Rational and Irrational Masculinity

The Cohn journal article makes two main claims about “technostrategic” language. First, a lot about the language, such as its abstraction, serve to distance nuclear decision-makers from the human costs of nuclear attacks. Second, although nuclear decision-makers associate their “technostrategic” language with “cool-headed objectivity”, it contains sexual and masculine undertones and can hardly be called objective. I largely agree with Cohn’s ideas about the existence of distancing mechanisms in the language and how they can lead to the devaluation of human lives, but I believe that there are important attributes of these distancing mechanisms that cannot be easily dismissed.

President Trump’s “my button is bigger than yours” Twitter feud with Kim Jong Un raises concerns about the potentially disastrous effects of masculine impulse. Masculine impulses such as sexual domination could lead countries to take overly aggressive or confrontational stances, and the thirst for power could lead a country to build up a lot more arms than necessary. I would hardly consider that rational behavior and structural controls have to be put in place to prevent important decisions from being driven by such impulses. A possible control measure could be the Markey-Lieu Bill which prevents Trump, and his rampant masculine impulses, from employing nuclear weapons unless Congress has declared war and provided authorization for their use.

However, I believe that there are aspects of nuclear decision-making that demand the exhibition of masculine qualities like emotional detachment, rationality and the ability to be unswayed by “soft” concerns” like human costs. The distancing mechanisms in “technostrategic” language facilitate this by alienating nuclear decision-makers from the human costs of their actions and are hence, in some ways, necessary. At the levels of government where incredibly difficult decisions on whether or not to initiate a nuclear strike are made, it seems almost necessary to have distancing mechanisms. Having to contemplate the thousands of lives that could be lost as a result of a decision would be so emotionally overwhelming to decision-makers that they could be paralyzed from being able to make any kind of decision at all, or suffer a complete emotional collapse. In nuclear-decision making, impossible decisions might have to be made, like having to kill thousands of people in another country to protect one’s own. Distancing mechanisms ensure that a decision can be made while preserving the sanity of the decision maker.

Moreover, from an international relations perspective, the possession of masculine qualities by nuclear decision-makers can be advantageous. The world would certainly be a more peaceful place if every nuclear decision-maker prioritized human costs, but there would always be an incentive for a country to detach itself from the human costs of nuclear strategy so as to gain a strategic advantage (a similar situation to nuclear proliferation). A country that portrays itself to be unswayed by human costs would be able to more easily extract concessions out of the other countries that do. One reason why North Korea has so much bargaining power with the US is that the US fears the human costs of a nuclear attack a lot more than North Korea. Masculine detachment from human costs simply makes it harder for a country to be taken advantage of and improves its diplomatic position.

Do you think distancing mechanisms in “technostrategic” language, as well as the association of masculine qualities with nuclear decision-making do more harm than good? In other words, if a country were able to unilaterally reform itself so that human costs became a far more prominent aspect of its nuclear-decision making process, would it be better or worst off in its international relations? — William

17 thoughts on “Rational and Irrational Masculinity

  1. Dear William, I do not think it is a question of technocratic language being good or bad or whether employing a language that allows a consideration of human costs of nuclear war should supersede “technostrategic” language. The issue is more so that “technostrategic” language has been granted a false claim to legitimacy. Cohn articulates that the problem with “technostrategic” language is that it grants defense intellectuals “a claim to objectivity born of technical expertise and to the disciplined purging of the emotional valences.” (717) Throughout her ethnographic study of defense intellectuals, Cohn argues the technicality of the language hides the undercurrent which is filled with “homoerotic excitement, heterosexual domination, the drive toward competency and mastery, the pleasures of membership in an elite and privileged group,” etc. (717) The language is not objective in the first place and is in fact deeply rooted in cultural imagery and is gendered. However, the way the language is culturally embedded is not recognized by defense intellectuals. They instead see it as the objective standard, and as a result, preclude other conversations such as considerations of human life from occurring.

    A trade-off always exists when using “technostrategic” language. On one level, it affords intellectuals access to new information, concepts, and ideas. However, it also denies intellectuals from engaging in discussions of other important topics for risk of being seen as ignorant, too emotional, etc. Cohn articulates this trade-off when she describes how she could “adopt the language and gain a wealth of new concepts and strategies” but she would lose the ability “to express [her] concerns because it was physically impossible.” (708)

    However, the solution to the trade-off is not to reject “technostrategic” language in favor for only having discussions in terms of the human costs of war. Instead Cohn argues the task is to deconstruct the language’s claim to rationality and thus its hegemony in nuclear policy. (717) I think the solution would more so look like where intellectuals could employ technical language and receive the benefits that come with it, but also are enabled to engage in other discussions without being perceived as being illegitimate. It is a task not of eliminating the language but instead eliminating its power.

