Is a Nuclear Warhead Sometimes Just a Nuclear Warhead?

From Cohn’s experience within a setting of “defense intellectuals,” it seems not. Instead, nuclear stockpiles are the recipient of significant phallic symbolism, valued by their proprietors as a source of vicarious strength. Both the quantity of weapons and their respective yields combine to provide substantial psychological benefits that are perhaps as great as the actual military advantages.

And yet, while Cohn makes numerous references to government memos, official weapons reports, and general deterrence rationale to reveal these sexual underpinnings, this feature is not the crux of her thesis. Cohn is instead more focused with linguistic issues as a whole, of which the sexual element is only part. While the roots of the language are important, in Cohn’s eyes they are less significant than the potential consequences of the resulting jargon. The terminology surrounding nuclear weapons is abstract and impersonal. If someone without any background on the topic were to read through the official vocabulary, the imagery he/she would construct would fall far from that which actually follows a detonation. Returning to NUKEMAP, for example, the weapon choice options consist of names such as “Little Boy”, “Gadget”, “Ivy Man”, and “Castle Bravo”. None is even somewhat descriptive of ensuing destruction.

So, the question becomes, is linguistic downplay itself a contributing factor to the persistence of nuclear weapons? The argument makes a great deal of sense. After all, how can one not become more comfortable with these weapons when they are discussed in the language of “clean bombs” and “collateral damage”?

Merging Cohn’s analysis with observations from the other readings makes these linguistic elements all the more significant and potentially worrisome. Consider, for example, Politico’s depiction of the command chain behind the issuing of a nuclear missile launch. The degree to which this power is so concentrated is remarkable. It seems that essentially at any point in the day, the president needs only to notify his military aide that he wishes to make use of the nuclear suitcase and the rest would be history. Even if the aide (or any of the subsequent officials involved) wished to intervene, they would have very little grounds on which to do so.

But Cohn’s experience makes this information all the more concerning. First, one should appreciate that Cohn draws her observations from a group of individuals who all have some academic background with nuclear weapons. In other words, even though the jargon is dominated by more benign descriptions, those who are employing it are also aware of the more explicit realities.

The same cannot be said regarding President Trump. Consider, for example, if during his nuclear briefing on the day of his inauguration, he was only instructed in the more mild collection of acronyms and terms. Whereas the experts would be certain to have a background in the gorier elements of destruction, the president may not. The impact of the linguistic elements therefore becomes more severe given the lack of formal background to cushion the abstract jargon.

Secondly, and not to make a joke of the matter, Cohn’s analysis may be particularly applicable to our current president. Though we see in Trump’s own words that he is staunchly opposed to nuclear weapon use, the personality he exhibits elsewhere makes nuclear weapons a particularly frightening realm. If the nuclear arsenal is the greatest phallic feature of them all, how would Trump handle a challenge to American nuclear capabilities? Coupling the masculine ritual facet of the weapons with a comforting abstract lingo makes the fact that this power resides in the hands of our president a bit terrifying. — Michael

14 thoughts on “Is a Nuclear Warhead Sometimes Just a Nuclear Warhead?

  1. Nuclear security isn’t the only field to codify its own lingo—it’s just one of the few that allows a layperson to decide the future of the technology and its use, with world implications. Part of me is now wondering that that might actually be a good thing in the right hands, as it allows a stranger to peer in, as Cohn did, or as Carter did warily at the beginning of his administration, on the core assumptions of the field and need for nuclear weapons.

    What I find interesting is that, as Cohn notes, the language of these experts stems from an inherently different set of assumptions as to the nature, intentions, and need for nuclear weapons than Cohn held (at least before she started to “become” one of them).

