipice deep into your reluctant mind... a work with the multilayered density of an ambitiously conceived novel… Schlosser has done what journalism does at its best when at full stretch: he has spent time – years – researching, interviewing, understanding and reflecting to give us a piece of work of the deepest import.”

The Guardian
“The strength of Schlosser's writing derives from his ability to carry a wealth of startling detail
(did you know that security at Titan II missile bases was so lapse you could break into one with just a credit card?) on a confident narrative path.”

San Francisco Chronicle
"Perilous and gripping… Schlosser skillfully weaves together an engrossing account of both the science and the politics of nuclear weapons safety… The story of the missile silo accident unfolds with the pacing, thrill and techno details of an episode of 24."

New York Times Book Review:
Disquieting but riveting… fascinating… Schlosser’s readers (and he deserves a great many) will be struck by how frequently the people he cites attribute the absence of accidental explosions and nuclear war to divine intervention or sheer luck rather than to human wisdom and skill. Whatever was responsible, we will clearly need many more of it in the years to come.”

Mother Jones:
Easily the most unsettling work of nonfiction I've ever read, Schlosser's six-year investigation of America's ‘broken arrows’ (nuclear weapons mishaps) is by and large historical—this stuff is top secret, after all—but the book is beyond relevant. It's critical reading in a nation with thousands of nukes still on hair-trigger alert... Command and Control reads like a character-driven thriller as Schlosser draws on his deep reporting, extensive interviews, and documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act to demonstrate how human error, computer glitches, dilution of authority, poor communications, occasional incompetence, and the routine hoarding of crucial information have nearly brought about our worst nightmare on numerous occasions.”

 Vanity Fair:
Eric Schlosser detonates a truth bomb in Command and Control, a powerful expose about America’s nuclear weapons.”

Publishers Weekly (starred):
"Nail-biting... thrilling... Mixing expert commentary with hair-raising details of a variety of mishaps, [Eric Schlosser] makes the convincing case that our best control systems are no match for human error, bad luck, and ever-increasing technological complexity."

Kirkus Reviews (starred):
"Vivid and unsettling... An exhaustive, unnerving examination of the illusory safety of atomic arms."

Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative; Co-Chair, Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future; Director, the Center on Congress at Indiana University:
“The lesson of this powerful and disturbing book is that the world’s nuclear arsenals are not as safe as they should be.  We should take no comfort in our skill and good fortune in preventing a nuclear catastrophe, but urgently extend our maximum effort to assure that a nuclear weapon does not go off by accident, mistake, or miscalculation.” --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .

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Format: Format Kindle Achat vérifié
Une enquête journalistique de fond qui nous présente un effrayant tableau de la guerre nucléaire involontaire à laquelle on a (heureusement) échappé...
Ah l'erreur humaine surtout lorqu'on apprend qu'un simple outil banal qui est tombé des mains d'un ouvrier dans un silo a failli être à l'origine d'une telle guerre...!
Est-ce que ça n'existe pas encore ?
Et on nous dit que les centrales nucléaires sont sûres ? Mais chaque accident a toujours eu une erreur humaine à l'origine.
Les militaires n'ont pas fait mieux.
Se lit comme un roman d'espionnage.
Mériterait d'être traduit en français !
5 étoiles.
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This feels a lot like reading part of a Tom Clancy book... Except it's all real. I had always found the descriptions of the Cuban Missile crisis to be scary, but this is ten times worse. It's incredible how close we came to Armageddon.
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Toute personne qui s'intéresse à la guerre froide, à la géopolitique, aux bombes nucléaires, doit lire ce livre, très bien écrit, et très documenté.
Attention: écrit en américain.
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L'auteur se focalise sur l'un des accidents du Titan-II mais il y en eu d'autres dont il ne parle pas
Il ne parle pas non plus des multiples erreurs, dysfontionnements des missiles Minuteman et des fausses alerte des systèmes d'alerte avancée. Mais c'est peut-être un choix délibéré de se focaliser sur si peu d'accidents
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Amazon.com: 4.5 étoiles sur 5 830 commentaires
336 internautes sur 339 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Take it from one who was there 27 septembre 2013
Par Nightlite - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
When Mr. Schlosser initially contacted me several years ago I was skeptical with respect to what his intentions were. Other stories and articles have been written about the incident at Damascus, AR. To many of us who experienced it on site that night it seemed there was no one who "got it right".

