Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals

Cohn’s article on the technostrategic language of nuclear deterrence apologists is definitely one of the most intriguing articles I have read on the subject. Cohn criticizes the defense analysts that she worked with at “the Center” as being just as irrational and unrealistic as the “idealistic activists” that they are so opposed to. The very language that these defense analysts use shows “currents of homoerotic excitement, heterosexual domination, the drive toward competency and mastery, the pleasures of membership in an elite and privileged group, the ultimate importance and meaning of membership in the priesthood, and the thrilling power of becoming Death, shatterer of worlds” (717).

More compelling than Cohn’s descriptions of the content and nature of this technostrategic language, however, is her denouncement of the complete unreliability of the “abstract conceptual system” that is created by the use of this type of language (709). Cohn argues that “limited nuclear war” can only exist in an abstract system where we assume completely rational actors uninfluenced by emotions, political pressures, madness or despair. Saying that “the aggressor ends up worse off than the aggressed” can only be understood in a world where people are more concerned with the possession of nuclear weapons than the destruction and mass murder of entire cities of people. Neither one of the previous situations, however, accurately describes the global political and social structures that exist today.

But does this mean that there is no merit to nuclear deterrence theory at all? Nichols’s account of nuclear strategy during the Cold War shifted from a strategy of “Massive Retaliation” to struggling to determine extended deterrence to finally settling in to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). There seems to be something inherently irrational about trying to calculate limited nuclear war using mathematical models not based in reality, but what about deterrence theory and MAD? Even the political leader facing inordinate amounts of domestic pressure to start a nuclear war would hesitate to do so if he or she knew that both sides would do “unavoidable and permanent damage” to each other (27). Is there a certain lower limit above which deterrence theory’s abstract models make sense and below which they don’t?

And if the mathematical models inherent to technostrategic language are inapplicable, are there any other practical ways to speak about deterrence theory and nuclear warfare? Given that scientists speak in technostrategic languages, do we want to involve academics and professionals from less mathematically strict disciplines to refocus the reference point on damage done to human lives rather than damage done to weapons? — Jessica

11 thoughts on “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals

  1. I really enjoyed this article. I wonder how, if at all, the field has changed since this text was published in 1987. Are there more people of color and women in the field? If so do they find themselves facing the same realities as Cohn and do they also begin to adopt the language and ideals of the dominant group? Based on this article I would say that most people, whether they are technostrategics, academics, or professionals, would feel compelled to adopt the language associated with the feel and its associated thoughts and view of the world. According to the article, at least, “no matter how well-informed or complex [Cohn’s] questions were, if [she] spoke English rather than expert jargon, the [mostly white] men responded to [her] as though [she] were ignorant, simpleminded or both.” I would imagine the field would remain the same if it was created with the ideals and aspirations of a specific group in mind.

    I also found it interesting that Cohn seemed to have lost herself as she adopted the language of the technostrategics. For example, Cohn says of herself:

    “The better I got at engaging in this discourse, the more impossible it became for me to express my own ideas, my own values. I could adopt the language and gain a wealth of new concepts and reasoning strategies–but at the same time as the language gave me access to things I had been unable to speak about before, it radically excluded others. I could not use the language to express my concerns because it was physically impossible. The language does not allow certain questions to be asked or certain values to be expressed.”

    I think this statement also reveals how, at least during the 1980s, resistant that community was to change but also the impact it could have on “outsiders.”

    In response to your question concerning mathematical models I don’t think these models will be completely applicable unless they can be broken down so that most members (and ideally all members) of the general public could understand them. I’m not sure this is possible since it seems that many of these models (at least during the 1980s) are based on abstracts rather than grounded in reality. A possible solution may be to make sure members of this community have experience in more practical, reality-based disciplines or even more contact with people who are not a part of their community. They should have conversations with academics, lay people, professionals and vice versa so that both communities can better understand each other.

