Command & Control – E. Schlosser

“Nuclear war may well have made deliberate war less likely. But the complex nuclear arsenal we have constructed has made accidental war more likely.” (C. Sagan)

How often do you think about the fact that if Russia (or the US, or the UK, or France, or Israel, or Pakistan, or India, or North Korea) decides to launch a nuclear weapon NOW, you’d be dead (or suffering horribly) within a couple of minutes?

Not often, I bet. It’s one of those things we don’t like to think about, like the fact that one day your parents will die, or the increasing destruction of our planet. We like to ignore the sword hanging above our heads, and get on with our lives.

After reading this book, you’ll think about nuclear annihilation a lot more often. I’m going to let you decide whether that’s a good thing or not. Ignorance is bliss, after all.

So the thing we can all agree on is that Nuclear War Would Suck. I mean, we’ve seen the pictures from Hiroshima – it’s not just the blast, it’s not just the nuclear fallout, it’s the fact that one bomb will destroy generations of lives.

4400 feet east of X

‘Hiroshima, 1.4 km from the detonation site.


Nuclear War is very high up on the List of No-Good-No-Thank-You-Things.


And the birth of the nuclear bomb pushed us to a whole other level. Because now, wars are won by whoever shoots first. Kind of like in a shootout in a Western. One shot, and your enemy is done. And, if you are on the receiving end, it is likely that you won’t be able to retaliate once you’re hit.

So really, your only option as a nuclear power is to hit first, and hit hard.

That, however, also means, that perception matters as much (if not more) than reality. You have to make your enemy believe that you would drop the bomb.

But if your enemy believes that you launched the bomb, it will be in his best interest to launch their own weapons, too, before they are hit by yours.

So a bit of credibility is good, too much credibility will kill you and everyone around you.

You see how this grows into this Game Theory Masterpiece?

Nuclear Bomb Strategy is full of paradoxes.

One example goes like this – in the 60s, the US builds one bomb after the other, and the Soviet Union can’t keep up. (This is the famous ‘Missile Gap’ – the ‘Gap’ refers to the number of stockpiled nuclear weapons.) So you’d think that the increasing nuclear arsenal makes the US more safe.

In reality, it actually increases the risk of the Soviet Union launching a preemptive strike. Remember. The only way to win is to strike first.

Here’s another paradox for you. The bigger the bombs get (and we are talking HUGE, especially once the Hydrogen Bomb was in play), the less likely it is to be used. It’s just not worth it. The main value of a Hydrogen Bomb lies in its symbolic value. It’s a deterrent, not something you’d actually want to use.

At the same time, the less likely the bomb is to be used, the less it works as a deterrent. If the enemy believes you won’t be using it, the deterrent value goes back to zero.

If your brain hurts now – the basic idea is that as long as nobody fires a nuclear bomb, everyone wins. The moment one is dropped, we’re in deep shit.

As Eisenhower said: ‘You can’t have this kind of war. There just aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the street.’

Unfortunately, deliberate nuclear explosions are the least you have to worry about. Because, as this book shows, what really should keep you awake at night is the possibility of an accidental nuclear explosion.

‘Yeah, but that hasn’t happened yet’, you think.

Wrong. It has happened plenty of times. Sometimes, it was hilarious, like the time a Mark 6 Atomic Bomb landed in someone’s backyard. Sometimes, it is just frightening, like the multiple times B-52 bombers carrying nuclear warheads caught fire before, during, or after the flight.

In all these accidents (and the book lists dozens of them), it was pure chance that the nuclear warhead didn’t explode.

But our luck will run out, eventually. It’s all a matter of probability, after all.

If you ride a bike for 30 seconds, chances are better than even that you won’t get in an accident. Ride a bike for 30 years, and you’re bound to be hit sooner or later.

Now replace the bike with Nuclear Bombs, and remember the fact that there’s not one, but literally thousands of them. That’s where it gets scary, doesn’t it?

And it’s not just the bombs. There’s the system we built around the weapons, as well. All systems fail, sooner or later. Like when one US radar station mistook the moon for an incoming Soviet Missile.

Imagine telling your grand kids that the Nuclear War started because of a simple system mistake. (Nuclear Bombs only work if you strike first, and you strike hard.)

And then there’s the human element. Whenever there’s humans involved, there will be a mistake. And the fact that most people that are handling nuclear weapons are unmotivated, under-trained and not necessarily following protocol just increases the margin of error.

The bad news is, there is no margin of error in a Nuclear World.

So I…

Was always oddly fascinated by the poetry of Nuclear Bombs. Because, if you think about it, there is so much beauty in this threat of destruction.

Like the fact that the explosion of Hiroshima was due to 0.7g of uranium turned into pure energy. 0.7g. A $1 bill weighs more than that.

Or the fact that the plane from which the bomb was dropped – Enola Gay – was named after the pilot’s mother. She’ll live forever as the harbinger of death.

Or J. Robert Oppenheimer’s (the ‘Father of the Bomb’) words when he saw the first test explosion. ‘Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.

If you want to know more (and sleep even less):

John Oliver did a really great take at current US Nuclear Weapons Safety that will make the hair at the back of your neck stand up. It doesn’t look good. And then, you think, that if the richest country in the world treats its weapons like that, how do the other nuclear powers ensure that their weapons don’t fall in the wrong hands (or get exploded automatically)?

I think we, as humans, were simply not ready yet for the responsibility that comes with such a potential of destruction, and we’re still not ready for it yet.

Another great resource is a podcast – Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Episode 59: The Destroyer of Worlds. I love all of Dan Carlin’s episodes, and this one talks about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

He also raises the point of the inherent anti-democratic nature of the Atomic Bomb. The decision to drop the bomb has to be made by one person – you don’t have time to ask a Council, or even Congress, even less the entire population. Time is of the essence, so history vested the American President with the power to drop the bomb.

In a sense, that makes US Presidential Elections the Search for the World’s Most Dangerous Being.

And finally, Richard Rhode’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a wonderful book that I wish I still owned. It’s well-written, and goes deep on the science and the minds behind the bomb. Definitively worth a read if you are interested in this field.




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