    Consider the anecdote she presents in the NY Times article. A physicist expressed to her that he “felt like a woman” for confronting his colleagues over diminishing the impact of 30 million lives. I believe in Cohn’s ideal world a discussion of the technical aspects of nuclear weapons and strategies would be allowed to exist next to conversations about the impacts weapons would have on human life, without the latter being considered feminine and thus illegitimate.

  2. William, I enjoyed reading your response. Though I do not agree with a some things that were stated, it did make me rethink some things about the Cohn readings. I would argue that the detachment of emotion is not necessarily masculine but can be done by anybody who is willing to be bold. The detachment of emotion can come from someone’s arrogance and selfishness. For a leader, this detachment of emotion may not be a personal quality but rather a part of understanding the inherent risks in a military situation. When a president calls for a risky military operation they must do it with the understanding that soldiers’ lives are in danger and that if someone were to die in an operation that family would need to be consoled due to the loss of their loved one. The President ought to be emotionally attached to an event like this if the time comes. President Trump was criticized for his perceived lack of empathy by the widow of a fallen soldier a couple of months ago which was not received well by many. While I do agree that an emotional breakdown would not be ideal, it is important to understand that emotional attachment and consideration may not lead an emotional breakdown, at least not during the decision-making which is part of the fact that a leader must be prepared to make tough decisions.

    When it comes to the comparison with North Korea, it is important to understand that the US has been at war for over seventeen years now and many will argue that the US public is exhausted of fighting and wants to bring people home. NK is not in that same situation and maybe if the US had not been at war for the past decade and a half we would have a different attitude at the negotiating table. Regardless, the world places the US at a higher standard and the argument that the enemy is not concerned with human life has been used frequently to describe Al-Qaeda and ISIL but is not an excuse for the US to lower its standards and risk getting involved in a nuclear conflict. I look forward to discussing these things with others.


  3. William writes, “I believe that there are aspects of nuclear decision-making that demand the exhibition of masculine qualities like emotional detachment, rationality and the ability to be unswayed by “soft” concerns” like human costs.” Saying “masculine qualities like rationality” is strange given that Cohn does not list rationality as one of the qualities traditionally associated with men. The choice to link rationality with masculinity unironically is solely William’s. He does not challenge the notion that men are somehow intrinsically more rational than women at all in his writing and in fact champions it: we should, argues William, continue to act like men in our policy decisions because men are more rational. William is unable to break free of the false paradigms surrounding masculinity and femininity and chooses to operate within it. His response epitomizes why Cohn’s argument is so important, pertinent, and correct.

    Further, he misses the point of Cohn’s argument. She isn’t saying that we should never use nuclear weapons. She’s just arguing against the kind of language and attitude that actively overlook the human cost involved with a decision to use nuclear weapons (William writes that this kind of dissociation is necessary because policy makers would be too paralyzed to use nuclear weapons otherwise. I would counter by saying that if you can’t even bring yourself to think about how many people might die from your decision emotionally and rationally, maybe you aren’t the right person to make that decision. A decision as monumental as the use of nuclear weapons surely calls for a thorough examination of costs and benefits from every angle). Since a lot of the attempt to dissociate human cost from nuclear weapons has been gendered, Cohn is arguing that we should seek to move away from gendered stereotypes. Gendered stereotypes that emasculates concerns over human cost inevitably lead towards less well thought out and less rational decisions. It services no one when policy makers shy from making a comment out of the fear of being labeled a ‘pussy’ or ‘sissy.’

  4. The first thing that struck me when reading the 1987 Cohn article is that I would be surprised if there were think pieces about the significance of language surrounding nuclear weapons being written in other nations such as Russia, North Korea or Iran. I do agree with her that distancing language appears to be very present in this realm, and that it may be harmful in that it masks the true scale and threat of nuclear weapons. I think that this phenomenon is also dangerous because it prevents those outside this field from being able to understand the language used. While I agree with William that technostrategic language may help personnel within a field communicate in some instances, it isn’t fully clear that the coded language that Cohn identifies as being related to masculinity, birth, etc. has any practical utility. I think that Cohn’s Freudian interpretation of the language employed may focus too heavily on the metaphors themselves rather than the problems with having a non-transparent, confusing coded language in a field as significant as nuclear strategic analysis.

