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

6 thoughts on “12-1: Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals

  1. Emma, I agree with you almost completely about Cohn’s piece. Like you, I found the feminist critique a little outdated and extreme. You ask whether there are more “compelling” ways to challenge the sensitized discourse we use surrounding nuclear weapons, but I think you (and Cohn) already point it out: the biggest problem with the “sexy” jargon we use isn’t at all about masculinity, and phallic or homoerotic worship–it’s about the fact that this language seems to prevent us from being respectful and showing compassion to those of our own species. I don’t think changing language is simply a first step because I think that changing the language *would* fundamentally alter the way we perceive nuclear weapons and technology. You even use the example of the content from the first few weeks of this class– our focus on the detailed effects of nuclear weapons certainly did tell us about the numbers of human casualties and the large-scale impact that a nuclear attack could have. But those were only numbers. What did those number mean? And why were those numbers so important? And was it just about death, or about the infliction of human suffering and pain? Aside from the documentary “White Light, Black Rain,” there seemed to be little discussion about the moral element of this technology. In many of the other non-science classes I’ve taken, most of the discussions have focused entirely on the “moral dimension” to nuclear weapons; but is there some sort of responsibility to include that sort of dimension in science-related classes as well, especially as we prepare scientists and future “defense intellectuals” to deal with the policy implications of nuclear technology?

  2. Cohen makes an interesting point about the effect of language on the outcomes of discussion. Discussions focus on second-strike capabilities, which depends on the existence of weapons. Deterrence hinges on the protection of these weapons, which then conflicts with any real progress towards “global zero.”
    I agree that Cohen’s analysis of language through the lense of feminism was extreme. She took a few examples too far such as pondering whether a “deflowered” state was worth anything to nuclear power. Once a state gains nuclear power, it is often a greater concern on the global scene.

  3. It seems, as Mr Blair pointed out last week, that there exists a divide between the academic discussion of the issue (which we have based much of our discussions in class on) and the actual military application. Though, in recent times, the latter has found its logical roots in the former. That is, our military strategy for deterrence and dissuasion is based on the sanitized, academic scholarship on ‘stability.’ I agree with Emma, though, that imposing the feminist lexical framework onto this nuclear weapons deterrence is, perhaps, less than ideal. By radicalizing the subject, Cohn does the same thing which she wishes to avoid: divorces the reality of the situation by imposing a purely theoretical framework. Instead, perhaps, we ought to frame the situation in terms of impacts. Lives lost per weapon. Destruction of the earth over and over again. And, by using the probability of accidental or suboptimal (that is, really any) use of weapons by the growing number of armed states in conjunction with the known impacts of the weapons as a starting place for an analysis on stability and deterrence, perhaps we can start to frame the debate in terms of the frightening realities that exist.

  4. In an ideal world, both strategy and human considerations would be equally present in nuclear weapons discourse. But strategists are not paid to measure suffering, and while it may seem immoral, their job is to protect the nation’s security first while minimizing human costs. The way I see it, the most important step now is not to try to force compassion into the strategic discussions, but to tackle the issue at from a strategic perspective by reexamining our threshold for deterrence. As Bruce Blair pointed out, the conservative threshold for deterrence required the second strike capability of eliminating 25% of a nation’s population, or 40% of its industrial capability. But in reality, how many major cities would a nation actually be OK with losing? Would the US even risk losing NYC? Would Russia lose Moscow? It seems to me that the conservative estimate for deterrence is absurd. It only takes the threat of losing a few major cities to deter a nation from engaging in a first strike. Therefore if this reexamination of deterrence were brought to the nuclear weapons strategy discussion, we might be convinced first by the ridiculous surplus of deterrence that we currently hold with our thousands of nuclear weapons, which would consequently reduce the size of our arsenal and improve “human suffering” considerations.

  5. I think that one of the key points in this discussion about attempting to connect humanity with strategy is something that we have already examined in the very first week of class. Way back then, we read Yudkowsky’s article about the cognitive biases involved in human judgement and in it, Yudkowsky talked about scope insensitivity or the inability of humans to easily grasp amount beyond that which they had already experienced. Yudkowsky talked about how while it is easy for human emotions to understand grief of the loss of one life, it becomes nearly impossible to understand what it is like when thousands or hundreds of thousands die. In this case, I think a lot of the rhetoric that is used in the conversation about nuclear weapons is only used because of this inability to accurately grasp the scope of these strategic decisions. Additionally, based on the writings of Yudkowsky, it seems that even if the rhetoric was more clear and descriptive, it still might not be enough for us to truly understand the implications of the strategy that is being created.

  6. I am a firm believer in divorcing the human aspect from our discussions regarding nuclear weapons discourse in the academic setting. I agree with jsh that the academic discussion is highly intertwined with the military application, but I believe that we draw our discussion in the academic setting from the military application rather than the other way around. We operate in the classroom by simulating situations where we face the same decisions that those in the military do and decide how to act rationally based on the circumstances we encounter. Since the military approach is one that must divorce from the human aspect in order to operate in the most mathematical and logical manner, then we must aim to mimic that approach, and hence separate our human considerations from our logical decision making. Admittedly, this often results in an uncomfortable answer to a problem set question that says “this bomb will kill 60000” without thinking about what such an answer actually means. And while I wouldn’t put it as harshly as saying that it is not the strategist’s job to measure suffering, I would agree with the sentiment. Ultimately, we do not need to purposefully ignore the human aspect, but we need to remember that it is secondary to the mathematical aspect. By relying on emotions, we move our decision making tendencies toward absolutes, much as jsh explained that the use of “destructive language” over and over again will move us to the thought that the use of any weapon is wrong. In a unilateral world that may be true, but in a bilateral game where we must consider that our opponents do not operate in absolutes we cannot afford to do so ourselves.

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