With Radiohead’s “Four Minute Warning” playing behind the credit roll, Eric Schlosser, the author-turned-screenwriter, approached the front of Washington’s E Street Theater with former US Sen. Sam Nunn, chairman of the DC-based Nuclear Threat Initiative. The two were there to take questions from a hand-chosen audience. On the eve of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC, a Who’s Who roster of the nuclear security world had gathered to preview Schlosser’s new documentary film, Command and Control. The film will be publicly released later this year. When it comes to a theater near you, run to see it. It is that good.
Like the book that it is based on, Command and Control chronicles the terrifying accident at the Titan II missile site near Damascus, Arkansas in 1980. On a nondescript September day, a nuclear repair team entered the silo to check readings that seemed a bit off. Using the wrong wrench, one team member lost his grip on a socket that fell the full height of the 8-story-tall missile, bounced, and punctured the missile’s fuel tank. Within a few seconds, the United States was on the precipice of the greatest nuclear cataclysm of all time. The Arkansas crew nearly set off a hydrogen bomb, on US soil, through simple human error.
Officials deemed the likelihood that the socket would bounce and pierce the rocket one in a million. But Robert Kenner, the director of the movie, who had joined Schlosser and Nunn at the front of the house, said that his team dropped the socket 12 times to recreate the event for the film. It hit the rocket “six of the 12 times,” he said.
As the film unfolds, we watch a recreation of the rocket disintegrating in a massive explosion that threw people, cars, and metal in all directions. Steel rained down, people caught fire. Those going through the Armageddon-like experience recalled their belief that the warhead had detonated, that they were the first victims of a nuclear explosion that would incinerate an incomprehensibly large number of lives and render large swaths of territory uninhabitable.
Thankfully, the warhead did not detonate as it was thrown from the silo. In one of the film’s more gruesomely funny moments, a search party combs the nearby field looking for it.
The movie toggles from the 1980 accident to 1945, when another set of young men tested nuclear weapons, this time in the desert of Almogordo, New Mexico. Through some deft editing of archival film, the audience takes a quick tour through America’s nuclear history and experiences how science, good management, and a lot of luck intertwined to keep civilization safe as tens of thousands of nuclear weapons are built and eventually deployed.
Schlosser wants us to come away from the film understanding how fortunate we are to have survived these past 70 years without incinerating ourselves and our planet. He questions whether humans are really up to the task of maintaining the dangerously complex weapons that make up the world’s nuclear arsenals. “Damascus is emblematic of how hard complex systems are to control,” he said.
Between 1950 and 1968 the military identified 32 “broken arrows”—nuclear accidents that were kept out of the public’s consciousness. This is not a comforting number, amounting to about two such near-catastrophes a year. But broken arrow history is even worse than it first seems. When Schlosser went back to look at newly declassified records, he told us, he found more than 1,000 such events, almost all attributable to human error. If accidents like this happened with such frequency in the United States, what might have been going on in Russia—over the same time period? For that matter, how confident can the world be about the nuclear safety culture in North Korea or Pakistan?
Sitting there on the eve of the summit, it was hard to escape the urgency of the task of reducing the world’s nuclear stockpiles. The United States is on the cusp of committing some $350 billion over the next 10 years (a trillion over the next 30 years) to modernize its nuclear forces. Almost everyone with significant knowledge of the situation believes some expenditure is essential. Degrading the US arsenal toward disarmament would be a reckless and dangerous course. Investments must be made to ensure that weapons remain safe, state-of-the art, and reliable—and that potential foes know the weapons work.
But there is a fine line between modernizing our stockpile and building an entirely new arsenal, and the United States seems about to cross that line. Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, recently wrote a scorching critique of the Obama administration’s nuclear legacy, noting that the administration’s modernization program has morphed into “a replacement program for every weapon, all with new capabilities, even new missions.”
Rather than racing to recreate its Cold War arsenal, Schlosser’s film suggests, it is time to stop and rethink the United States’ nuclear posture and ask some hard questions about what is really needed to keep America and the world safe in the 21st century. Nunn and other nuclear policy thought leaders—including former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, who was also in the audience—are asking these hard questions. Does the United States really need its nuclear forces to be on hair-trigger alert, limiting the time the president has to make an end-of-the-world decision? Does the United States still need all three legs of the nuclear triad? Nunn and others say no, or at least suggest that the US government consider the possibility of discontinuing one of those legs. These questions go far beyond what has transpired in the shallow waters of this year’s US presidential debates, in which simply naming the components of the triad is deemed a victory.
My one quibble with the film: It is bound to history. Viewing audiences will not have the benefit of Schlosser and Nunn to help them make the link between the accident in 1980 and today’s precarious nuclear environment. The public already relegates nuclear issues to the past. This film might reinforce that retro tendency, even though nuclear issues demand urgent serious attention today, in 2016.
Deteriorated relations between the United States and Russia make for a terribly risky world security situation. As badly as the Russians are behaving in Ukraine and Syria, Washington simply must continue to reach out. “We have an existential stake in each other’s competency,” stated Nunn, and he’s right. The two countries with the most nuclear weapons under their control need to engage—for their sake, and for the world’s. Examined in this light, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to boycott the Nuclear Security Summit is more than inconvenient; it was a diplomatic travesty and an abdication of responsibility to his own people.
What we know from last week’s summit and the grim headlines that frequent our screens is that nuclear security and strategy in many ways define our lives and will continue to do so into the future—even though most people seldom think about the subject any more. I’m not sure that Command and Control will narrow the gap between public perception and nuclear reality. But if it does, even a bit, the film’s contribution to world security will be significant.
The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent, nonprofit media organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.