The Nuclear Disaster That Almost Was

Journalist Eric Schlosser and director Robert Kenner discuss Command and Control, their new documentary on the Damascus incident.

Titan Missile (American Experience Films)

Do nuclear weapons really make us safer? This is the question at the core of Command and Control, the thrilling new documentary from Academy Award-nominated director Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.). Based the Pulitzer Prize-finalist book of the same name from journalist Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), the film takes viewers through a minute-by-minute account of the Damascus Titan missile explosion, an incident in Arkansas in 1980 that almost blew the Eastern Seaboard of the United States off the map.

Nearly 40 years later, many of the key players at Damascus speak on screen about the catastrophic results that came when a PTS (Propellant Transfer System) crew member accidentally dropped a socket which subsequently punctured the missile and began leaking fuel.

Trying to decide what aspect of Damascus is the most shocking — the youth and inexperience of those trusted with potentially launching a nuclear weapon, the ineptitude of the U.S. government in responding to the accident, the fact that we were perilously close to a nuclear weapon with 600 times the power of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined detonating on American soil — is almost as difficult is hearing from the young men whose lives were forever changed that day.

While nuclear weapons may seem like a threat of the past, one of the goals for Kenner and Schlosser (who co-wrote on the film and appears on screen) was to emphasize to their audience that all these decades later, little has changed in terms of safety protocol and the young median age of those tasked with maintaining and repairing these apocalyptic agents of destruction. Another was to create a film that works like a techno-thriller, one in which a race against the clock is made all the more perilous when one remembers that this actually, really, happened.

I met Kenner and Schlosser in San Francisco a week before the release of Command and Control to discuss what they hope to achieve with this project and why so few people have heard of Damascus and the unfathomable tragedy that almost occurred there.

Here in 2016, it feels like we’ve all but forgotten the heyday of duck and cover drills. Was one of your aims with this film to just remind people that nuclear weapons still exist and that they aren’t simply a bogeyman of the past?

Robert Kenner: I think there’s this incredible amnesia that’s taken over. It’s as if these things don’t exist. As Harold Brown, the Secretary of Defense at the time of the Damascus accident, said, “On one hand these missiles and our weapons have become safer, but ultimately they’re more dangerous because we’ve stopped thinking about them.”

Eric Schlosser: I was at college in the 1980s, and the prospect of nuclear war was a daily preoccupation for everyone. We now know we were right to be afraid, because during the 1980s it now turns out we did come close, particularly in 1983, to a war with the Soviet Union.  What’s alarming is ostensibly the Cold War ended, but the weapon systems and the alert status of the weapons didn’t change. So we have Minuteman missiles on alert right now, ready to be launched within a minute — hence the name — and that whole nuclear strategy came out of [the early 1960s] when we were afraid that the Soviets were going to launch a surprise attack at any minute. The danger in some ways is all the greater because people aren’t aware of it now in the way that they used to be.

You filmed a lot of Command and Control in an actual decommissioned Titan II missile silo. What was that experience like?

RK: It’s a decommissioned silo outside of Tucson, Ariz., that’s been turned into a museum, run both by the Air Force and by this museum. It was the most amazing location you could ever hope for.

ES: One of the first things I was struck by is how rudimentary this technology is. The Titan II is the embodiment of late Eisenhower era technology, and yet it was still in service in 1980. The other thing is … It’s a really fucking big missile. When you stand at the base of it and look up, it’s like looking up at a 10-story building. It really brings home the fact that these things are out there, waiting to be used. It gives you a sense that these things aren’t theoretical. They’re real. And they work.

RK: Being in that silo, it felt a little like I was in the movie Alien. It felt like a living monster.

ES: Some of the reviews have compared Robbie’s film to a horror movie. Well if it’s a horror movie, that missile is the monster, and it’s the monster down the hall, and the question is: is it going to let loose?

Titan Missile (American Experience Films)
Titan Missile (American Experience Films)

 

To push the analogy further, the people fighting this monster are all alarmingly young and inexperienced too. What didn’t the Air Force feel compelled to have more seasoned people present at the site of a nuclear weapon?

ES: It’s the same today. Today the launch officers are 23 and 24 years old. That’s the military. That’s always been the military. The checklist is what enables young, inexperienced people to handle this technology, because the checklist has all the knowledge you need to perform a certain task. If you do the checklist in the right way in the right order, it’s usually going to work. The problem is there are certain unexpected situations for which they haven’t bothered to write a checklist. There’s no checklist for when a socket falls, hits the missile, and creates a fuel leak. Suddenly you have a lot of people with no idea what to do.

RK: That night, those young men put themselves on the line. They were absolute heroes for trying to save the state of Arkansas and trying to save much of the East Coast. Unfortunately they weren’t treated very well. In a way, they became part of the problem afterwards, because they could say what happened, and the Air Force didn’t want people talking about what happened. It was much easier to blame this incident on human error, not on a systemic error, but as Eric says in the film, I think somebody dropping something shouldn’t throw a thermonuclear weapon that’s capable of destroying the East Coast across a field.

You feature interviews with a lot of the people that were there that night in this documentary. Was it hard for them to go think back to Damascus and talk about it?

RK: It was not easy for someone like Dave Powell, who dropped the socket that night, to come forward on camera and start telling his story. It was a very emotional experience. It was hard for him to go there to begin with. I had to bring him back a second time, and that time he said, “You know, every time I close my eyes, I can see this happening.” He can’t stop from seeing it. So you begin to realize how traumatic it was for these men. It was like they had been in battle that night.

ES: These guys were really treated poorly — traumatized. Some of these guys hadn’t even seen one another since the night of the accident. Dave Powell had been married got married a few years after the accident and he has two kids in their twenties. His wife and children had no idea that he had been in the Air Force and had this accident until my book came out, and it wasn’t until he took his mother to see Robbie’s film maybe a month ago that his mother even knew about this.

I’m 29, and for me, the scariest part of your film is that before I saw it, I’d never heard of the Damascus incident either. Now that I know about it, it’s very sobering to see how dangerous nuclear weapons can be in the right hands.

RK: Well we hadn’t heard of it either! At the time, it was in the national news, but it wasn’t represented in an honest way. The news was that a missile had exploded, and yes it was an incredibly powerful explosion that did incredible damage, but there was never any talk that a warhead that was 600 times stronger than the bomb at Hiroshima could’ve exploded, and the man who helped design that weapon flew there thinking “Yes, this might go off.” I think Eric’s work in bringing to light the fact that the Air Force talks about 32 Broken Arrows [nuclear weapon accidents] when they were actually over 1000, and that they were kept secret from the very men who were in charge of safety.

ES: This stuff is still going on — it’s just not being publicized. There was a nuclear weapons accident in 2014 at a Minuteman silo in Colorado, and we still don’t really know the details, because the Air Force is refusing to release them. There were workers in a silo doing routine maintenance. They did something wrong — it’s not clear what they did — and another team came in the next day and did something seriously wrong that damaged the missile. So it’s still happening.

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