September 7, 2003

BOOKS IN BRIEF: NONFICTION; At Home With the Bombs

By D. J. R. BRUCKNER

What is scandalous about the American nuclear arsenal is that the weapons are so elegant. There is a demoralizing beauty to the bombs made to kill millions in a flash, the rockets, airplanes, cruise missiles and submarines that deliver them, and the galaxies of technology that keep all this stuff menacingly alert. But for 50 years the $5 trillion machine -- the emblem of this nation in the imagination of the whole world, our Versailles, our St. Peter's -- was unseen by almost everyone but its operators. Between 1992 and 2001, Paul Shambroom, a photographer with no connections in the defense network, talked his way into 25 weapons and command sites across the continent. In FACE TO FACE WITH THE BOMB: Nuclear Reality After the Cold War (Johns Hopkins University, $34.95), 83 of his color images make the weapons as familiar as home appliances or toys. An airman sweeps up under 12 bombs that together contain six times the explosive power of all the munitions used in World War II. A mechanic worms himself into a missile's propulsion system. Some servicemen wrestle warheads onto mounts; others, men and women, squeezing what look like video game sticks, mind herds of missiles, each nesting many bombs. Minutemen missiles in silos gleam like metal sculptures; a giant CAT scan tube embraces one, probing its innards. It seems incredible that Shambroom was allowed to photograph these things, especially the warheads. The experience obviously terrified him, but his narrative and his endnotes about each picture testify that he has kept his wits and sharp sense of humor. D. J. R. Bruckner