  2. Cohn’s article on the pitfalls of technostrategic discourse is almost Wittgensteinian in its discussion of language and its ability to capture reality and abstraction. Cohn says that “the problem … is not only that defense intellectuals use abstract terminology that removes them from the realities of which they speak. There is no reality of which they speak. Or, rather, the ‘reality’ of which they speak is itself a world of abstractions” (709). It seems that, for Cohn, language can only describe well what we understand of reality (in that words were themselves created to describe pieces of reality we see, feel, and understand), and the intricacies of a nuclear disaster are so far removed from our current reality that the language we currently use to describe it feels impotent and detached. From a philosophical standpoint, there are two levels of abstraction here: 1) the inherent abstraction of words themselves from things, and 2) the second-order abstraction of words from abstract things. Abstraction on abstraction. Cohn further concludes that the finer points of “technostrategic discourse” are essentially inarguable, all part and parcel of the same mumbo-jumbo, because “to out-reason defense intellectuals in their own games gets you thinking inside their rules, tacitly accepting all the unspoken assumptions of their paradigms. You become subject to the tyranny of concepts.” (714).

    However, in focusing so much on the perhaps insurmountable distance between language and “reality” (let’s call it “early Wittgenstein,” as argued in Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus), Cohn unduly limits language to the purpose of Definition, rather than Use (let’s call this “late Wittgenstein,” as argued in Philosophical Investigations, who as luck would have it disagreed very much with early Wittgenstein) (citation: see the discussion of early and late Wittgenstein and meaning as Use found at Cohn asserts that “the language itself” doesn’t “actually articulat[e] the criteria and reasoning strategies upon which nuclear weapons development and deployment decisions are made” (716)—essentially, that the language fails to carry out its capacity for Definition. However, her well-founded criticism of hyper-masculine language in technostrategic discourse often lapses into unwarranted criticism of rational-actor models. In so vociferously arguing against the callous, reductive, “decontextualized rationality” of deterrence models (717), Cohn seems to either misunderstand or mistrust why experts use mathematical models in general—to break down the unknowable catastrophes of the future into components we understand and can make preparations for at present. Yes, “limited nuclear war” is an “abstract conceptual system” (709), and, short of serious nuclear escalation, it will continue to appear so for the foreseeable future; we use models because they are helpful in analyzing the impact of a disaster scenario we haven’t encountered before, fully aware (hopefully) that models by their very nature miss out on the many chaotic and immeasurable complexities of human behavior in “reality.” Cohn’s claim that technostrategic discourse is not “informing and shaping decisions,” but only legitimizing political outcomes behind an “ideological curtain” (716), seems a bit grandiose. To be sure, the language of nuclear defense models is infected with crude and unnecessary strains of “militarized masculinity” (717), of which it ought to be cleansed; but, these pathologies aside, the “rationally-based” language of these models does have a purpose outside mere Definition, a normative one grounded in why exactly we Use it—to articulate, analyze, and anticipate potential futures. Like a model, language itself will always fail to define perfectly what it tries to describe, especially when its object is an uncertain eventuality. Yes, the way forward is in part a “deconstructive project” (717), in which we might rid deterrence discourse of its boyish obsessions with domination and mastery. But Cohn’s dreamy proposal of reconstruction, in which we might “creat[e] compelling alternative visions of possible futures … a task of creating rich and imaginative alternative voices—diverse voices whose conversations with each other will invent those futures” (718) is romantic and vague. Let’s get rid of the nonsense, not the models.

  3. I found the Cohn reading extremely interesting and valuable in terms of the unique perspective it offered on the way we consider and speak of nuclear weapons. While Cohn focused largely on the effect of a homogenous population on the ideas that were entertained; e.g. the general mindset or mentality was largely due to the fact that all of people were “White men with ties”. While this may or may not be true, instead I find that her analysis is much more useful in her testimony of how much groupthink is present, especially in her discussion of the language portion. I think that unfortunately there is a tendency especially in large bodies concerned with national security concerns for dissenting opinions to be shamed. Many allude to the presence of groupthink in national security discussions of the Cold War as well, eg, the idea of protesting against the ideology of containment of the Soviet Union became largely unheard of. While I do think that promoting a wider array of diverse perspectives may aid in decreasing the overall pressure to conform, I actually wonder if there is an inherent trend pressure to conform when the matter you are discussing is of importance to national security—it is very difficult systemically to present a contrary opinion when being wrong could mean disaster.

