12-1: Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals

Written in somewhat dated feminist prose, Carol Cohn’s “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” points out the seeming impermeability of the discursive boundary between the expert discussions of “defense intellectuals” – scholars who essentially study deterrence, “mov[ing] in and out of government, working sometimes as administrative officials or consultants, sometimes at universities and think tanks” (1987:687-688) – and the non-expert language used by the general public. Her research consisted of about a year of participant observation among researchers working at a university center on defense technology and arms control, where she attended lectures and meetings and conducted interviews. During her time at “the Center,” Cohn found herself becoming more and more at ease with the ways of talk which surrounded her, finding that in order to be taken seriously within the defense community, she needed to be able to communicate in the terms of her interlocutors, which she refers to as “technostrategic” language.

As a feminist scholar writing at the end of the what is called the “second wave,” Cohn pays special attention to the gender dynamics which become manifest in the speech her interlocutors use to conduct their work. Through gender, she is able to elucidate significant features of the discourse which constitutes the world in which these defense intellectuals operate, exploring such themes as rationality, power, and domination. Ultimately, she identifies an alarming disconnect between defense intellectuals’ rational discussions concerning stable deterrence (which requires equal weapons capabilities) and the physical realities which would result from the actual use of these weapons. As she notes, technostrategic language is “abstract, sanitized, full of euphemisms…sexy and fun to use” and the imagery it evokes “domesticates and deflates the forces of mass destruction…revers[ing] sentient and nonsentient matter” (715). Most importantly, with this last point, she argues that the key subject in deterrence theory – the entity which must be protected for the strategic calculations to work out – is the weapons; it is all about the second-strike capability.

While I found Cohn’s preoccupation with sexual imagery and man/woman-inspired binaries rather exhausting, I think her point about the divergent discursive modes between defense intellectuals and non-experts to be extremely compelling. According to a 2012 FAS report authored by Hans M. Kristensen, nuclear arms reductions rates have slowed in recent years on both the American and Russian fronts, and getting anywhere near “global zero” has proven to be a real challenge, with proliferation in North Korea and Iran becoming salient threats along the way. While this is of course the result of an innumerable set of social, political, technological, and historical contingencies, I would argue that “thinking the unthinkable” in such a way as to rationalize the possession of nuclear weapons requires moving into this weapons-centered discursive domain. For example, the “exchange” calculations which inform much current U.S. deterrence policy do not take into account the human infrastructure required to operate the weapons systems, which as Bruce Blair pointed out this past week are not designed technically or organizationally to withstand a first strike, possessing instead a quick response capability. It almost seems as though these calculations are performed in a vacuum, without reference to human agency or action, and I would agree with Cohn that this is troubling indeed.

However, I would have to say that the bases upon which she attempts to challenge the rationality of defense intellectuals’ discourse – viz. classic second-wave feminist tropes such as “phallic worship” (692), “homoerotic excitement, heterosexual domination, the drive toward competency and mastery, the pleasures of membership in an elite and privileged group” (717) – are not compelling to the same degree. The emotional valences of language in almost any capacity are undeniable, so in my opinion Cohn’s rather dated interpretations of defense discourse’s irrational undertones could almost be taken for granted (once again, this was 1987 when the article was published). I wonder if anyone has any suggestions as to what might be more compelling bases on which to challenge the sanitized discourse in which nuclear strategy is made manifest.

In sum, the question is whether human considerations – those terribly non-rational elements such as compassion – can be brought to bear on nuclear weapons discourse in a meaningful way. The fact is that, in terms of discourse, strategy is so radically disconnected from humanity that we must work at effectively bringing these spheres into conversation with one another if we are truly serious about nuclear disarmament. Clearly, language is far from the only concern, but as Cohn argues (and I would agree), it would a significant first step toward moving in that direction. I thought that the first several weeks of class in which we studied in detail the effects of nuclear weapons provided an important perspective on the human suffering involved in executing a nuclear attack, and perhaps periodic reminders of the harsh scenarios we pondered might help policymakers keep a level head about our nuclear weapons program. With that in mind, does anyone have any other thoughts as to how this discursive rift might be eradicated? — Emma