From the Editor: Hidden Things

By Ray Waddle

Paul Shambroom already had experience photographing the hidden places of American power – corporate offices, police stations, factories – when he took on a new challenge, the nuclear arsenal.

He knew it would be no easy thing getting photo access to air force bases, nuclear submarines and missile silos – the strategic triad of U.S. nuclear-arms readiness. In fact it took years of polite requests and patience with the mysteries of military procedure – with visits to 25 weapon and command sites – in order to produce his visual chronicle.

His timing was good: it was the 1990s, a period of relaxed nuclear secrecy between the end of the Cold War and the morning of September 11, 2001.

“I wanted to take ordinary photos of extraordinary things,” he says. His intention was neither to criticize nor glorify but to help citizens see “beyond the abstract haze of policy debate” and register the actual existence and potency of our nuclear stockpile, which still flourishes two decades after the collapse of the Soviet union.

“Over the course of ten years I learned a great deal and was forced to re-evaluate some previously held notions,” he writes. “But my basic convictions about the monumental folly of nuclear arms were strengthened and confirmed.”

He persisted with his project for personal reasons too. Born during the Cold War, Shambroom has been preoccupied with the bomb since childhood. He feels a living connection. His life was perhaps made possible by the atomic bombs against Japan, since they made a U.S. invasion unnecessary. His father, serving in the Navy, would have been part of the invasion wave, but Japan surrendered shortly after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, possibly sparing his life.

So Shambroom ponders the paradoxes of nuclear weapons – their heinous capacity to destroy civilization, yet their power in the Cold War to deter another global war.

Another paradox: their domination of contemporary times, yet their hiddenness. They are quietly nestled in underground complexes, packed aboard sky-high aircraft, and poised inside deep-sea submarines. That hiddenness is demystified by Shambroom’s remarkable collection of photos in Face to Face with the Bomb: Nuclear Reality after the Cold War (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); some of them are featured in this Reflections. They give a rare glimpse of the fearsome hardware that embodies what we blandly call the nuclear age.

Nuclear weapons are hidden elsewhere too – in our psyches. As Shambroom puts it, they take up emotional space, much of it unnamed, unsaid. For more than half a century, we have struggled to find the right response to their destructive scale, their mystique, their mythic size. With the first atomic test blasts in the American desert, Bulfinch’s Mythology was eclipsed. Prometheus gave way to all-too-real conjurers of fire. No wonder the arsenal’s components brandish names like Titan, Nike, Trident, and Poseidon, as if their human designers were registering a world-metaphysical shift, and our god-like powers were now official.

They haunt the spiritual imagination as well. It is no stretch to argue that the sudden claims of UFOs after 1945, and the post-war surges in end-time Biblical prophecy, were giddy responses to the new, inescapable nuclear fact – anxious exit strategies, emotional rescue plans to escape earth and its looming nuclear holocaust.

Otherwise, an aura of helplessness settled on society, its citizens and churchgoers. Nuclear politics seemed too technical to discuss, too burdensome. The customary American spirit of problem-solving – resilient discussion, pragmatic action, and vigorous skepticism about government aims – so often failed to surface. We turned debate over to the nuclear experts, who spun strategies and spent money – $5 trillion since 1945 – with few questions asked.

At the height of the Cold War arms race, as Richard Rhodes reminds us in his introduction to Shambroom’s book, the world’s stockpile of nuclear firepower equaled two tons of TNT for every person on earth. No rational strategy can justify such overkill. It flowed from all-too-human impulses, Rhodes notes – economic pressures, intramural military competition, sheer hubris. Public outrage seldom broke the government monopoly on nuclear thinking.

The writers and activists contributing to this Reflections insist the debate cannot be left to the experts, the politicians, or the silence of inertia. Writers here speak for and from moral perspectives that must be brought to bear if humanity will summon the courage and imagination to shape a future free of nuclear fears, a destiny free of nuclear weapons.

For American Christians this means joining voices that question publicly and repeatedly the perpetual motion machine of nuclear arms upgrades and spending. It means sorting through deeply conflicted feelings about nationalism and peacemaking. It means facing our ambivalence about international courts and cooperation, those essential protocols for controlling the world’s nuclear stockpiles and keeping them out of dangerous hands.

Only by overcoming the hidden power of nuclear arms – their mystique, their false guarantees of national security and pride – will we move closer to a braver new world, a world someday, somehow rid of nuclear weapons.