    This article was written in 1987. From everything else we’ve read, it doesn’t seem like this language has loosened up at all since. And even Cohn admits that naming destruction in friendlier terms is a sort of “willful distorting process, a playful perverse refusal of accountability- because to be accountable to reality is to be unable to do this work.” The US won’t just flip its terms of usage all of a sudden, and it can’t decide that it’s too horrific a weapon to contemplate, and therefore, will just not contemplate it at all. There are other nations, friendly and hostile, that are dressing up their nuclear weapons in friendly terms, patriotic terms, etc. Either way, they exist now. In her piece, Cohn writes about how men would peg her a fool if she used plain, non-specialized language to ask a question (708).
    As long as other countries use such sanitized, expert jargon on the bargaining table, or as long as men in positions of power continue to speak that way, it will remain a prerequisite for even being in the room where nuclear policy will happen, let alone getting a salient idea across to others.

    What I wonder then is this- how do presidents enter into the linguistic conversation? Do they take the cultural aspects but speak normally when it comes to jargon like “escalation dominance”? Even if nuclear analysts have presumably, at least perhaps at the beginning of their careers, contemplated the horror of nuclear destruction, are presidents shielded from the consequences of nuclear strikes, or the range of nuclear weapons (including not using them at all) by the sheer, limited range of options presented to them and words used to describe them? If Trump is only given a set of options, with consequences ranging from catastrophic to even worse, how does anyone in that situation call the right shot? The proper conversation on what the right ladder of escalation is, or whether you need a ladder at all, needs to happen before the 30 minute timer kicks in.

    On the other hand, can new administrations act as a check on reality for analysts who spend their days wrapped up in the theoretical and strategic?

  2. Cohn writes that “Technostrategic language can be used only to articulate the perspective of the users of nuclear weapons, not that of the victims.” Such is the heart of the Catch-22 that Michael references as an individual in the academic community cannot be respected unless she uses the appropriate softened jargon; however, she then becomes unable to express legitimate humanitarian concerns within the confines of that same vocabulary.

    It was interesting to read about the way this paradox figured into historical trends in American approaches to nuclear weapons. Nichols’ article illustrated the linguistic evolution that occurred alongside technological and military nuclear developments. By the 1980s, nuclear strategists had fully developed a Newspeak language in which nuclear weapons could be discussed in great detail but in a terminology that entirely downplayed their impact and destruction.

    In this way, I agree with Michael’s conclusion that language can play an impactful role in both how nuclear weapons are considered and even whether they are ultimately used. I would also add to this observation that the historical narrative only confirms this unfortunate reality. Within Nichols’ article, we can see the development and integration of terms including “extended deterrence”, the “ladder” narrative, and of course the benign-sounding and frequently used ‘MAD’ acronym. In this way, Nichols gives doctrinal developments that confirm the concerns that Cohn outlines from her one personal experience. Primarily, language cannot be overlooked as a central feature of nuclear policymaking.

  3. I think that Michael and Nicole bring up interesting points about how two of this week’s readings can be synthesized to consider the future of American nuclear policy. In the Politico article, we read about what a Trump presidency could mean for the handling of nuclear weapons for the next four years. In the Cohn essay we learn about an outsider’s first exposure to and following experience with “technostrategic” language, with allows nuclear policy and strategy to be discussed in an efficient, although unfeeling, manner. Therefore, we are able to reasonably think about how Trump, another outsider to the nuclear “Newspeak,” would embrace intellectual nuclear language and strategy.

    To begin, I think Nicole hints at an important, although more general question that should be answered first. “Can new administrations act as a check on reality for analysts who spend their days wrapped up in the theoretical and strategic?” In my opinion, this is a likely effect of a reasonable administration. Ideally, a president’s office is most concerned with the well-being of the population. Therefore, they must concern themselves with the catastrophic effects of even the most limited nuclear war, because it will destroy millions of human lives. An ideal presidential administration goes beyond the technical analysis of techno strategic minds, and recognizes the full weight of nuclear actions, rather than just the military implications.

    Specifically, the Trump administration may prove to be close to this ideal version of an administration. From the Politico article we read about Trump’s public condemnations of nuclear weapons. We read that like Obama, Trump sees that the main threat to the U.S. is nuclear war in general. Beyond that, we read that Trump has employed the help of at least one sensible adviser, Sam Clovis. According the the article, Clovis is a former fighter pilot who “understands that nuclear weapons have little or no military utility in today’s security environment.”