To put to rest any concerns I had I contacted Al Childers after learning he had spoken to Mr. Schlosser. I have always had the highest regard for Al and his opinions; hence I participated in the project. After leaving Little Rock AFB we both were transferred to Vandenberg AFB and worked in the same building.

I appreciate the integrity of Eric Schlosser who did what any good writer, or investigator, should do. He collected the facts and reported them, how refreshing is that in this era where so many run off and write, or report, half cocked. This entire book was researched in more detail than I ever imagined. Although I was there that night Mr. Schlosser reported things I didn't know simply because I didn't have the right or need.

I have read several reviews in which the writers refer to the incident at Searcy, AR as being more serious. I would like to take this opportunity to simply say that while the loss of life is never to be taken lightly, the circumstances between these two accidents were as different as night and day. Sometimes it seems those writing the reviews forget that the Titan II at Searcy was not on alert meaning it had no warhead. The Titan II at Damascus was on full alert and armed. Mr. Schlosser got it right and was not swayed by the loss of life vs. the reason for his book!

Several of my fellow airmen who went back on site that night have passed away. I hope we, as a nation, never forget what they did that night while the nation slept, unaware of the risks those men were taking. I hope their families will have an even greater appreciation for what they did to try and save a resource as well as each other's lives. Finally thank you Eric Schlosser for getting it right and Chuck Wilson for the countless hours he spent with me fact checking.

D. Green
60 internautes sur 61 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Accidents WILL happen 25 septembre 2013
Par Eusebius - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Format Kindle Achat vérifié
Command and Control reads like a techno-thriller. Eric Schlosser takes the most destructive and scary nuclear accident in American history and uses it as a needle to thread a narrative about the sloppiness and inflexibility of America's nuclear weapons program that almost guaranteed that nuclear weapons accidents were fated to occur. That we haven't had a vast, deadly, nuclear weapons incident is due mainly to luck and God - and mostly to God according to some weapons analysts.

The scariest incident occurred in 1980 when a Titan II missile exploded in its silo in Damascus, Arkansas (back when Bill Clinton was governor) and blew a live nuclear warhead over 200 yards into a ditch. He tells this story in detail through eyewitness accounts and good research and interrupts the story throughout the book with sections on nuclear weapons history, other incidents, and a superb explanation of American and Soviet nuclear strategies in the Cold War.

Schlosser shows how ramshackle the atomic weapons program really was and how and why these weapons were eventually removed from civilian control under the Atomic Energy Commission and turned over to the military (and it's not because the military were more competent). He traces this history back from the 1940s right up to the Obama administration's lukewarm proposal to ban all nuclear weapons.

He shows that we have come through some pretty tough stuff in atomic history and we are a little further from the brink - but we should be very afraid when we consider that India, Pakistan, China, and the other members of the nuclear club may have less ability or incentive to try and contain atomic weaponry as we finally learned to do.

He doesn't preach or analyze. He is a brilliant reporter and has written a gripping and fascinating story. And it's all true.
133 internautes sur 142 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Riveting account of America's gamble with nuclear weapons 19 septembre 2013
Par Ash Jogalekar - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
Think America's nuclear arsenal has always been pristinely safe? Thing again. In this riveting and meticulously researched book Eric Schlosser gives us a report card on accidents with nuclear weapons that have been periodically taking place since the weapons were introduced into a warring world in 1945. The book centers its narrative around the Damascus accident of 1980 in which an explosion in a Titan II ICBM housed in Damascus, Arkansas killed one and injured about twenty others. In Schlosser's capable hands, the event becomes a lens through which we can view the inherent frailty and risk in complex engineering endeavors masked by layers of bureaucracy. The volume is a real page turner which kept me awake late into the night. It is superbly researched and is packed with fascinating details about the workings of both nuclear weapons and the very human command and control infrastructure which oversees them. Some of the reviewers here are not too happy about the digressions, but in my opinion the digressions do a great job of recreating the history and the times leading up to the event. In addition all the facts are supported by an extensive bibliography running to more than a hundred pages.

