Boston Globe June 22, 2003

America's open nuclear secrets

By Luc Sante

WHAT DO- WEAPONS of mass destruction look like? Until Paul Shambroom published the remarkable photographs gathered in his new book "Face to Face with the Bomb: Nuclear Reality after the Cold War" (Johns Hopkins), those of us not personally connected with their manufacture, storage, and maintenance could only speculate on the basis of such antique models as "Fat Man" and "Little Boy;' the bombs that eradicated Hiroshima in 1945. By happenstance or by design, those were made to look like bulbous cartoon bombs, so nearly jolly they could briefly deflect the mind from their purpose and application. Everything more recent was contained somewhere in the depths of vast and remote military bases, protected not only by main force but by taboo; bombs and missiles were the Ark of the Covenant, liable to strike you dead just for looking at them.

By his own account, all Shambroom had to do to get access to bombs, ICBMs, and nuclear submarines was to give his Social Security number and state that he was an American citizen, and then engage in endless negotiations concerning each and every site. His task was not easy, but neither was it impossible. From 1992 to 2001, he visited 34 active weapons sites from Georgia to Wyoming to the South Pacific. What he found, most strikingly, was "the sound, sight, and smell of money being spent-lots of money." To look at any of these pictures involves almost subliminal calculations, as you look at the array of widgets in some control room or other and tell yourself that each component probably accounts for the better part of your income taxes for the year, and then multiply exponentially.

Banality is naturally an important theme of these pictures, if only because the uncomprehending lay eye, when confronted with inexplicable technology, naturally gravitates toward things it can understand: the airplane seat, apparently complete with seat belt, in the launch control room of the missile silo; the biker magazines and word-search books among the effects of the submarine crew; the military-themed stained-glass window in the chapel at the Air Force base; the leisurewear sported by the personnel attending to an interceptor missile on a Pacific atoll; the soldier using an ordinary straw broom to sweep up around the one-megaton nuclear bombs in a hangar in Louisiana. You can't help but be taken aback slightly, as if you expected weapons to be maintained by shaven-headed priests or metallic-skinned androids.

In truth, military style these days is much like corporate style, only more so, which is to say that everything is big and shiny and antiseptically clean, and does not invite further attention. The missile launch control looks like some behind-the-scenes aspect of a hospital; the missile itself is housed in a blank, brightly lit space that brings to mind a freight elevator in an art museum. Meanwhile, the nuclear bombs look pretty much as you'd expect: 10- or 12-foot-Iong white cylinders with conical, nozzle-ended noses and little winglets at the rear. They look like agents of mass death, but they also look like some part of the underground filtration system of an Olympic-size swimming pool. You're not supposed to wonder.

Incongruously, the personnel engaged in tasks involving or around the bombs are often garbed in camouflage gear, where lab coats would seem more appropriate. Actually, the most jarring things in these photographs are the periodic reminders that what you are looking at bears some relation to violence, to the long history of.combat using blunt or edged weapons. Irrespective of the fact that wars, including American wars, still take place at least in part on the ground, the boots and rigs and lingo seem like an affectation, like atavistic survivals in the stainless-steel corridors of power. And perhaps such trappings will remain long into an increasingly businesslike future, if only to give tangible analogues to murderous rage.


Luc Sante is the author of "Low Life," "Evidence," and "The Factory of Facts."