    I think it is likely that Trump will be influenced by the technostrategic language that a number of his military advisers will use. It is unreasonable to believe that the language won’t be spoken, so slight effects seem unavoidable. But I do not think it will be the only influencer in an administration conversation about nuclear action. Non-military aides (the civilians, politicians and non-nuclear intellectuals) will surely advise the president about the more horrific effects of nuclear strikes. Thus, I believe any civilian administration has a good chance to rise above the cold unfeeling calculation of techno strategic language.

  4. What I find interesting about applying Cohn’s framework to Trump is that, in fact, Trump does not speak the technical jargon of nuclear analysts. During the presidential race, Trump did not know what the nuclear triad is, for example, even though understanding the nuclear triad is a basic component of understanding the U.S. nuclear weapons capability. There has also been much to suggest that he is not one of the rational actors that the defense intellectuals Cohn studied assume to be operating our nuclear arsenal in the scenarios that they draw out. However, though Trump does not speak in the abstract lingo of these defense intellectuals, he is still interested in using nuclear weapons. In fact, in several television interviews, he seriously asked, “Why can’t we use the bomb?” It seems that he either does not possess a deep knowledge of the extent of the devastation that nuclear war can cause or that he has a limited regard for the humanity of others especially when they are “the enemy.” He “thinks the unthinkable” without abstraction.
    However, as Cohn notes, often the technical jargon that defense intellectuals use masks their true reasons for exploring nuclear war scenarios and considering nuclear war as a legitimate option. Under the surface of their discourse, Cohn found “currents of homoerotic excitement, heterosexual domination, the drive towards competence 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.” Cohn asks, “How is it possible to hold this up as a paragon of cool headed objectivity?”
    In short, though Trump does not mask his nuclear discussions in a technical jargon that he does not understand, he clearly experiences many of the drives towards the use of nuclear weapons that Cohn noted. As Michael said, the fact that someone possessing these drives, especially someone who does not have a deep understanding of the potential devastating effects of the use of nuclear weapons or even a basic knowledge of what those weapons are and how they are deployed, is not someone that we want to have control of the extensive American nuclear arsenal. After reading Cohn, the prospect of Trump being placed in charge of our nuclear capabilities is indeed “terrifying.”

  5. I think that while Cohn’s description of nuclear weapons as the ultimate phallic symbol is amusing, it is ultimately unconvincing as a metric to judge the current President’s likelihood to declare nuclear war. Although names like “fat man” and “little boy” are reminiscent of a patriarchal system that has dominated both the fields of nuclear physics and nuclear policy, it is seems that they also serve the purpose of distracting observers from the incredible destructive capacity of the weapon.
    As Michael notes, nuclear jargon has a habit of downplaying the horrific nature of the weapons themselves. These words and phrases serve to distance the speaker from the weapon. Through nicknames and jocular terminology, the language we use to describe nuclear weapons has served to remove our moral responsibility from the creation and use of this technology.
    The question that Michael raised about neophytes’, like Donald Trump’s, understanding of nuclear terminology is important, however, because it is reflective of the layman’s interpretation of atomic weaponry. The words we use, like “nukes,” can diminish our fear of nuclear bombs and stunt the hope for a widespread push for nuclear disarmament and anti-proliferation movements. Trump himself, despite his opposition to the use of nuclear weapons, has expressed little concern in the past over the spread of nuclear weapons to new countries.
    Jargon is often reflective of how we treat our subject matter—thus, it is important to be aware of the language that we use when discussing nuclear weapons, as it can help us better understand their role in our society.

