Human error and Cold War memories

pbs-doc-recounts-the-nuclear-accident-that-nearly-destroyed-arkansasCommand and Control is the long-hidden story of a deadly 1980 accident at a Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas. Portions of the film were shot in an abandoned Titan II missile silo in Arizona. [Photo: courtesy of WGBH, PBS]

In 1980 in Damascus, Arkansas a Titan II missile complex exploded as a result of human error nearly detonating the missile’s nuclear warhead, a weapon 600 times more potent than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. I recently watched a documentary about this event that brought back some childhood memories and changed my thoughts on “human error.” Check your local PBS listings for this Command and Control documentary on American Experience.

My connection to this story: as an Air Force brat, my Dad was in the 390th Missile Maintenance Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base when we lived in Tucson, Arizona in the late 60s. There were several Titan II missile sites in southern Arizona. The Strategic Air Command’s 390th Strategic Missile Wing and its 18 Titan II ICBM sites around Tucson were activated in 1962; the squadron was deactivated in 1984. Following this duty assignment my father went to Vietnam, and upon his return, we moved to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas where I entered high school as a sophomore.

The Damascus incident recounted in this documentary focuses on human error in a compelling way. Think about it – machine “errors” happen every day for most of us, big and small. Your coffee pot stops working unexpectedly on the day when you really needed that caffeine. On your drive to work, you run over a nail and your tire goes flat. Your newly installed computer software doesn’t work as promised.

Now consider nuclear weapons.

The thing is, nuclear weapons are just machines. And like all machines, sometimes they break, and sometimes, there’s user error. When the system that controls these civilization-ending weapons isn’t prepared for the inevitable technological and human screw ups, then we’re in real trouble.

According to American Experience Producer Mark Samels:

As safe, secure, well-designed, and well-operated as our nuclear weapons system may be, it’s subject to the X-factor—human fallibility. The most powerful weapons that we’ve ever created have a threat built into them. And that threat is us.

On another serendipitous note, in high school, I participated in local and state debate and individual events tournaments including oratory. This event required students develop a self-written, ten-minute speech on a topic of their choosing, informative or persuasive in nature, delivered from memory.

My presentation focused on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during the final stage of World War II. I criticized our country’s decision to drop the bomb describing the utter devastation and loss of life and suggested that surely there were other options to bring the war to an end. Admittedly, remembering the point of view I asserted was naive in many ways, but seeing the pictures of injured children and reading about the loss of life was unforgettable even today. Something else I remember – my parents knew about my topic choice, yet neither tried to dissuade me from developing this presentation. Even my Air Force Dad.