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Los Angeles Times - Los Angeles, Calif. Aug 3, 2003

'We live so others may die'

Face to Face With the Bomb: Nuclear Reality After the Cold War, Paul Shambroom, Johns Hopkins University Press: 144 pp., $34.95

Robert Del Tredici

(Copyright (c) 2003 Los Angeles Times)

There was a time not long ago when we pitted our brains against the Bomb. In the 1980s, antiwar activist Helen Caldecott compelled us to watch while she opened the gates of hell over our cities; Jonathan Schell broke the world's heart in "The Fate of the Earth," with his depiction of a full-scale nuclear exchange and its aftermath of nuclear winter and human extinction; and psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton pondered parallels between Nazi and nuclear genocidal mentalities. In New York City in 1982, a million marchers called for a nuclear freeze; in Reykjavik in 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan put abolition on the table. It slid off the table, but the U.S. agreed with the USSR to ban intermediate-range missiles and halt nuclear testing. Shortly thereafter, the senior President Bush unilaterally grounded our nuclear bombers and removed nuclear weapons from ships; the Soviets responded in kind.

And in the 1990s a stunning synchronicity occurred: The Soviet Union collapsed just as the U.S. H-bomb factory system crashed, its aging plants shut down, then dismantled. The Department of Energy shifted from mass production of nuclear warheads to radioactive site cleanup. During this period, Brookings Institution scholar Stephen I. Schwartz coordinated an audit of U.S. nuclear weapons: The bill for the Bomb, from 1940 through 1996, came to $5.8 trillion -- more than combined federal spending over that time for natural resources, agriculture, general science and space research, energy production and regulation, law enforcement, community development, the environment and disaster relief.

For many, the 1990s gave rise to a hope that our nation might be ready to rethink its covenant with deterrence. But when the U.S. nuclear arsenal became detached from the Soviet threat, the weapons did not vanish like the Evil Empire; they persisted, stripped of their original programming yet still on hair-trigger alert, running off their own genetic code, as it were, no longer needing to take their cue from tensions in the real world. "Some have asked why, in the post-Cold War world, we need to maintain as many as 1,700 to 2,000 operationally deployed warheads," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July 2002. "The end of the Soviet threat does not mean we no longer need nuclear weapons. To the contrary, the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains an important part of our deterrence strategy and helps us to dissuade the emergence of potential or would-be peer competitors by underscoring the futility of trying to reach parity with us."

This quotation opens Paul Shambroom's "Face to Face With the Bomb: Nuclear Reality After the Cold War," a collection of 83 color photographs that exposes our contemporary nuclear arsenal in all its hidden muscle, grit and complexity.

When one approaches the perimeter of any nuclear weapons site, armed guards will neither confirm nor deny the presence of weapons within. Shambroom has made it his mission to confirm, undeniably, the presence of nuclear weapons at 25 bomber, missile, submarine and command center sites he visited over a 10-year period. In his prologue he states: "It was never my intention to change anyone's mind about nuclear weapons. My modest ambition is only to help people believe that they are real, and to help people see through the abstract haze of policy debate and think about them in concrete terms."

Had Shambroom come back with no more than snapshots, the pictures would still hold interest. But his images embody a personal vision informed by an extraordinary eye. He combines dogged research with a subtle dread of what he is beholding, an openness to the improbable and a cool ability to snatch art from the jaws of restricted access. He has organized his color plates into five sections, laying the book out, he has noted, "like a piece of music," in an almost symphonic structure of five movements. The first three movements describe the legs of our nuclear triad. The book opens with a dozen images from the world of nuclear bombers, which sit at the ready like giant stingrays, their underbellies, cockpits and payloads exposed to view. The second section features intercontinental ballistic missiles in all their heavily fortified, splendidly fenced- in glory. The sea-based section contains perhaps the rarest images of all: 16 photographs taken inside and around nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines. The fourth section integrates the previous ones, guiding us through the command, control and communications centers that are the triad's brains and nervous system. In the book's concluding segment, "The Twenty-First Century," Shambroom informs us that "B-52 bombers from the 1960s, Minuteman III missiles from the 1970s, and Trident submarines from the 1980s are scheduled to remain in service until at least 2020. Modernization programs for these delivery systems, as well as command, control, and communications functions, are underway." The two dozen plates in this section contain some of the most pointed and haunting in the series.

Two aspects of Shambroom's photography are especially striking. The first is the photographer's skill at capturing what he encounters. His framing offers viewers concentrations of soldiers, hangars, fences, vaults, locks, alarms -- and, looming beneath the surface, the Bombs -- in compositions whose import even an untutored eye can grasp. Shambroom's visual subtext is not "Ban the Bomb" or "Nuclear weapons are here to stay" but a more contemplative directive: "Behold the stuff."

A second key aspect of Shambroom's work is his way of revealing the infrastructure of deterrence from the inside out. With an eye for electronic entrails, a proclivity for low-angle shots of personnel inside hardware, and a knack for catching people relaxed at their stations while surrounded by weapons, Shambroom captures scenes that make viewers feel on familiar terms with -- and even somewhat comfortable in -- places where no tourist will ever set foot. The front cover photograph says it all: Inside a spacious hangar, a young man with a household broom sweeps the floor of the Barksdale Air Force Base weapons storage area; behind him lie 13 gleaming white 1-megaton bombs, the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal. This, then, is Shambroom's aesthetic: Lull viewers with the homegrown, then stir in the terror. And you'll not get any closer to a day in the life of a weapon-of-mass-destruction delivery vehicle than Shambroom's image of a technician half swallowed by the back end of a Minuteman II rocket, his legs, in camouflage and boots, protruding from between two missile motors like a stalk of celery in a titanic food processor.

In his prologue, Shambroom describes his 10-year obsession with the Bomb, mentioning a tour of a weapons depot during which, in a perfect Shambroom moment, he is served coffee in a mug decorated with a mushroom cloud and the motto "We live so others may die." This mug reminds us that Shambroom's exploration of the Bomb in its natural habitat communicates one implacable fact: We have chosen to define ourselves as a species by our ability to manage thousands of implements of annihilation, and the in-joke on this mug could still end up as the epitaph for the whole human race.

The value of "Face to Face With the Bomb" lies in the wealth of its data, the power and order of its images and the timing of its release. The decade of work that went into it began with the ascendancy of the United States at the end of the Cold War and ended with the world's sole superpower blindsided by 9/11 -- when all nonessential access to the nation's security systems was terminated. Shambroom's book arrives as our country inaugurates a new kind of endless war. We have made nuclear weapons a permanent part of our military strategy in this war. "Face to Face With the Bomb" reminds us where these weapons came from, what they look like now and where they are headed. It is a reference work we might want to keep on hand, for what we view in its pages is not about to be phased out. And in this age of security restrictions, it's a safe bet that what Paul Shambroom has shown us will not be revealed again anytime soon.


Credit: Robert Del Tredici, author of "At Work in the Fields of the Bomb" and founder of the Atomic Photographers Guild, is a documentary photographer specializing in nuclear weapons.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.