  4. As a whole, the points brought up in the Cohn reading were quite interesting. However, I had some nagging doubts and questions as to the practical side of things, and what would transpire in actuality versus the theoretical models put forward by defense-minded people.

    While not necessarily a literal example, the reference that continued popping up in my mind came from the movie “Wargames” where someone has the go-ahead to launch an ICBM, but can’t bring himself to accept that war is actually happening, and doesn’t go ahead with it. The glitch ends up being a bug in the code or something convenient like that, and the crisis was averted. However, all the information the guy who decided not to launch the missile was receiving indicated all good, launch. My point is that any human links still included in the chain are susceptible to “failure”, or at least in the sense of not participating in the intended chain reaction of response. While this is the first problem, and a fairly serious one, the underlying problem seems more pertinent to me.

    The inability of the military member to believe that it was actually happening, and that this was indeed not a dry run or an error of some kind. Perhaps I am naive and should realize that our military is more hardened to the cold facts of nuclear war, but I can’t personally begin to conceptualize nuclear war, much less being an active part of it. My main concern is that when the real deal would come, at least some confusion and indecision would come about, and overall launch or response would be delayed or compromised in some way. Perhaps it’s not as big of a deal as I think, but any human element that is included just seems to have the potential to malfunction due to the sheer terror that comes with being part of the reason why the world would be plunged into nuclear war.

  5. In answer to Jessica’s first question, I would argue that the merits of deterrence theory still apply because you still need some way to think about deterrence–while the world is no longer bipolar, it still calls for a way to manage the politics surrounding the large numbers of nuclear weapons in existence today. However, Nichols points out that deterrence is a much fuzzier concept in practice than in theory–too many different scenarios exist, and you don’t know where to draw the lines. Add in non-state/non-rational actors, and the situation gets even fuzzier. This suggests that mathematical models have limited applicability, but not necessarily that they can’t serve as one form of guide for complex situations.

    However, in the situation of MAD, one can argue that math would not be applicable, as both sides would already be losing more life and resources than they would ever have been willing to accept. The question, then, is whether any nuclear war can stay “limited” instead of degenerating into total destruction of both sides: if staying “limited” is impossible to begin with, then the applicability of mathematical models is weakened even more.

    Cohn criticizes the language of defense intellectuals for distancing the speaker and listener from the realities of nuclear destruction, and calls for dispensing with this type of language (e.g. discussing “mass murder” instead of “collateral damage”). However, I would argue that this type of language is necessary because it distances you from the realities–which, while sickening, needs to happen in order to discuss ways to deal with an enemy who may be willing to nuke you.

    When working with an international system at the level of complexity that it has been all through the Cold War and post-Cold War era, there is no way to do the type of problem-solving and analysis that is required while at the same time forcing yourself to be affected by imagining the catastrophic amounts of damage that would result–it will affect your ability to carry out a soundly reasoned analysis of a nuclear deterrence issue; you will become desensitized to such language and imagery after a while; and there’s no way to comprehend such levels of damage anyway. Moreover, you still need a language that’s centered around the weapons rather than the people affected by them in order to discuss retention of your missiles if you were to sustain a nuclear attack.

    The issue with this, from Cohn’s perspective, is that it causes you to think casually about the human costs of using nuclear weapons: the biggest issues are the things you cannot talk about using that type of language, the preservation of populations, or the achievement of true peace rather than Cold Wars and arms races. Is it impossible to rectify this by simply creating a new way to discuss nuclear destruction in a way that focuses on human costs? If not impossible, what would be needed in order to accomplish this?

