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