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Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety | [Eric Schlosser]

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

Famed investigative journalist Eric Schlosser digs deep to uncover secrets about the management of America's nuclear arsenal. A groundbreaking account of accidents, near misses, extraordinary heroism, and technological breakthroughs, Command and Control explores the dilemma that has existed since the dawn of the nuclear age: How do you deploy weapons of mass destruction without being destroyed by them? That question has never been resolved - and Schlosser reveals how the combination of human fallibility and technological complexity still poses a grave risk to mankind.
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Publisher's Summary

A myth-shattering exposé of America's nuclear weapons.

Famed investigative journalist Eric Schlosser digs deep to uncover secrets about the management of America's nuclear arsenal. A groundbreaking account of accidents, near misses, extraordinary heroism, and technological breakthroughs, Command and Control explores the dilemma that has existed since the dawn of the nuclear age: How do you deploy weapons of mass destruction without being destroyed by them? That question has never been resolved - and Schlosser reveals how the combination of human fallibility and technological complexity still poses a grave risk to mankind. While the harms of global warming increasingly dominate the news, the equally dangerous yet more immediate threat of nuclear weapons has been largely forgotten.

Written with the vibrancy of a first-rate thriller, Command and Control interweaves the minute-by-minute story of an accident at a nuclear missile silo in rural Arkansas with a historical narrative that spans more than 50 years. It depicts the urgent effort by American scientists, policy makers, and military officers to ensure that nuclear weapons can't be stolen, sabotaged, used without permission, or detonated inadvertently. Schlosser also looks at the Cold War from a new perspective, offering history from the ground up, telling the stories of bomber pilots, missile commanders, maintenance crews, and other ordinary servicemen who risked their lives to avert a nuclear holocaust. At the heart of the book lies the struggle, amid the rolling hills and small farms of Damascus, Arkansas, to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States.

Drawing on recently declassified documents and interviews with people who designed and routinely handled nuclear weapons, Command and Control takes readers into a terrifying but fascinating world that, until now, has been largely hidden from view. Through the details of a single accident, Schlosser illustrates how an unlikely event can become unavoidable, how small risks can have terrible consequences, and how the most brilliant minds in the nation can only provide us with an illusion of control. Audacious, gripping, and unforgettable, Command and Control is a tour de force of investigative journalism, an eye-opening look at the dangers of America's nuclear age.

©2013 Eric Schlosser (P)2013 Penguin Audio

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  •  
    Ethan M. Cambridge, MA 02-16-14
    Ethan M. Cambridge, MA 02-16-14 Member Since 2000

    On Audible since the late 1990s, mostly science fiction, fantasy, history & science. I rarely review 1-2 star books that I can't get through

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "A miracle that we escaped the Cold War alive...."

    Command and Control was excellent, if occasionally chilling, listening. The book takes the form of a thriller - flashing back between an accident at a missile silo in Arkansas in 1980, and the history of the control of American nuclear weapons. The thriller becomes a bit of a horror show as Schlosser shows how often disaster was narrowly averted, and the potential consequences of a catastrophic accident. There are many mind-boggling facts along the way: the Davy Crockett nuclear anti-tank rocket had a blast radius as large as its range, the military occasionally classified things so highly the president couldn't see them, and there were many occasions where a nuclear war nearly happened.

    The evolution of the Damascus Accident is especially well-written, as is the story of the evolution of nuclear strategy and command. As one reviewer in the LA Times pointed out, Schlosser is decidedly liberal, but the heroes of the book (such as they are) are McNamara and Reagan, who actually tame the nuclear beast, at least for a while. Similarly, there are great explanations of the development of the atomic bomb, and the technical details involved.

    There are only a few weaknesses. First, the emphasis on bomb safety and the final parts of the Damascus Accident drag a bit, making the last third of the book somewhat less pointed and novel than the terrific first part. Second, the book seems to lose steam after Reagan, barely giving any time to the post-Cold War situation, or to other countries. While this isn't necessarily bad, it means that we spend most of the book in increasingly high levels of concern, and are left without either a lot of discussion over how to reach a safer world, or a clear sense of what the nuclear system looks like today.

    In any case, this is a great read for fans of nonfiction and history, as it covers a huge amount of ground. And the final sentence is absolutely chilling and revelatory.

    8 of 8 people found this review helpful
  •  
    S. Mersereau STAMFORD, CT USA 10-14-13
    S. Mersereau STAMFORD, CT USA 10-14-13 Member Since 2009
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    "Stunning"
    What did you love best about Command and Control?