  6. This article was interesting to me for reasons somewhat different, perhaps, than Andrew or de Vann. While my first thought was also somewhat on the order of Wittgenstein, on a more basic level it is most notable to me that what Cohn is actually embarking on is a project of translation: not from “technostrategic” discourse to plain English, but from “technostrategic” discourse to the feminist discourse of the late 1980s. As she critiques “white men with ties” for dealing primarily with linguistic abstractions, it is clear from her own words that she has a goal in mind from the outset (“I think I had naively imagined myself as a feminist spy in the house of death…” p. 693), and that her world is already broken down into a different set of abstractions which may, I daresay, carry with them their own implicit worldview – equally useful for the applications for which they were intended, and equally flawed when tested by the metrics of different schools. It is almost as if complex problems are most easily and usefully dealt with in abstractions which serve as a sort of intellectual shorthand for much messier ideas. Who knew? While much of her feminist critique is quite good for what it is – primarily a very well-done literary analysis of a perceived masculine thought process which would be very much at home in my own department of English, I would question what the true purpose of this article is other than to fit the area of nuclear strategy into a pre-existing feminist framework; to reframe the masculine as feminine and presumably gain greater insight into its nature by comparing the results. In brief: is this article anything but a provocative think-piece?

  7. I found the Cohn article to be extremely interesting because it highlighted the human cost of nuclear warfare that is often lost in mathematical and military modeling. She writes of strategy, “The aggressor thus ends up worse than the aggressed because he has fewer weapons left; human factors are irrelevant to the calculus of gain and loss” (711). I agree that this technostrategic language leaves out leaves out important humanistic elements. A more complete idea of nuclear strategy may include field research on the physical and psychological effects of nuclear warfare on nearby populations. Perhaps the legislators and scientists would be more hesitant to discuss using weapons of mass destruction if the aftermath of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were more widely studied. This is a major fault in what Cohn refers to as the “white male” perspective. The language she describes is reminiscent of an almost video game scenario, not unlike our disease modeling game, in which scientists can derive pride and prestige from developing increasing more lethal weapons.

    At the same time, I think that nuclear deterrence theory is still a relevant framework in international arms strategy. It is one vantage point that can help explain the behavior of potentially hostile militants in possession of nuclear weapons. This is where the softer and more empathetic approach to nuclear war may fail. For this reason, nuclear deterrence theory must still be considered as one perspective. However, like all theories, it only represents one piece of the multifaceted puzzle.

  8. In response at least to Nathan, and partially to Jessica, and maybe even a little bit to De Vann: Cohn’s language overflows with sinuous style that self-consciously counteracts the nukespeak she critiques. And perhaps, in setting up her own defensive barrage of distractingly “pretty” words, she appropriates her enemies’ method of linguistic fleecing to hide an ulterior motive (but if her fleece is lighthearted, cuddly, and decidedly feminine, her opponents hide real meaning behind a masculine vocabulary – tougher and yet, vaguely, more insecure). To be sure, her piece remains cocooned in the Cold War mysteries of bureaucratic men ferried from one government agency to another, transporting in their brilliant minds to keys to a future that never might be. But the issue she addresses has a broader relevance than to the psychologists’ journal in which it was published.