  6. I think that Cohn’s analysis of defense intellectuals and the culture surrounding nuclear weapons is interesting in that it brings to light obvious patterns with hard evidence, but ones that are often dismissed and not analyzed as problematic. Her argument that such phrases distance nuclear discussions from the harsh, catastrophic realities is convincing, and I commend her for her ability to maintain a critical but open mindset in regards to such language. For example, she appears to have a very clear view of the perspective that such language is “additive” and allows one to have a “clear, strategic” mindset rather than an emotional, irrational one (Cohn, 715). I agree that her analysis of the language as “transformative” (Cohn, 716). Something that crossed my mind as I read the article is—how would one mitigate this? Increasingly, there is a movement (especially by “social justice warriors”) to alter the way we use language and view its influence. We saw that at Princeton when the school altered its policy to eliminate use of the word “man.” How successful that strategy is remains to be debated. However, in the context of this article (for I do not see it as currently plausible or necessarily productive to make formal changes to language used in nuclear discussions) I ask—if language does have a strong ability to shape thought and opinion, how would one change it? The U.S. is perhaps the most poised to enter more women into such institutions, penetrating the masculine domain of “defense intellectuals.” However, in other countries, such as North Korea or Iran, this seems virtually impossible. Therefore, I think that, while it is important to bring this issue to light and analyze it, coming up with a solution provides a much more challenging task especially in light of the fact that nuclear power is a global issue.

  7. What I found really interesting about Cohn’s piece was not just her analysis of the jargon that was used- and continued to be used- to describe nuclear situations, but specifically that the absence of this jargon somehow represents a lesser knoledge on the subject. Some of the previous comments reflected on how the use of the language was needed in order to be accepted into the field, but what really surprised me was that the lack of it could exclude someone from the conversation. She wrote that “no matter how well-informed or complex my questions were, if I spoke English rather than expert jargon, the men responded to me as though I were ignorant, simpleminded, or both… I found, however that the better I got at engaging in this discourse, the more impossible it became for me to express my own ideas, my own values.(708)” I found this entire passage not only showing but also terrifying in its implications.
    Firstly, the idea that she stipulates that the conversation they hold was not “English” demonstrates that in her mind, the nuclear jargon is unwarranted and not accurate. I agree with her that lessening the severity of the terms used to describe nuclear war does not benefit the country but rather allows severe circumstances to be talked about as though they were insignificant. I think she best demonstrates that by qualifying the jargon as “non-english” so that the reader can clearly understand that in her opinion, it should not qualify as an adequate usage of the language we use to describe all other severe conversations. The second part of this passage was equally shocking in that not only was she not listened to if she did not engage in this “non-English”, but her correct speech actually made her less legitimate. She was no longer listened to as a knowledgeable member of the conversation and therefore, as she explains, her ideas were no longer listened to. I can understand that at times is seems as though the more trivial or comfortable the conversation, the more level of expertise and understanding is assumed because in some ways, the jargon represents an oxymoron. The more colloquial the conversation about something as important as nuclear war, the more experienced the conversationalists must be because “of course” no reasonable person would talk so informally about such a high-risk situation unless they truly understood its implications.
    I think this is an unjust and wrong means of dealing with this high profile a situation. It in fact, does not comfort me to know that the people making the decisions about engaging in nuclear war do so with the same language they use to talk about their weekend plans and the forecast for the week. I would rather the conversation be more explicit and always specific so that specially those who talk so frequently about this highly sensitive material never forget the severity of the situaiton. I think Cohn’s piece is important in identifying a true concern that has only become more severe since she wrote this over 30 years ago. I think it is especially consequential when considered, as mentioned above, Trump’s use of the terminology today and the question as to how knowledgeable the current administration truly is or how much they are able to just “talk the talk”.

  8. There is a sort of tension in Cohn’s piece of what extent a word can be abstracted and, in that abstraction, how it affects social issues. As Michael says when summarizing Cohn, it doesn’t seem like she wants to eliminate the presence of phallic symbols but to address them, where which most women in these departments are secretaries and gendered language furthers the male gaze at destruction – women are part of the exploitation of the rhetoric on rape, just as bombs are. Raising awareness, however, through these various microaggressions, helps to bring these intellectual defenders to confront their own lingo – a complete use of abstractions causes the loss of ethics; a use of grounded language makes it harder to progress in diplomatic thought and thus is dismissed (the way it is dismissed, as Cohn notes, is gendered). I completely agree with the gendered dynamics other comments provided, but words such as “peace” in replacement of “stability” don’t necessarily across me as gendered, so I’m a bit cautious or, simply, ignorant.

