The recent North Korean nuclear test and the debate over whether Donald Trump has the temperament to be trusted with the bomb have put the spotlight on an urgent issue that is too often neglected—the immense risks posed by nuclear weapons. But the question is not just whether Donald Trump or Kim Jong-un can be trusted with nuclear weapons; it is whether it is safe for any nation to possess them at all. Robert Kenner’s new documentary, Command and Control, answers that question with a resounding “no.”
The film, based on the best selling book by Eric Schlosser, tells the story of a September 18, 1980, explosion at a Titan II nuclear-missile site in Damascus, Arkansas. This may seem like ancient history in a world dominated by Twitter, Instagram, and 24-hour news cycles—Ronald Reagan was battling Jimmy Carter for the presidency, Bill Clinton was still a little-known governor from Arkansas, Diana Ross’s “Upside Down” topped the pop charts, and there was no such thing as a personal computer. But the lessons to be drawn from the events described in Command and Control are still frighteningly relevant.
The risks posed by nuclear weapons, not just to countries targeted by them but to countries that possess them, are summed up in the film by a missile repairman who was 19 years old at the time of the Damascus accident: “You’re counting on everything to work perfect all the time, and things just don’t work perfect all the time.” Command and Control is a gripping account of what happens when things don’t “work perfect” at a nuclear-weapons site.
It all began when a repairman at the site used the wrong wrench. Two missile-maintenance men went down into the silo to fix a problem involving low pressure in one of missile’s fuel tanks. They left behind the torque wrench that was prescribed by the regulations and used a socket wrench instead. As the two men were tightening a bolt, the socket detached from the wrench and fell 70 feet, bounced off the wall of the silo, and punctured a tank filled with 14,000 gallons of rocket fuel.
None of the technicians in the missile’s control room knew what to do. As one of them put it, an accident of this kind “wasn’t on the checklist.” The fuel burst into flames and filled the silo with dense smoke that made it hard to even see what was going on. Hours later, after several courageous attempts to fix the problem, the missile exploded and its warhead was ejected. Two men died as a result of the blast. And at first no one knew where the warhead had gone. The next day it was found in a ditch near the site.
It was no ordinary warhead. If it had gone off it would have unleashed more explosive power than all the bombs dropped by all sides in World War II, including the two atomic bombs. The blast would have killed millions of people. The fact that the bomb did not go off was as much by luck as by design.
I won’t recount all the details between the wrench falling and the explosion in the silo, or what happened in the immediate aftermath of the accident. It is a story of how human error, technological hubris, bureaucratic inflexibility, and excessive secrecy almost spawned an unprecedented disaster. You can watch the film to fill in those details, which are told in compelling fashion, complete with interviews with men who were on the scene on the day of the accident, and a combination of real footage and realistic simulations that show how it all happened.