    I think it is important to note that the expressions and imagery that Cohn identifies are also relatively commonplace in everyday life, and especially in other male dominated fields and the military. Although perhaps intensified in this high stakes field, this language is definitely not limited to the realm of nuclear weapons. It does seem important to address it though, especially because in addition to reducing transparency as I discussed above this language may create an environment that is hostile to women and could potentially deter them from entering or contributing to this field. As is evident from the quote in the 2018 article in which a physicist expresses dismay at feeling “like a woman”, a hypermasculine culture may also pressure individuals to disregard concerns related to human life or encourage them to be overly hawkish.

    As Paul pointed out, some degree of distancing may be inevitable in this setting. In the 2018 article, it seems that Trump is almost endeavoring to bring himself closer to the nuclear infrastructure through his “red button” and other elements of his rhetoric on this topic. This brings me back to my earlier point that other nations may be less inclined to have such an intellectual view of the language surrounding nuclear weapons. Does the matter of fact, hypermasculine rhetoric of other nations mean that the United States shouldn’t challenge the form of technostrategic jargon that Cohn identifies in order to avoid seeming weak? Or should we focus on challenging this language as Cohn suggests?

  5. I agree with Erica and Paul in that William’s assumptions on masculine qualities, such as “detachment” nonetheless, demonstrate the concerns of Cohn’s. Indeed the field of national security requires a certain extent of emotional detachment, but I do not believe that detachment should be automatically associated with a certain gender and more so, give a free pass to avoid the discussion of how gender is shaping natural security, when it is clearly and bluntly in effect. William states that “Masculine detachment from human costs simply makes it harder for a country to be taken advantage of and improves its diplomatic position,” and Charlotte agrees with William suggesting that such discussion may lack practical utility in the field.

    However, Cohn, as she states in her last paragraph, is not surfacing such issues for “individual men or women”, but rather because “ideas about masculinity and femininity already distort the ways we think about international politics and national security.” Practicality and effectiveness does not trump ethicality and morality and Cohn points out that the masculine nature of the language and the connotations it brings have been overlooking such qualities in the field. As much as it is unclear how effective linguistic concerns are, it is equally questionable how effective “technostrategic” is as well, and in that case it is important to consider both strategies.

  6. There is no question that fragile masculinity is embedded in the language used throughout the national security world. This language distorts the way security analysts view different security situations, and the prospect of a male president being weak (and a female president too, for that matter) for sure will embolden a president to detach themselves from the human costs, afraid of being seen as vulnerable. This language also can clearly aggravate situations and exacerbate tensions between international actors — after all, politics is determined by individuals.

    This model might further be applied to weapons build-up — it goes beyond our normal security dilemma model, since the U.S. and Russia already have enough weapons to blow up the entire world at least one time over. Yet, we keep building — why? Because popularity requires politicians make the U.S. the biggest, baddest, strongest country in the world, with the most weapons.

    However, I think a distinction needs to be drawn within Cohn’s argument. Starting a nuclear arms race or war because of aggravated tensions (as a result of two leaders emasculating each other) is very different from the claim that technostrategic language itself is a partial cause of a nuclear arms race or war. If anything, technostrategic language is emblematic of — it’s a symptom of the fragile masculinity that dominates international politics. It’s a very, very tall claim that using highly gendered, hetero-normative terms itself causes nuclear arms races and war. At most, it contributes to the tensions that then contribute to war — it’s a more subtle process, which I felt was a little misconstrued in Cohn’s Trump article.

  7. Hi William! Thanks for your post. I think most of my thoughts on your question about the” technostrategic” language have already been well-articulated by others here. Like Charlotte, I think Cohn’s linguistic analysis was a bit far fetched at times. (For the record, thrust is an actual engineering term for the force acting in line with the aircraft body. It’s not always sexual). Like Tati, I think Cohn isn’t arguing against all “rationality” in nuclear policy, but rather against the legitimacy of a detached “male” rationality in the first place. When American strategic planners craft a nuclear response that leaves 90 million people dead in the first 45 minutes, is that really rational? Or is it totally nuts?

    To me, the case for “rational” of deterrence theory is like a morbid retelling of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The room is full of smart, decent men (690) who are convinced they can administer nuclear apocalypse cleanly, “surgically” even (692). What makes things worse is that the use of “technostrategic” language shuts non-conformers out from debate, so there’s no one in the room to point out the emperor has no clothes.

    Having the read the article, I question how much I, and others in the class, are being ordained into the “nuclear priesthood” ourselves (702). I remember getting a little queasy after we did a nuclear blast calculations. Had I become too detached, too swayed by technical language and calculations?

    But what is an alternative language of nuclear warfare? What words express the horror of 90 million dead?

