No Such Thing as the People’s Bomb

Eric Schlosser Command and Control

Just at this moment, amongst a half-decade-long explosion in thinking about the structural violence of neoliberal capital, Eric Schlosser has released a work on the ultimate sovereign ability to declare exception: the spectacular violence of nuclear weapons.

While Schlosser’s book is about an exceptional thing – the circle with structural violence is squared – it is not in the way one might think. Nukes do not range into structural violence simply because, in the end, they could kill everything; rather, in the beginning, they are bound up with the economic machinations of sovereign states. One of the book’s most profound historical observations is that nukes proliferate because they are uncannily cheap. The book is a critique of nuclear ideology, and the fig-leaf of safety comes out severely compromised. But this ideology comes after the fact; it comes after the paranoias of “security” and the bureaucrat’s thriftiness have already made the big decisions.

Back in the 1980s, in Britain, I can remember a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament poster reading: “1 Trident = 500 Hospitals”. It is an effective slogan which has conditioned my entire life; I learnt a lot about the state from observing that in a country of limited means, with both a large military and nationalised healthcare, the Margaret Thatcher government literally chose destroying “the enemy” over public health. Even in post-New Deal America we are used to thinking of nuclear weapons as expensive; costs of warheads, delivery systems and upkeep are in the $many-billions. But Schlosser extracts the exact opposite summation from the huge military archives he has waded through.

Nukes are expensive when compared to socialised state services, but they are not when compared to the “conventional” military. From this perspective they may be technically challenging, but nevertheless they are a budget, high-profile option. From the military’s perspective one of the problems with conventional fire-bombing raids is that they needed a lot of aeroplanes; they needed a lot of pilots, and a lot of fuel; they needed much napalm and involved many planes being shot down or lost. Nukes were adopted against these costs of making fire-storms.

The American A-bomb was originally developed out of the fear that the Nazis were building one, as well as to create create shock and awe. They assuaged paranoid fears about the other’s fighting ability, they shocked and awed, and all potentially without a drop of very expensively trained and equipped American blood being spilt. They were perfect for both hawks and pencil-pushers.

After World War II, nukes were further embraced because they seemed to be a short-cut to closing the conventional armed forces gap between the United States and the USSR (two divisions of British and American soldiers in West Germany, versus ten divisions of the Red Army in Eastern Europe).

And while Schlosser is concerned largely with America, you can easily see that nukes function in precisely the same economising way today in Pakistan, India, China, Israel, North Korea, and perhaps Iran. We may bemoan the fact that the North Korean people starve, even as their 1% makes various faltering atom bomb tests and missile launches, but this is the wrong equation from the military planner’s perspective. Per ounce of destruction (or per megaton yield) those bombs are still cheaper than the equivalent conventional military force, and nukes have far more “psychological” weight to boot.

Schlosser’s critique of this nuclear ideology shows how even the world’s biggest super-power immediately painted itself into a small, weaponised corner the moment it embraced nuclear war. Nuclearised economic “savings” end up as a false economy because the stakes, ultimately, are too high. America is currently the only country to have nuked anybody (militarily, at least) and yet, Schlosser shows that nuclear safety is illusory, and the illusion has almost collapsed repeatedly.

His historical examples highlight a contradictory ethical predicament: on the one hand, despite human imperfections, the world has a 100% nuclear weapons safety record. On many occasions, chains of events have gained momentum which could have easily led to nuclear disaster, and each time the trigger has not been pulled or somehow tripped. On the other hand, as as we learn in this book, incidents from something as trivial as a dropped socket wrench, to nuclear tests, and an accidental military incursion into Soviet airspace during the Cuban missile crisis, humans have also pushed the world to the atomic brink over and over again. As the Kantian mandate goes: “we can not turn an Is into an Ought”. Or, in the words of the RAND Corporation: “The past safety record means nothing for the future” (p.235).

Schlosser’s journalism is horrifyingly engrossing, with the all the techo-dystopianism of a Michael Crichton novel, except it is better-written, tells a more interesting story than any of Crichton’s, and, of course, the dystopia exists. He has a narrator’s gift for getting inside the military parallax view without, for a second, taking it as definitive. His publication of a book on the ultimate, false-economising, state of exception, is a reminder: in our global age of grinding, systemic violence, we need to think about the co-articulations between between both systemic and structural violences – the raison d’etat of the 1%, which uses both. This book is a default context for any argument about why a state should choose 500 hospitals instead of 1 nuclear submarine.


Eric Schlosser. Command and Control: The Story of Nuclear Weapons and the Illusion of Safety. London: Penguin, 2014.

John Gullick is a political activist with Britain’s People’s Assembly Against Austerity. He holds a PhD from the European Graduate School, and has a forthcoming book, Seven Subjects: the Good, the Bad and the Stupid, with Fordham University Press.

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