- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 21, 2016

As the people of Little Rock, Arkansas, then governed by a young Bill Clinton, went about their business on the evening of Sept. 18, 1980, they had no idea that a nuclear weapon at Little Rock Air Force Base’s Launch Complex 374-7 in Damascus, just 30 miles to the northeast, came dangerously close to exploding.

It all began at 6:30 p.m., when an airman performing routine maintenance on a Titan-II missile dropped a socket wrench, which fell nearly 100 feet before bouncing and puncturing the missile’s fuel tank. The airmen worked feverishly through the night in order to avoid the unthinkable.

Journalist Eric Schlosser penned a book about the incident called “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” which has been turned into a documentary film opening Friday in the District.

“That notion that something that extreme could be set in motion because somebody drops a tool was something that was so incredible,” Mr. Schlosser told The Washington Times of his research. “My reaction was how could this happen and [I’ve] never heard of this?

“There was a chance that the state of Arkansas could have gone up in flames with a young Bill Clinton there. And that radioactive fallout could have been deposited up the northeastern seaboard of the United States.”

The film “Command and Control” is directed by Robert Kenner, whose previous documentaries include “Merchants of Doubt” and “Food Inc.,” which explored spin doctoring and the American food supply system, respectively. His new film combines vintage footage from the time of the accident with contemporary talking-head interviews of those who were there, as well as an intense reenactment of the incident itself.

“I didn’t see how we could turn it into a movie until we got permission to get into the last remaining Titan II site, which was identical to Damascus,” Mr. Kenner said. “When do you get to shoot an 11-story missile? That was a $10 million Hollywood set.”

The Air Force personnel who were at Damascus at the time are seen in contemporary interviews, many still haunted by the events of that September event 36 years ago. Several are brought to tears recalling the pain, injuries and deaths that resulted from the accident.

“Very little attention has been paid to the veterans of the Cold War, and the reality is there were young men and young women who risked their live, and sometimes lost them, trying to protect this country,” Mr. Schlosser said. “And, in this case, trying to prevent a nuclear catastrophe.”

Both Messrs. Schlosser and Kenner say that one of the points of both the book and the new film is how antiquated America’s nuclear arsenal is, as well as how obsolete is much of the technology employed to keep our warhead supply safe — not just from hostile foreign agents, but from both entropy and human error.

“The warhead that was on top of the Titan II was designed in the late 1950s. By 1980 the warhead itself was obsolete. It still worked, but you have to almost thing about the safety mechanisms in a 1961 Cadillac versus a 2017 model,” Mr. Schlosser said of the Arkansas accident.

Mr. Schlosser said one of the themes he uncovered while writing the book was how humans are much better at creating complex systems than at controlling them, especially where modern-day advanced weaponry is concerned.

“The underground launch centers, they were build during the Kennedy Administration,” Mr. Schlosser said, “and they leak and the wiring is old.

“One of the main computers in our underground launch complexes today is an IBM Series I computer. That was an incredible machine in 1976 [but] the new iPhones have 1,000 times the memory of one of these big huge computers.”

Mr. Kenner believes that, unlike previous issues he has tackled in his documentaries, the issue of updating failsafes on U.S. nuclear weapons has not gotten the attention it so desperately needs.

“Climate change, which we [covered in ‘Merchants of Doubt’], it’s out in the world. You can think whatever you want to think, but it’s out there,” Mr. Kenner said of his previous film. “This is invisible, and it’s obviously just as catastrophic. And I think the people in the halls of power, they must be terrified.

“On one hand it’s a historical film, but we could go into numerous present-day accidents that are very similar in nature to that accident. This is not really a historical film.”

Mr. Schlosser said the issue is one that both ideological sides of Congress have taken interest in after his reporting.

“Liberals who have read the book see [it] as a very strong argument for abolishing nuclear weapons. And some of my friends, conservatives who’ve read the book, see it as a very good argument for modernizing our arsenal,” Mr. Schlosser said.

Where modernizing the arsenal goes, Mr. Schlosser believes that not only the armaments, but their handlers, must be as up-to-date as possible.

“If you have nuclear weapons, you have to make sure they are new, as technologically advanced as possible,” he said, “and that the people who are operating the system are well trained, highly motivated, well compensated and not overworked — like the guys in the film.”

“And in context of what was called human error, that was the second-worst accident that weekend,” Mr. Kenner said of the time period of the documentary. “Human errors were happening all the time.”

“Command and Control” opens Friday at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

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