    The story brings together the history, science and military facets of nuclear weapons, by building on an actual Titan ICBM accident.


    What did you like best about this story?

    Having served in the Strategic Air Command and kept B-52s aloft with live nukes, the stories were a revelation - so many accidents and near catastrophes - that one can only conclude we were saved from ourselves.


    Any additional comments?

    It is hard to appreciate the overwhelming threat that nuclear weapons posed in the 60s and 70s, and the relief at the end of the cold war.

    But then, the weapons haven't gone away...

    5 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ellen Woodbridge, CT, United States 02-04-14
    Ellen Woodbridge, CT, United States 02-04-14
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    "HOLY F*CK! HOW HAVE WE SURVIVED THIS LONG?"
    What made the experience of listening to Command and Control the most enjoyable?

    It was jaw dropping and terrifying. Stephen King should quit and start writing for Sesame Street because this truth is so much more frightening than any fiction. I often listen to books when I go to bed, and dear god, the dreams I had when I fell asleep when this book was running! But it is also encouraging, in that somebody must have our backs, because it is a flipping miracle when haven't been blow to kingdom come a dozen times over.


    Who was your favorite character and why?

    Characters? This was nonfiction. I wish it was fiction.

    Rescue workers who head back to save people even when doing so is likely to kill them. All those guys! How can you not be moved? In the big karmic book, it offsets those douchebag politicians who are too cheap/stupid to budget safety measures and the military narcissists who think atomic weapons are a good idea. But karma doesn't necessarily save our ridiculous ape species from extincting ourselves.


    What about Scott Brick’s performance did you like?

    He was clear, had good pacing, and almost matter of fact.


    Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

    The rescue workers. See above "favorite characters.


    Any additional comments?

    Read this or listen to it. While we are all sweating it, what with the economic collapse and all the gun violence and the poisoned water and compromised food supply and fracking and what all, you owe it to yourself to learn about the ways we seem to be determined to hasten our own extermination.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Tim United States 01-04-14
    Tim United States 01-04-14 Member Since 2010

    I use my left foot to type my reviews.

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    "Rookie Mistakes on Nukes"

    I like to ask my friends on what they are reading to be current with the times. There are so many good and bad titles out there that it's always a hit or a miss. A few of my friends suggested that I should pickup "Command and Control." I haven't read anything from Eric Schlosser since Fast Food Nation and I haven't read any documentary or informational books in a while.

    So, this book was easy to purchase because I enjoy this kind of genre. I always learn something new and don't feel that I'm wasting time on some made up story.

    All I have to say is, if the United States couldn't handle their nuclear weapons, I wonder how other countries are failing to handle their's and how many accidents that they are having. It just seems like the United States just decided to build bombs and without any safety procedures.

    Even to this day, there are ongoing studies on how safe we are from manufacturing bombs. There are too many rookie mistakes. There is no backup plan like in the movies to disarm a nuke once fire. Damascus was just one accident that we know of and there are many more that we have yet to reveal.

    Maybe building life threatening bombs are just too complicated for all man kind.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Anandasubramanian Amstelveen, Netherlands 11-22-13
    Anandasubramanian Amstelveen, Netherlands 11-22-13 Member Since 2009

    Harry Turtledove fan

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    "Chilling !"

    It's a miracle that we haven't had an accidental full-scale detonation of a H-bomb.

    The author tears apart the myth that the military has the utmost safety standards for building, maintaining, storing and transporting nuclear weapons.

    Heck, if I run my business the way the military runs its nuclear program, I would be in jail, for a long time.

    The author clearly documents the stumbling way the military went through arming the nation to the teeth with dodgy nuclear weapons with a safety record that was criminally insane. The fact that none of those responsible have been prosecuted clearly shows the military-industrial complex power and reach.

    Bureaucracy that refused to adopt higher safety standards, refused proper communication protocols during Korean and Vietnam wars, the battle between military and civilians over who should control nuclear weapons, and the stupidity of Lemay who got branded as a Nazi even though he fought against them... all are laid out bare.

    I shudder to think what would have happened if an accidental detonation had happened. Heck, if such a thing had happened after 9/11, the US would be at war with nations that had nothing to do with it.

    Nuclear safety is a myth.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Allen EVANSVILLE, WI, United States 11-14-13
    Allen EVANSVILLE, WI, United States 11-14-13 Member Since 2013
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    "Holy Crap!!"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    Great story, great narration. The subject of atomic energy/weaponry does require some pretty indepth explanation so at times it can be boresome while leading up to the meat of the matter.