    I wish that Cohn had looked to the etymology of some of these nicknames – why, for example, is the verb penetrated or hardened used (the answer is obvious, but I wanted to hear what these men had to say in self-reflection)? Ultimately, those in positions of power or in positions of obtaining more power have generally never been marginalized, a reason why most top-level officials are men. It’s a reason why, as we speculate Trump, rhetoric seems to matter less – the “knowledge” of action is male.

  9. The stark over-sexualization and oversimplification pointed out through Cohn’s piece was particularly interesting to read after a semester of interacting with these terms yet never truly making the connection myself. The treatment of nuclear warfare by these ‘defense intellectuals’ gives a fascinating lens through which to evaluate how those inside our nuclear program are able to still propagate the need for more weapons of mass destruction,

    While not defending the use of this language, I found myself coming to understand why it was almost a necessity that the horrors of man’s creations are named “little boy”, “ivy man”, and so on. When dealing with such powerful destruction it would be hard pressed to continue working on something dreadful without trying to distance one’s own work from the product of destruction itself. The strategists merely tell themselves they are tacticians protecting their nation while the physicists who created the bomb may merely tell themselves they are working on the cutting edge of the field itself. Yet combined these two roles create the most destructive force on earth, of course it makes sense that one would try and dissociate with the such a deadly end product.

    In the case of the ‘clean bomb’ anecdote that Cohn recounts, the use of the word does little to portray the horrors tied to any implications of a ‘clean bomb’ being detonated. Yet when I remove my biases and attempt to step inside the mind of a ‘defense intellectual’ I found meaning in the simplified, misleading term. From the point of view of a defense intellectual a bomb is meant to destroy a target. The radiation associated with the aftermath would be described as unfortunate on civilians in the area but the horrors that radiation causes would be trivial in the grand scheme of dropping a nuclear bomb. Therefore, a clean bomb from the perspective of a defense intellectual allows for a greater focus on the true purpose of a nuclear weapon, to completely and utter destroy the target. It feels odd to reach that conclusion, it’s very dehumanizing in the sense that a bomb is cleaner because the way it causes death and destruction has a greater focus on maximizing certain aspects of your attack.

    Once again I am by no means justifying the de-humanizing language used by these defense intellectuals, however, after reading Cohn’s article I gained an understanding of why this diction is used as opposed to using language that explicitly reflected the destruction that defense intellectuals deal with in their daily work. Furthermore, I strongly believe that the use of this distancing language in and of itself is proof that the nuclear program should be reduced as the destructive power is too much for even those within the program not to hide from.

  10. In response to Michael’s first question, is linguistic downplay itself a contributing factor to the persistence of nuclear weapons, my answer would be a definite yes. It seems that attributing titles such as “Little Boy” or “Smiling Buddha” to nuclear bombs is a coping mechanism that enables the perpetuators of such weapons to hide behind softer jargon than simply “gun-type assembly weapon” or “implosion-type assembly weapon” in order to feel less guilty about the weapons of mass destruction they have created. Michael also notes that one may use this jargon to feel more comfortable speaking about these weapons. However, this seems to be a paradox to me. People name nuclear bombs comforting names so they can feel more comfortable around them, but if they feel the need to go out of their way to establish a naming system that makes them feel more comfortable, shouldn’t they not want to feel comfortable at all? Isn’t feeling comfortable with these weapons of mass destruction the same as becoming desensitized to the magnitude of their potential effects, and if that is the case, then people who are innately guilty about designing these weapons (and who project their guilt through linguistic downplay, as Michael calls it) should actually not want to downplay the weapons at all, lest that add to their original guilt.