  8. Erica,
    I think it’s entirely fair that you have disagreements with some of the points I’ve raised. I get that my views are entirely subjective and in this instance pretty controversial. However, I must respectfully disagree with your claims/accusations that “the choice to link rationality with masculinity unironically is solely William’s” and “William is unable to break free of the false paradigms surrounding masculinity and femininity and chooses to operate within it”.

    My decision to associate masculinity with rationality is not pulled out of the air nor out of any sexist preconceptions that you probably think I have. I do not believe that masculinity should be associated with rationality, but I chose to make this association in my post because I thought that that was what Cohn was getting at. I concede that I could’ve been clearer about saying that this association between masculinity and rationality was not of my opinion though.

    If you want evidence, on page 702, Cohn writes “the only thing as unscientific as the female, the subjective, the emotional, would be the religious”. Cohn explicitly associates femininity with the “unscientific”. If you were to flip that, it strongly suggests that Cohn associates masculinity with the scientific, and when I think of “scientific”, I also think “rational”.

    Less explicit, is the line on page 717 that mentions “the dominant voice of militarized masculinity and decontextualized rationality”. I know it doesn’t explicitly say “rationality is a masculine quality”, and maybe you wouldn’t settle for less, but I think that it’s hard to deny that there is at least some kind of association generated between “masculinity” and “rationality”.

    Once again, my decision to associate masculinity with rationality reflects not the assumption that I actually believe that, but the assumption that that was what Cohn believed. You are, of course, free to disagree with my interpretation of Cohn without turning it into a personal attack.

    I hope this reply hasn’t offended you further and helps to clear things up…

  9. Adding on to a bunch of the thoughts of my classmates and Cohn’s piece, we should address the gender imbalance in the United States in the arms control field. According to several studies, the arms control and security policy sector is overwhelmingly white and upper-middle class, as well as disproportionately male, especially in its high rank positions. But, the distinction between rationality and gender as Paul brings up is extremely relevant; perhaps we should be looking at some of the problems Cohn brings up as well as a general discussion on the morality of the use of nuclear weapons themselves.
    I also found myself thinking about the relationship between masculinity and foreign policy in other countries like Charlotte, as this relationship may be different in countries who have had female presidents or leaders. Teresa May, for example, stated in several interviews she would “fire Britain’s nuclear weapons as a ‘first strike’ if necessary,” making us question the view that women are more “rational” or less emotionally detached. The US has never had a female President, and while there have been female Secretary of State’s or other prominent government officials, there has never been a woman in charge of our nuclear weapons arsenal, making it difficult to make assumptions or judgements about what “a female response” would be to this high pressure situation.
    Furthermore, the question William poses about what role human costs should play, similar to Grace, brings me back to our discoveries on Nuke Map, where at the tip of our fingertips we could drop a hypothetical bomb that could kill thousands or even millions. Every individual will have a different reaction to being faced with an inconceivable, incredibly difficult decision with regards to launching a nuclear missile, but I think Cohn’s ending few sentences urges us to look critically at how this decision is biased, heavily dominated by men, and this distancing mechanism can be detrimental if not addressed.

  10. I think that a key point of Cohn’s journal article and touched on by Tatiana is, as Tatiana puts it, that this “’technostrategic’ language has been granted a false claim to legitimacy.” William, you mention in your most recent post that Cohn arguing that masculinity is directly linked to the scientific, but my interpretation was that that this exact false equivalence is one of the problems with the language and attitude surrounding nuclear weapon-related discourse. As Cohn describes in her conclusion, “the dominant voice of militarized masculinity and decontextualized rationality speaks so loudly in our culture, it will remain difficult for any other voices to be heard until that voice loses some of its power to define what we hear and how we name the world – until that voice is delegitimated” (717-718). Men have historically had the power to define the language used and the framework within which weapon and war-related conversations have operated, and Cohn is arguing that we cannot simply accept this deeply engrained idea of “the relationship between human ends and technological means” (714).

    We see this desensitization to the human cost of nuclear weapon use in Truman’s statement released following the detonation of the Hiroshima bomb, which was the first written description of the effects of and justifications for nuclear warfare that many encountered. He emphasizes the retaliatory nature of the decision to release the bomb and the sheer scientific feat that this bomb represented. Truman’s statement likely heavily influenced further discourse on the use of nuclear weapons, and considering the language that Trump is using today, not enough, if anything, has changed.