This book is really two books in one, and both parts are equally gripping. The first part describes the Damascus accident in gory technical and human detail, starting from the time that a dropped socket blew a hole in the skin of the Titan II missile, spraying fuel around the missile and creating a dangerous buildup of fuel and oxidizer. What is scary is that the accident resulted from an honest, relatively trivial mistake that anybody could have made; in the parlance of systems engineers it was only a "normal accident". Schlosser goes into great detail describing the cast of characters, from military generals and newspaper reporters to engineers and missile maintenance personnel who were involved in monitoring the event and preventing it from getting out of hand. Many of the younger technicians were straight out of high school, and while they were patriotic, brave and dedicated, one of the points that Schlosser makes is that not all of them were trained sufficiently to appreciate the nuances of maintaining one of America's nuclear linchpins. The accident itself was emblematic of what can easily go wrong with a complex system that may work well 99% of the time but can turn potentially catastrophic even if it suffers a 1% error rate. The exact details of the incident were not disclosed to the public but the account makes it clear that the explosion could have been much worse and led to a dispersal of the nuclear material in the warhead into the countryside. In fact the theme of unnecessary and pervasive secrecy is a constant thread through the book, and it's worth thinking about how the government and private corporations have constructed a potentially calamitous system funded by taxpayer dollars whose failures are concealed and successes are exaggerated.

The Damascus accident however is only one of the two themes running through the book, and the chapters on it alternate with others. The second equally fascinating part takes us on a journey through America's nuclear weapons complex, describing the weapons that were deemed to be so necessary to maintain the peace. It is necessary to understand this history in order to put the Damascus accident into context. Many topics are covered exceedingly well; among them, the safing and arming mechanisms in bombs, the history and progress of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) as the centerpiece of America's nuclear policy, the roles of a few key individuals and laboratories (Sandia National Laboratory is especially singled out) in recognizing and addressing flaws in weapons designs, the development of novel strategic and tactical nukes and their delivery systems, the ever-changing nuclear policies orchestrated by politicians and civilian bureaucrats and - in what's a ubiquitous theme in the book - the constant bickering between the different branches of the military regarding ownership of nuclear weapons. The Air Force especially comes out looking bad, constantly angling for nuclear ownership and opposing safety measures like locks for fear of malfunction.

But the most disturbing part of the book concerns a litany of nuclear accidents going back all the way to the dawn of the atomic age. Some "accidents" simply related to human error that could have led to destruction; there are examples of important messages being entrusted to bike messengers during the Cuban Missile Crisis, rocket launches being mistaken for nuclear missile launches and lower-level officers failing to convey important notifications from rival countries to higher-ups. The stories all underscore how much can go wrong with a complex technical and human system. The Damascus event itself came on the heels of an even worse Titan II fire in 1965 that killed 53 people. The rogues' gallery of nuclear accidents involved everything from scientists dying during tests of criticality of nuclear materials to dozens of incidents involving the accidental detonation of the explosives surrounding a nuclear core, most often when the package was jettisoned from a malfunctioning bomber. Some of the scarier stories include warheads burning in crashed airplane fires for hours and being reduced to melted slag. There are also cases where people lost track of the number and locations of nuclear weapons for various time periods. In addition many bombs and missiles were woefully unsecured during the early parts of the Cold War, especially in NATO countries where they were often guarded by lone guards toting rifles. It took until the 60s when secure locks were finally installed on many of these devices. Thankfully none of these lapses let to the detonation of an actual nuclear core (and this is a record the country should be proud of), but the key message that Schlosser sends is that the gap between what was and what could have been was frighteningly thin. As officials themselves admitted, catastrophic accidents were prevented by dumb luck as much as anything else.

Schlosser ends the book with an account of America's contemporary nuclear arsenal which still includes thousands of bombs and hundreds of missiles on alert. The end of the Cold War has led in some cases to lackluster management of an aging nuclear complex. It is also increasingly hard to find the kind of well-trained technicians and engineers that were a mainstay of the nuclear weapons buildup during the Cold War. But the real question that Schlosser asks is why all this is necessary, if it's worth having so many thousands of nukes when the nature of conflict has radically changed. In researching the book Schlosser has talked to hundreds of technicians, engineers, defense officials and politicians and almost all of them think that the nuclear arsenal should be much smaller than what it is. The real take home message here is that when an exceedingly complicated technical system becomes wrapped in layers of bureaucracy, accidents are just waiting to happen, especially when there is a perfect requirement for safety entrusted to imperfect human beings. President Kennedy really captured the gist of the matter when he talked about a "nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness". In connecting these memorable words to the Damascus accident, Schlosser's book tells us why we should get rid of this sword as soon as we can.
15 internautes sur 15 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 'If it can go wrong, it will.' 2 octobre 2013
Par Ryan Williams - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
The publication of Command and Control was a long time coming - 9 years since Schlosser's last work, Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market. The weighty volume I hold here (the notes and bibliography alone total 122 pages) make it as blatant as a mushroom cloud that he wasn't idling.