    Such an impact of linquistic downplay is later extended to Trump’s presidency when Michael hypothesizes that if Trump was only instructed in more mild terms of nuclear destruction in his nuclear briefing rather than in terms of the gorier elements of which experts would know, this could add to the problem of proliferation. This is because the man in control of the America’s nuclear arsenal would have a milder picture of nuclear war in his head than would most experts simply due to the type of language that was used to educate him on such a topic, and thus this could potentially increase the probability of nuclear war.

  11. In her piece “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” author Carol Cohn offers an intriguing analysis of the role of linguistics within the nuclear strategy dialogue among defense intellectuals. Cohn emphasizes the impact that dehumanizing nuclear jargon has on nuclear action, and stresses the importance of using nuclear language that appropriately reflects the dire nature of the topic. Michael raises an important successive question in his post: “Is linguistic downplay itself a contributing factor to the persistence of nuclear weapons?” As Cohn and Michael both emphasize, it appears to be so. However, while such language may not be actively ridding the world of nuclear weapons, I am more cautious in laying significant blame of persisting nuclear weapons to the talk of defense strategists, rather than to the innate selfishness and self-preservation prioritized by all nations. I question how much influence the jargon of defense intellectuals has over the governmental acquisition and use of nuclear weapons.

    One additional point from Cohn’s piece I would like to address is her emphasis on the sexual nature of nuclear terminology. While “this feature is not the crux of her thesis,” as Michael points out, Cohn sacrifices the validity of her argument through her reliance upon far-stretched metaphors and conclusions about its intertwined relation with sexuality. Cohn claims, for instance, “Air Force Magazine’s advertisements for new weapons, for example, rival Playboy as a catalog of men’s sexual anxieties and fantasies.” This comparison seems to be an absurd stretch. While it is important to cite the potential correlation, Cohn’s overall point of the link between talk and action is lost at times.

    Despite Cohn’s weak argument about the relationship between sexuality and nuclear talk, it is important to evaluate the relevance of her argument today. Michael raises the question, “If the nuclear arsenal is the greatest phallic feature of them all, how would Trump handle a challenge to American nuclear capabilities?” However, as we read in Blair’s article in Politico, Trump has consistently voiced an aversion to the use of nuclear weapons, and the phallic imagery that Cohn emphasizes is absent. While Cohn’s analysis offers an interesting angle on the nuclear debate, the applicability to Trump is not strong.

  12. In her piece “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” author Carol Cohn offers an intriguing analysis of the role of linguistics within the nuclear strategy dialogue among defense intellectuals. Cohn emphasizes the impact that dehumanizing nuclear jargon has on nuclear action, and stresses the importance of using nuclear language that appropriately reflects the dire nature of the topic. Michael raises an important successive question in his post: “Is linguistic downplay itself a contributing factor to the persistence of nuclear weapons?” As Cohn and Michael both emphasize, it appears to be so. However, while such language may not be actively ridding the world of nuclear weapons, I am more cautious in laying significant blame of persisting nuclear weapons to the talk of defense strategists, rather than to the innate selfishness and self-preservation prioritized by all nations. I question how much influence the jargon of defense intellectuals has over the governmental acquisition and use of nuclear weapons.

    One additional point from Cohn’s piece I would like to address is her emphasis on the sexual nature of nuclear terminology. While “this feature is not the crux of her thesis,” as Michael points out, Cohn sacrifices the validity of her argument through her reliance upon far-stretched metaphors and conclusions about its intertwined relation with sexuality. Cohn claims, for instance, “Air Force Magazine’s advertisements for new weapons, for example, rival Playboy as a catalog of men’s sexual anxieties and fantasies.” This comparison seems to be an absurd stretch. While it is important to cite the potential correlation, Cohn’s overall point of the link between talk and action is lost at times.

