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