Questions and answers with Eric Schlosser

The investigative journalist, who has dodged threats from international fast-food giants, offers a troubling perspective on the threat presented by poorly maintained and improperly secured nuclear weapons.

After jumping from fast food to the black market, Eric Schlosser, it seems, has taken the next seemingly illogical step, into nuclear weapons. Schlosser, an investigative journalist and graduate of Princeton and Oxford Universities, is author of New York Times bestsellers Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) and Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003).

His latest book is Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (Penguin Press, 2013), which is reviewed in this month’s issue of Physics Today. Reviewer and historian Alex Wellerstein calls it “a serious piece of nonfiction and the best book on nuclear weapons to have been published in several years.” I caught up with Schlosser to find out what led him to this investigation and to get more perspective on his concerns about nuclear weapons safety.

Eric Schlosser

PT: What motivated you to write this book?

Schlosser: After I finished writing Fast Food Nation, a book about the transformation of America's food system, I spent time at a number of [US] Air Force bases. I was planning to write an investigative piece on the future of warfare in space. Many of the officers I met at the Air Force Space Command had begun their careers as members of ballistic missile launch crews. They told me stories about nuclear weapons during the Cold War—some incredible stories. One of the officers described the Titan II accident in Damascus, Arkansas. And after hearing that story, I decided to find out what really happened that night in Damascus.

What started off as a relatively short book about a single nuclear weapon accident became a long book about nuclear weapons safety and security, nuclear command and control, the difficulty of managing complex technological systems, the unsung heroism of ordinary enlisted personnel during the Cold War. I came to believe that the two great existential threats we now face are climate change and nuclear weapons. And the latter threat isn't getting anywhere near the attention it deserves. Command and Control aims not only to tell an extraordinary story but also to focus attention on an issue of profound importance.

PT: How do you choose what stories to investigate?

Schlosser: I try to write about subjects that the mainstream media is ignoring or is covering in ways that seem mistaken. My next book is on the American prison system.

PT: What is different about writing a book like Command and Control and Fast Food Nation?

Schlosser: The corporations that I wrote about in Fast Food Nation were far more likely to harass me, spy on me, and sue me than the federal agencies and military organizations at the heart of Command and Control. In some ways it was less stressful writing about America's greatest national security threat than about companies that sell hamburgers and french fries. But for this book, it was a real challenge obtaining documents about nuclear weapons through the Freedom of Information Act. Many of the people I interviewed were reluctant at first to speak with me. And I found nuclear physics and rocket science to be far more difficult to understand—let alone write about—than the secrets of some fast food chain's special sauce.

PT: How would you compare and contrast the “command and control” culture of nuclear weapons during the Cold War and at the time of the Damascus accident to the culture now?

Schlosser: After the Cold War ended, the command and control of nuclear weapons seemed to lose a great deal of its urgency. Morale suffered, especially at the air force, as the nuclear mission was increasingly viewed as irrelevant and a career dead end. There've been leadership failures and an underinvestment in the basic infrastructure of our command-and-control system. People can disagree in good faith about how many nuclear weapons the United States needs and about whether we should abolish these weapons completely. But I think so long as we have them, we must spare no expense in maintaining them safely and ensuring that the personnel in charge of them are well compensated and well trained.

PT: What current and future concerns do you have about the safety and control of nuclear weapons worldwide?

Schlosser: My book is critical of how the United States has managed its nuclear arsenal. But we invented and perfected this technology. I feel confident that we've done as good a job as any country in managing nuclear weapons. But if we've had so many problems and so many close calls, think about the countries that now have these weapons and yet are much less technologically proficient. I worry about the current arms race between India and Pakistan. I worry about Iran getting the bomb and prompting an arms race in the Middle East. And I worry about terrorist groups either stealing a weapon or obtaining bomb-grade fissile material. The more nuclear weapons there are in the world and the more countries possess them, the more likely that something terrible will go wrong. I don't think we're doomed, and I don't feel apocalyptic about any of these threats. But they ought to receive much greater public attention—and dealing with them must be our highest priority.

PT: What books are you currently reading?

Schlosser: I was recently in Oslo, and someone there gave me a book by Olav H. Hauge, one of Norway's greatest poets. It's called Leaf-Huts and Snow-Houses (Anvil Press Poetry, 2004), and thus far I haven't found a single reference in the book to throw-weights, megadeaths, megatons, or circular error probable.


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Scitation: Questions and answers with Eric Schlosser