    Her two key points continue to be valid questions no matter how the demographic makeup of nuclear-scientific communities has evolved in the past 30 years, and indeed, I doubt it dramatically has, from the names of collaborators on the articles that we read for this class. First, the policy implications for a military tool so intimately meshed with a country’s manhood, and the political repercussions of such an association, demand serious consideration. A nuke, long conceived of as a man’s man, a patriarch, emerging from his domestic silo to go set other peoples straight highlights the need for a healthy, more theory-based debate on what our role in the world should be, and to what extent we should allow momentary vindication to alter the fate of the world. Secondly, and more controversially, Cohn gets to the very essence of her topic by wondering if deterrence theory is a topic so deeply scientific that it is worth burying in the world of sexy metaphors and exciting symbolism. This topic, even more so in our time than in hers, is one less on the immediate horizon and more a factor among others in policymaking. The mythical West and East are no longer at nuclear loggerheads, flexing their muscles at an imaginary border. The years have softened our edges, at least cosmetically, and now the public, though aware of nuclear bombs as objects and threats, does not much consider their soft power play. The nuclear deterrence conversation needs to enter the public conscience, so that manifestations and internet protests can take that aspect into account – or prove sufficiently frightened that they bristle at the nuclear program as a whole. It is worth demystifying terms so that laypeople takes deterrence theory into the same account as they do policies and military capacities. Bomb personnel would of course continue the use acronyms and whatever other efficiency measures: if they were to be called upon, they would be operators charged with a single task, and they should use whatever linguistic tools that focus requires. But in general, nuclear deterrence theory deserves a vocabulary open to everyone who could be affected by it, which to say, everyone.

  9. I think Cohn’s article, thanks to her [late-80s feminist] take on the underlying rationale/themes in technostrategic discourse, is perhaps one of the most surprising pieces I’ve read in this or any class. It (or the vast majority of it) is not at all of the nature or voice one would expect in a discussion of nuclear deterrence. And of course, that’s exactly the point she’s making. We’ve become attuned to this particular space being occupied by nearly-black-and-white, matter-of-fact statements. In this intersection of technology and strategy, there has traditionally been no room for emotional valence. If we are to believe that Cohn had an accurate read on her time, it was true in 1987, and it seems largely true now. When we think of deterrence, we think first of the “game” that we want to not-lose (I mean, does anyone truly “win” in the nuclear war scenario?). And then we think of the human elements (if not immediately after, I would hope eventually). Practical first; emotional second. I assume this is where the usual saying about not letting your feelings get in the way of your goals comes into play.

    There are two interesting ideas that have been raised about this reading that I think are worth addressing. Jessica raised the first in her initial post: “Given that scientists speak in technostrategic languages, do we want to involve academics and professionals from less mathematically strict disciplines to refocus the reference point on damage done to human lives rather than damage done to weapons?”

    For me, the answer is very clearly, yes. I would even take it one step further, and say that we need to involve, and make the discussion of these matters accessible to, the layperson. This is not to suggest that we should let any old Tom, Dick or Harry (or Tina, Diana, or Harriet, if we’re giving Cohn’s article the weight it deserves) redirect our nuclear strategy or weigh in heavily on related policy. But I think it’s important to keep these things at a human level since laypeople on both sides are impacted by the discussions that are had and the decisions that are made. In this day and age, with so much emphasis placed on fair treatment of humanity, it would be irresponsible (and almost hypocritical) to completely bypass talk of human impact when addressing nuclear warfare.

    In the process of complaining about the dispassion of the language that characterizes this field, Cohn notes several valid reasons for why it exists in the form it does: the “sexy” acronyms roll off the tongue and ease the flow conversation on the topic, the distance from reality makes debating the merits of different approaches possible & it makes the “unthinkable” suddenly palatable. For this reason, I think the focus should not be on deconstructing technostrategic language as it stands or attempting to replace it, but rather on constructing some sort of parallel language – one in which we can capture the nuances and emotional weight of nuclear warfare/deterrence as fluidly and efficiently as the subjects of Cohn’s observations do with their jargon of choice. Perhaps we’re already closer to having such a language than Cohn’s contemporaries were in 1987.