    Despite Cohn’s weak argument about the relationship between sexuality and nuclear talk, it is important to evaluate the relevance of her argument today. Michael raises the question, “If the nuclear arsenal is the greatest phallic feature of them all, how would Trump handle a challenge to American nuclear capabilities?” However, as we read in Blair’s article in Politico, Trump has consistently voiced an aversion to the use of nuclear weapons, and the phallic imagery that Cohn emphasizes is absent. While Cohn’s analysis offers an interesting angle on the nuclear debate, the applicability to Trump is not strong.

  13. Cohn’s analysis of the jargon used to discuss nuclear weapons is fascinating. I am a firm believer in the notion that language can influence perception, and I think she makes some valid points on the sexualization and dehumanization of the jargon that describes nuclear weapons, and it does concern me that the decisions of nuclear weapons experts may be subconsciously manipulated by technostrategic language.

    With that said, I agree with Jeremy’s point that to some extent, this language might be the best way to describe the weapons and their effects. In his comment, he refers to the term “clean bomb,” and provides an explanation for why it may be an appropriate term for what it is describing. I want to further his point by looking at some of the more inexplicable terms, like the names for the weapons themselves. In lecture when we learned the names of the nuclear bombs used in Japan, I was dumbfounded. It seemed almost insulting to refer to such destructive weapons as “Little Boy” and “Fat Man.”

    I then realized that there may be other explanations for these names apart from a simple dehumanization of the weapons. First and foremost, there is a desire for secrecy. If an enemy were to intercept information regarding our nuclear arsenal, calling these weapons “Nuclear Warhead 1” and “Nuclear Warhead 2” would be highly telling. These seemingly innocent names, while dehumanizing and in some cases, overtly sexual, also make the weapons sound nothing like what they actually are. This is a good thing when it comes to defending our nation’s secrets; an enemy spy overhearing these terms would not necessarily realize that they refer to nuclear bombs.

    Thus, while I agree with Cohn that there certainly issues with nuclear jargon and how it may affect perception of the weapons, I also believe that there are other reasons for the existence of the dehumanizing dialogue, and that these reasons may ultimately serve to validate it.

  14. Cohn’s piece surrounding the language of nuclear development is compelling, especially when it is put into conversation Nichols’ historic account of American ’s nuclear strategy. Many of my classmates have already touched upon the implications of such “deceivingly de-escalated” language in intellectual circles. The general sentiment seems to be, that this watered down jargon makes the conversations among those shaping, or advising others (such as the President) on their decisions that will later shape, US nuclear strategy callous and detached from the tangible consequences. However, I believe this notion that codified language aids the persistence of nuclear weapons is only plausible when these conversations are assumed to take place in a vacuum.

    While intellectuals may use codified terms when playing war games, the American public is not exposed to these conversations. A significant, and mostly over looked component that should be taken into account, is public opinion. Public opinion can be a powerful deterrent, and the way information surrounding nuclear activity is portrayed can strongly effect the grassroots reaction it elicits. The Poltico articles assigned this week outlines (roughly) the protocol and different scenarios that would take place in the event of a nuclear scare. The article clearly shows that the president is central to the nuclear program, ultimately deciding if and how to proceed with a nuclear retaliation. While presidents may be briefed in language that downplays its significance, when it comes down to making the tough calls their entire career and reputation is on the line, not to mention they are responsible for the lives of millions. I am not saying American public opinion is the only deterrent for nuclear escalation, but it is an incredibly powerful one (For example, consider the general reluctance of US presidents to engage in humanitarian crises when they lack strong political mobilization).

    The danger I would argue, is not how nuclear is talked about within intellectual circles, because often these people are aware of the actual consequences. The concern arises when “watered down language” is used to explain US actions to people with little understanding of the concept. Currently, the predominate associate within the general public with respect to actual nuclear war is Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That is probably why when populist leader Trump refers to his disapproval of nuclear weapons, he refers to their destruction levels in comparison to these tow events. The popular narrative, I would argue, paints nuclear war as an extreme option with devastating consequences. When mass media begins to use deceivingly deescalated language that could shift the perception of average citizens not aware of the implications that should be inferred form the codified language, than I would argue, language is dangerous.

Leave a Reply