Like Don DeLillo's Underworld, C&C's narrative weaves multiple points of view and real-life testimonies together into a people's history of the Cold War. Unlike Underworld, C&C is not a work of fiction. That point might need repeating. What happens in fiction must always be plausible, true to an ordered sequence of events. What happens in life is plausible only because it happens. How many people would believe a novel in which any of the following happened?

'The BMEWS [radar complex] indicated that the Soviets had launched an all-out missile attack against North America. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were on the phone, awaiting confirmation. The United States had only minutes to respond. [...] A subsequent investigation found the cause of the computer glitch. The BMEWS site at Thule had mistakenly identified the moon, slowly rising over Norway, as dozens of long-range missiles launched from Siberia.'

'The Mark 6 was a large weapon, about eleven feet long and five feet in diameter, and as Kulka tried to peek above it, he inadvertently grabbed grabbed the manual bomb release for support. The Mark 6 suddenly dropped onto the bomb bay doors, and Kulka fell on top of it. A moment later, the eight-thousand-pound bomb broke through the doors. Kulka slid off it, got hold of something in the open bomb bay, and held on tight. [...] Neither the pilot nor the co-pilot realised the bomb was gone until it hit the ground and exploded.'

'Russian Nuclear forces went on full alert. President Boris Yeltsin turned on his "football", retrieved his launch codes, and prepared to retaliate. After a few tense minutes, the warning was declared a false alarm. The weather rocket had been launched to study the aurora borealis, and Norway had informed Russia of its trajectory weeks in advance.'

When Schlosser identifies the theme of his book as 'human fallibility', you feel it may go down in history as one of the most chilling understatements of the early 21st century. It's a worthy reminder of the danger of nuclear weapons, especially for a generation that wasn't alive when the Berlin Wall fell.

One of Schlosser's strengths as a writer is his refusal to accept stereotypes, received wisdom. One of his enduring fascinations is just how improbable human beings are. Contradictions abound and multiply like bacteria. President Eisenhower, the former World War 2 general who spent a total of 40 years in the US army, cut its budget by more than one fifth of its funding and one quarter of its troops. The pacifist Bertrand Russell fervently believed the US should annihilate Russia with a pre-emptive strike before it could develop its own nuclear weapons. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, as President Kennedy worried how best to deal Russian missiles deployed only miles away from the US mainland, Russell sent him a telegram reading as follows: 'Your action desperate. Threat to human survival. No conceivable justification. Civilised man condemns it [...] End this madness.'

There's more. The first atomic bomb wasn't completed in a top-secret installation, or even in a laboratory: it was finished in the master bedroom of a ranch house, with the windows sealed with masking tape and a car running metres away outside. Many of the scientists who helped the US build the first atomic bomb weren't psychopathic villains but refugees from Nazi Germany, convinced, with excellent reasons, that Adolf Hitler would build one first. The amount of uranium-235 that turned to pure energy and killed 80,000 people in Hiroshima weighed less than a dollar bill. A good fact or a true story is worth pages of exposition; Schlosser organises his wealth of both with admirable concision and readability.

I have one complaint, though, in that I would have preferred a more strictly chronological approach to the material. If a summary of Bill Clinton's time as governor of Arkansas is essential to your narrative, it's best put in the section concerning a nuclear-near miss in that state, not just before the Korean War is about to kick off. The focus, at thankfully rare times, blurs as a result.

That aside, this is a strong contender for non-fiction work of the year. Schlosser's former teacher, the unequalled John McPhee (and author of The Curve of Binding Energy), should be proud.
13 internautes sur 13 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Impressive research technically and politically 25 septembre 2013
Par Amazon Customer - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Format Kindle Achat vérifié
Eric Schlosser is a brilliant researcher and writer. I served on a Strategic Air Command Bomber in the 1960's carying 4 MK28YI 1.1 MT bombs and two Hound Dog Nuclear Missiles targeted against Moscow and other urban centers, and later as an F-100 Pilot in Turkey targeted off ground alert against soviet airfields with 345 KT B-61 Nuclear Bombs.

During Nuclear Alert the feared General Powers once visited our Alert Facility and had us standing tall and in awe of his powers.

Schlosser shows remarkable skill in capturing the dangers and insane targeting strategy and competition for more bombs and missiles between the Services. Without saying it directly, he captures the danger of the political Military Industrial complex that demands endless resources without regard to society or mankind.
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