In the shadow of the bomb
The most consistent risk of nuclear disaster has come not from warmongering politicians but from computer glitches and human error. A loose wire could have triggered an apocalypse, says Eric Schlosser, the ‘Fast Food Nation’ author, whose new book, ‘Command and Control’, is about the management and politics of nuclear weapons
Mushroom cloud: a French nuclear test in 1971, on the south Pacific atoll of Mururoa. Photograph: AFP/Getty
Investigative reporter: Eric Schlosser. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
‘Are you military?” Eric Schlosser asks my ex-Army officer father as he gets a book signed at the Science Gallery in Dublin. Schlosser can apparently recognise military men at a glance. He has spent six years talking to air-force officers while researching Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety, a book about the management and politics of nuclear weapons. He has just spent this sunny afternoon gently terrifying an Irish audience on the subject.
He hadn’t intended to spend so long writing it. He’d finished Fast Food Nation, his bestselling exposé of the fast-food industry, written another book, about the United States’ black markets, and was researching space weapons. “The future of warfare is in space,” he says. But when Schlosser started to investigate that subject he found that a lot of his interviewees had started their careers working in nuclear-missile silos. They started to tell him stories, “astonishing stories” about near misses and false alarms.
So he began to investigate. He learned about warplanes with bombs on board falling into the sea and cases of bombers carrying nuclear warheads crashing or exploding. He learned about how a malfunctioning early-warning system almost sent the world to the brink of war, twice, and about US defence secretaries weeping in their offices because of stress. He learned about an accident in a Titan II missile silo in 1980 that could have wiped out Arkansas – and, incidentally, its then governor, Bill Clinton. It seemed that the world had escaped a nuclear conflagration by fluke and that the danger had not passed. “The scariest thing,” he says, “was realising that the people who really understand this subject the best are scared. And if they’re scared we should be scared.”
Schlosser’s career has been a diverse one. He studied history, learned nonfiction writing with the renowned New Yorker journalist John McPhee, became a playwright – “an unsuccessful one,” he says, and laughs – and worked in the film industry before becoming an investigative reporter for Atlantic Monthly in the 1990s. “I really don’t believe in a hierarchy of writing,” he says. “The writers I really admired growing up were writers who threw themselves into the big issues of the day and really engaged with society, not necessarily writing diatribes or political tracts or agitprop – I hate agitprop – but writers who felt themselves part of society and concerned with society. You can do that in novel, in a play or as a journalist.”
Fast Food Nation uncovered the working conditions of fast-food employees, the use of chemicals in food production, the grim realities of factory farming and how the food was marketed to children. The fast-food industry responded viciously.
“I’m not like Michael Moore, trying to get into your face to provoke a reaction,” he says. “I felt what I wrote was calm and factual and straightforward. But they came after me in a personal way. People would show up trying to disrupt my talks. Letters and emails would be sent to schools saying I was an unfit person to talk to students because I was a proponent of pornography and drug use. It was really unpleasant. Stuff was put on the internet about me. It was like a political campaign: attack the character and integrity of your opponent rather than discuss the issues.