    This ties nicely into the second topic raised here that ought to be briefly addressed: as posed by Nathan, “is this article anything but a provocative think-piece?” Here, too, the answer for me is yes, though less definitively so. Cohn definitely seeks to be provocative: the not-particularly-subtle title of the article is just the beginning. At several points in her analysis of the “currents of homoerotic excitement, heterosexual domination,… and the thrilling power of becoming Death, shatterer of worlds” (717), I found myself thinking “Wow, she is really going for it.” I’m sure if she looked hard enough, she could probably find signs of such currents in a lot of fields. That said, I think all the early provocative themes were less important than her later thoughts, which are very valid. Simply put, she argues that it’s easy to get lost in the technicality of things and forget about how they affect real people and the world in which we live. Since we’ve recognized how quickly this happens, we should try and recalibrate our “militarized” thoughts, she says. Re-establishing this link between the language and the “reality” it describes is important. After all, the value of models depends a lot on how they can be translated into the real world. The internal validity of a language and a field means little when it fails to maintain connections to the world outside of it. That, I think, is Cohn’s main point. Admittedly, it’s very easy for that to be overshadowed with all the talk of hypermasculinity of technostrategic language and why male scientists really care about having the biggest missile.

  10. Ultimately I think that Cohn’s critique (which, like other commenters, I found the most fascinating of this week’s readings) is a limited form of a more general criticism of the idea of “technocracy.”

    For the purpose of discussion, technocracy is government by a group of highly technically trained elites, chosen via technical competence. The men in Cohn’s piece were selected by similar means, and put in charge of apocalyptic weapons.

    Cohn’s argument is that not only did the defense analysts avoid thinking about the actual human repercussions of their jobs, they use terms that specifically disable them from thinking critically about the real purpose of their mission: designing tools for mass murder or mass suicide.

    The flaw in technocracy is that technocrats act based on moral assumptions that they then disable themselves from questioning. Those who question the value of building better ways to kill each other versus the value of ultimate nuclear disarmament will not find themselves promoted. Technocracy does not question existing power structures (how many of the defense analyst technocrats even wondered why so few non-white and non-male folks were among their ranks?).

    Technocracy is governing by the principle that social and moral issues can be engineered away. But many of the issues we’ve talked about in this class, including not only nuclear weapons but also other WMD and even global warming, are questions of morality.

    The environment that Cohn described was a sort of “dumb conservatism.” Americans who call themselves conservative are hesitant to embrace many social changes because they have thought through their repercussions and have decided that the changes are immoral or extremely costly for little benefit– I am not calling all conservatives dumb. But the “dumb conservatism” of the defense analyst technocrats was willfully dumb– they followed previous policies, previous ideologies simply out of habit, not out of thought.

    For those of us who take up jobs in policy, technology, engineering, or other “technical fields,” this article should be a warning.

  11. Cohn’s article provides a detailed critique of the language of nuclear warfare. Her analysis delves deep into the euphemisms, abstractions, analogies, and metaphors used by defense intellectuals to discuss the processes and technologies that have the ability to carry out mass destruction and death. Cohn, a feminist in a male-dominated world, identifies not only the patriarchal, dominant nature of war and defense intellectuals, but also is aggravated by the cold-blooded way in which nuclear war is discussed “without any sense of horror, urgency, or moral outrage” (690).

    Yet, Cohn herself admits to being transformed by this language after immersing herself in it for a while. She speaks the language so frequently and with such fluency that it became “more impossible … to express [her] own ideas [and] values,” while simultaneously giving her “access to things [she] had been unable to speak about before” (708).

    This is the nature of most all-encompassing activities. When one becomes so absorbed in a way of thinking, one often loses sight of the other dimensions of thought. Cohn, an academic not “indigenous” to the world of defense intellectuals, found herself after a mere few months fully adapting to its language and way of thinking, so much so that she had a hard time recounting her previous values. Defense intellectuals are asked to do a certain task – to ascertain the security needs of a country based on the capabilities of other countries. While the horrors that follow use of nuclear weapons are most certainly important, their consideration falls outside of the realm of purely scientific thought and mathematical calculations, and thus, becomes excluded from defense language.

    In order to incorporate these considerations into decision-making, it would be beneficial to have a separate body that would take the recommendations of the defense strategists and consider them on the basis of the probable destruction of human life.

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