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By Anita Felicelli

About this blog: I grew up in Palo Alto and now live in Mountain View with my husband, daughter and two corgis. After about a decade grappling with the law, first as a law student at UC Berkeley and then as a litigator around the Bay Area, I left ...  (More)

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Meet Eric Schlosser at Books, Inc. on 10/3 at 7:00 pm

Uploaded: Sep 29, 2013
On September 18, 1980, the United States economy was in a recession. "The Waltons" was facing cancellation and radio stations were playing "Do That To Me One More Time" by Captain & Tenille. The relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was at its lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. That day, a warhead from the Titan II missile stored in Damascus, Arkansas was pushed out after several errors in human judgment.

It all started when a repairman dropped a socket wrench, hitting a fuel tank. After several mishaps, the event concluded with an explosion. A warhead flew into the ground 200 yards away. At first, investigative journalist Eric Schlosser's latest book "Command and Control" reads like a novel. However, he moves on to discuss the often-worrisome history of nuclear weapons in America and foreign policy.

The last two days reading the book have been eye opening. While I was familiar with most of the history from high school U.S. history, I had no knowledge of just how precarious our nuclear weapons really are. Schlosser's book details numerous near misses, situations where we were mostly just lucky more damage didn't result from bombs. It also examines all of the lesser-discussed risks of nuclear weapons?delving into early failures to look into the psychiatric and drug histories of the people handling the weapons and how various presidents built upon the country's command and control systems.

This latter point about the command and control systems is exhaustively researched and described. The rigidity of the system. The relatively cavalier attitudes of the people that advised Americans to build an underground shelter, all while realizing these shelters probably wouldn't help if we were hit by Soviet hydrogen bombs and building a much deeper shelter underground for the president. The decision to blame two young men who were just following orders for the Damascus explosion.

While Schlosser describes these systems as safer now than they were at the midpoint of the last century, a reader is still left feeling it's all too precarious, all too dependent on the judgment of human beings who may be brave, but are certainly fallible. It's a wonder we haven't had more nuclear accidents?many experts seem to believe this is simply a matter of luck.

I first read Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" in 2001 and was horrified, particularly by the account of meatpacking industries. It was not that I hadn't known that the situation with meat processing was bad, it was that I hadn't understood how dire the situation was. I remember a conservative friend remarking, "Well, how true is any of that? He's got to be making some of that up." Of course, since that book's publication, many, many documentaries and reports have since revealed even more dark facts about our food industry.

In 2003, I read Schlosser's "Reefer Madness." At that time, California was a vanguard state, having legalized medical marijuana. Many other places in the country still saw marijuana as a gateway drug, as dangerous, as not really having medical benefits. However, now, ten years after the book's release, both medical and recreational marijuana are slowly becoming legalized, state by state. And this year, finally, medical marijuana gained acceptance by CNN's chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta.

What's so fascinating about Schlosser is that he is always a few steps ahead of almost everyone else?he spots the issues that all Americans should be concerned about long before most of us catch on to how dire the situation is. The safety of our nuclear weapons is the most critical issue that he's taken on to date. And it's one most of us are only vaguely aware of. "Command and Control" will probably change all that. It's a must-read.

Meet Eric Schlosser and listen to him talk about "Command and Control" on Thursday, October 3 at at 7:00 pm at Books, Inc. in Mountain View. Let me know what you think of "Fast Food Nation," "Reefer Madness" or "Command and Control" or the concerns they raise in the comments below.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by member of another community, a resident of another community,
on Sep 29, 2013 at 9:53 pm

I really loved "Fast Food Nation". I am sure it made an impression and changed at least a few people.

Haven't read "Command & Control". Putting it on my "to read" list.

Posted by David Wyznewski, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Sep 30, 2013 at 5:43 am

If not for the Upton Sinclairs of the world (which thankfully keep regenerating), we'd never peek out of our blinders - unfortunately, what they expose (ie. meat-packing) and is semi-rectified in response - is always regenerated too

we only ever 'scorch the snake'

Posted by Anita Felicelli, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Sep 30, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

@member of another community, absolutely- I think "Fast Food Nation" made an especially strong social impact. That and Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" have probably been two of the most influential books in recent times about food and the food industries.

@David Wyznewski, that may be so. I like to think that we do more than scorch the snake?it's just that there is an endless supply of snakes.

Posted by JeffM, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Sep 30, 2013 at 2:56 pm

A full-time writer who uses "Book's" for the plural, let alone misspelling a formal name? Gimme a break!

Posted by Anita Felicelli, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Sep 30, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

@JeffM- good catch. I'll ask the Webmaster to change it. Writers usually have editors for a reason.

Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Sep 30, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Max Hauser is a registered user.

I remember the Damascus incident vividly, and years later I even spoke casually to one of the Titan series's designers. Unlike the large majority of US Cold-War ICBMs, the 54 Titan IIs each carried one very large 4-ton single warhead, about the size of an SUV (the decommissioned base outside Tucson put them on display), designed, as one expert stated in 1980, for "excavation purposes." They used a rocket propellant system that could deliver energy density, or impulse, similar to the refrigerated gasses used in space boosters and most ICBMs of their era, but without requiring refrigeration. The trade-off were that both fuel and oxidizer were unusually reactive, very bad news if they got loose -- which accounted for the notorious Titan accidents.

A press conference after the 1980 accident produced the understatement of the era. A farmer on whose land the 4-ton warhead landed (a device with about 1000 times the explosive yield of the 1945 Nagasaki bomb) asked what one should do in such a situation; the Air Force spokesman answered "in my opinion, the prudent thing would be to leave." I haven't seen the book, but I sure hope that exchange is quoted.

Posted by Anita Felicelli, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Sep 30, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

Hi Max,
Great quote. I wrote a longer response, but somehow it got erased. I don't remember the specific quote (the book is 632 pages). One thing that stood out to me (and that I highlighted in the text) was that an Air Force report released in 1981 argued against figuring out the exact cause of the accident, explaining, "It may not be important whether the immediate cause that initiated the explosive events is known since, over a period of time, there were so many potential ignition sources available." The report for Congress meanwhile listed tons of things that needed to be improved to make the missile safer. However, right after the accident, a physicist holding a press conference refused to admit any of these problems to a reporter who was asking. Instead he simply attributed it to human failure and described what happened as "pretty much the worst case." Of course, as you know, a warhead with that much power could do considerably more damage. Schlosser argues ? persuasively, I think ? that we've been surprisingly lucky so far.

Posted by David Wyznewski, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Oct 1, 2013 at 7:22 am

Someone who identifies a typo (if only in a blog, not a dissertation) and dismisses a vocation/body-of-work?

Hooray for the Internet! Come forth all ye smarter-than-thous and elevate your irrelevance!

Can someone please diagram JeffM's initial 'sentence' and identify the subject, predicate, etc.? Someone who etc etc., let alone etc. etc. . . what? What about this person? Finish your thought (insofar as it qualifies as one) in-sentence.

maybe literally, rather than figuratively 'let alone' next time, sport - (& what's the term for saying you're not actually saying something?)

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