'Command and Control' Exposes the 1980 Nuke Accident That Could Have Leveled Arkansas

Please don't accidentally blow this up.EXPAND
Please don't accidentally blow this up.
American Experience Films

Command and Control is frightening for a whole pants-shitting list of reasons, but perhaps the scariest is that the near-detonation of a nuclear warhead in 1980 was sparked by the tiniest imaginable accident. A technician working on a Titan missile in a Damascus, Arkansas, silo dropped a wrench socket from a height of seventy feet; it bounced off a platform and punctured the missile’s fuel tank, releasing an aerosol of pressurized hypergolic fuel into the silo and bunker.

Based on Eric Schlosser’s bestselling book, the film documents the cascading series of failures that led to a massive explosion that killed one soldier and seriously injured others. While the Air Force ultimately blamed that wrench socket, the soldier who dropped it, and — disgracefully — the emergency crews ordered into the silo to stop the leak, the film makes clear in interviews with dozens of civilian and military figures that the explosion resulted from the Defense Department's choice to keep an aging family of rockets in active use.

The Titan dual-stage rockets were first launched in 1959; besides their military uses, they hurled the Gemini astronauts and a generation of space probes into orbit. In the era of disco and Darth Vader, the obsolete Titans were aging in place as bargaining chips for strategic arms limitation talks with the Soviets.

The film effectively evokes the analog era of 1980 with a shaky, impressionistic reenactment of the facility evacuation, IBM Selectric–style captions and actual news footage of the incident, interspersed with interviews with survivors as well as Schlosser. Despite the high stakes, Command and Control is morbidly fun to watch, in the manner of good suspense thrillers and disaster films. After all, everything in the film — its brief history of nuclear proliferation; the testimony of airmen whose lives were permanently altered — builds toward a moment that must have seemed to those involved like the apocalypse.

Inside the facility, emergency responders fought some catastrophically stupid orders and reported zero visibility; the fog of fuel could have ignited at any moment. Despite the low resolution of the period news footage, the explosion is terrifying; its shock wave downed trees and sent men flying across the site. As communications abruptly terminated, military commanders around the country believed the warhead had detonated. But it was the rocket fuel, not a nuclear explosion.

Here’s the thing about nuclear warheads: Triggering an explosion is really complicated. Electronic and mechanical fail-safes prevent accidental detonation, but in the event of fire, solder can melt across circuits, opening new electrical pathways; the potential exists for the bypass of safeties. And it turns out that such "Broken Arrow" incidents were heart-stoppingly commonplace. Nuclear-armed planes have crashed; bombs have fallen from planes; missiles have tumbled from ships into the sea.

Command and Control reminds us that when you design a system insensitive to human error, you create the conditions for absolute catastrophe. A dropped tool should never threaten the annihilation of an entire state. Humans aren’t machines, but to avoid institutional scrutiny, the Air Force decided to pretend that they are.

Command and Control
Directed by Robert Kenner
American Experience Films / PBS
Opens September 14, Film Forum


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