    How we haven't managed to blow ourselves to Kingdom Come is a nuclear accident in itself. Drops, planecrashes, fires, it's not like we haven't tried or actually dared a multiple megaton warhead to detonate in our own backyard.

    Scary stuff, I couldn't put it down.
    Read this book if you're even remotely intrigued by atomic weaponry, their handling and management throughout the course of the cold war.


    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Randall Cherrylog, GA, United States 03-10-14
    Randall Cherrylog, GA, United States 03-10-14 Member Since 2006
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    "Bombs Away!"

    This book is not a bomb! It is a book that I could not put down. I was a Nuclear weapons specialist in SAC at Ellsworth and believe everything written to be true. I was actually involved and knew of some "incidents" that went unreported as well. In fact, my 28MMS Commander was called to come out at 3am after we had an electrical fire on the tug pulling 4 nukes after an alert. We put the fire out and no harm done....fire department only blocks away were too afraid to come to the site and help....for 45 minutes. But the Colonel never said good job or thanks for saving the base.....he said "You two need a haircut....and keep this under your hat"! That kind of arrogance and non appreciation for what we had just done caused me to throw up my hands, turn myself in for drugs.....and get out of the USAF. Had drug testing been done, I'm sure 90% of my squadron would still be in jail.....the cops, too! In training another team dropped a bomb a few inches to its stand. We also had a tritium leak and an armed bomb on the flight line. The American people don't know the half. This book tells the best.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Victor Williamsville, NY, United States 02-03-14
    Victor Williamsville, NY, United States 02-03-14 Member Since 2003
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    "Excellent book on Cold War history"
    Would you consider the audio edition of Command and Control to be better than the print version?

    This book is an excellent telling of the story of the Damascus accident intermixed with a very accurate telling of almost all of the key moments in Cold War history. There are also shocking revelation about how lax nuclear security, safety and command and control were in the US in the early days of the Cold War.


    What was the most compelling aspect of this narrative?

    The telling of the Greensboro incident.


    Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

    Yes. Extremely well written in a manner that really holds your attention.


    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    S. Smail Summerville, SC United States 12-10-13
    S. Smail Summerville, SC United States 12-10-13 Member Since 2013

    A 32 year old with a painfully short attention span. Audio books brought me back to reading.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "A different kind of scary"

    Normally when I think of scary books I think of monsters or serial killers or something along those lines. This book is scary on a whole new level. What it lacks in monsters it makes up for in glitches and close calls that could have literally been hours away from starting a nuclear war. Think about that. A computer glitch could have caused a war. More than once. And I wouldn't be surprised it there were even more that weren't made public. I used to think that government cover ups were just things that over eccentric people ranted about, but clearly I was a lot more naive than I thought I was.

    My only criticism is that the timeline skips around a bit, and while I didn't find it too confusing, I did find it annoying. Even with the weird skippy timeline I would recommend it though.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Mike Silver Spring, MD, United States 07-22-14
    Mike Silver Spring, MD, United States 07-22-14 Member Since 2009
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    "Very interesting. Somewhat hard to follow."
    Would you listen to Command and Control again? Why?

    Command and Control tells two stories concurrently, alternating back and forth, from one to the other. The first story is the story of the Damascus incident, in which a Titan nuclear missile came close to exploding in Arkansas due to a series of oversights which, as the author documents, are not nearly as rare as the public might suppose. The second story is the history of nuclear weapons themselves - their use, development, design, and testing, as well as their technical limitations (or lack thereof) and the strategic calculations that drove their development and deployment during the Cold War.

    The first narrative, which recounts the Damascus incident, is illuminating and entertaining, but at times it also feels overly drawn-out and confusing. This is largely due to the way its telling is broken up over the course of the book. This structure might work better in print, but I found it challenging in audio format. The second narrative - where the author traces the history of nuclear weapons broadly, from the Manhattan Project to the present, is where the book really excels. It is first-rate. I would listen this portion of the again, for sure, and recommend it to others interested in the subject without any reservation.

    On the whole, a very good book.


    What was one of the most memorable moments of Command and Control?

    The discussion of thermonuclear weapons, as opposed to pure fission bombs, and how the former fundamentally altered the strategic calculus about the use of nuclear weapon in war. In the modern era, we do not really distinguish between the awesome but comprehensible power of fission bombs, and the truly cataclysmic and unthinkable force of thermonuclear weapons, but the distinction was actually a major turning point in the way these weapons were viewed by political and military leaders. A second highlight was the author's excellent history of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, and its rivalry with the other military services and the (civilian) U.S. Atomic Energy Commission for primacy in the control U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities.


    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
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