  11. I personally found Cohn’s preoccupation with sexual imagery and gendered terms extreme. I agree with Charlotte and Grace, in that Cohn’s efforts to justify her condemnation of the jargon of strategic weapons and strategic policy are too extreme and distract from the actual scientific need for such terms. The bases upon which she challenges the rationality of defense intellectuals’ discourse, for example “phallic worship” (692) and “homoerotic excitement” (717), are not compelling. Her preoccupation with attaching, in some context, sexual imagery to virtually all of the hardware that she deplores, as well as to the language associated with it, reflects her view of the world and communications and serves to separate the reality of the situation by imposing a purely theoretical framework. Many of the terms used by those who work with strategic weapons are needed to convey very specific ideas and images, and not to allude to sexual imagery. As Grace pointed out, the term “thrust” is used in engineering to specifically describe the force acting in line with the aircraft body.

    I think that instead of focusing on sexual imagery, we should look for ways to truly separate the theoretical framework from discussions regarding nuclear weapons discourse. Instead, we should frame the situation in terms of the actual impacts. A better, alternative language of nuclear warfare is one that is framed by the frightening realities that exist, by the known impacts of the weapons and subsequent analyses on stability and deterrence.

  12. William,
    As a response to the claim that the assumption that masculinity is associated with rationality is from Cohn’s reading, I recommend rereading her position and passage. Given the tone by which she speaks, which is laced with irony and sarcasm, she made the statement that, “the only thing as unscientific as the female, the subjective, the emotional, would be the religious,” to address the ridiculousness of the claims she is attempting to address. Her argument is addressing the irony that the male-dominated field of nuclear weaponry and doctrine excludes every trace of “soft sentimentality” but still includes religious imagery.

    In her paragraph, she makes a connection between female imagery, which is claimed to be “the subjective, the emotional,” and religious imagery, which is viewed as the opposite of science, to address the irony that nuclear language creates. Why exclude female imagery but include religious imagery, which is arguably the opposite of science? She uses this to build her point about the views of the defense industry which overwhelmingly utilize male imagery.

    In response to your post about the idea that the detachment from human costs can provide a strategic advantage, it is concerning that it would encourage governments to detach themselves to gain concessions. As an example, you cite NK’s disregard for human costs versus the US’s, but is this really something that we would benefit from? A government which disregards the human costs of nuclear warfare would benefit strategically in a military sense but fails in a civil and domestic sense. The people of NK are often disregarded by its government and this reflects the NK’s viewpoint on human costs in relation to nuclear war. There is little accountability to the NK government, which allows for them to disregard the human costs, while there is much more accountability to the US government for their actions. I imagine that greater US detachment from human costs of nuclear war would eventually lead to a devaluation of the human rights within the nation.

  13. William,

    I had two main reactions to Cohn’s piece:

    1. In order for nuclear deterrence to be effective, your adversary has to be absolutely convinced that you will use nuclear weapons if provoked. I find it difficult to believe that an adversary will be sufficiently convinced if you use reflective language that demonstrates a deep appreciation for the tragic costs of using nuclear weapons. Only an adversary who is convinced you are a cold-hearted and ruthless person who will not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if your adversary crosses certain red lines will be effectively deterred by even the most formidable nuclear arsenal. Essentially, if anyone stopped to consider the vast amount of innocent suffering a nuclear attack would cause, no one other than sociopaths would ever use nuclear weapons so you must at least feign to your enemy that you resolutely refuse to see the use of nuclear weapons in humanistic terms. If your enemies don’t believe you have the will to use nuclear weapons, no amount of nuclear weapons will convince them otherwise and paradoxically nuclear war is more likely because they will push you up until the point where you must use nuclear weapons because they believe you never will.

    2. Putting aside the overtly sexual “technostrategic” language used when describing nuclear weapons, perhaps the problem isn’t that nuclear weapons experts use “traditionally masculine” jargon to talk about nuclear weapons but that society views such tough talk as masculine. Women in national security positions should, can, and are talking in the sorts of sanitized and bellicose language derided by Cohn. The problem is that society socializes women (and men) to believe that women must be gentle, kind, and thoughtful. When appropriate, women, just like men, should be cold-blooded and iron-willed. The problem lies not in the culture surrounding nuclear security but rather in American culture writ large.

  14. I would like to echo, and slightly restate, a point made by Tatiana that I believe hasn’t received enough attention in this discussion. She wrote, “the solution to the trade-off is not to reject “technostrategic” language in favor for only having discussions in terms of the human costs of war [but] instead…to deconstruct the language’s claim to rationality and thus its hegemony in nuclear policy.” In other words, the problem with the language surrounding nuclear policy now is not its abstraction and rationality, but rather its claim to those characteristics, which it doesn’t truly possess, as a means to assert power.

    While I understand the importance of comprehending the human cost of nuclear war, I believe that the discussion and contemplation about the morality of using nuclear weapons should take place before, rather than than during, deliberations about nuclear policy. If policy makers are unable to make decisions about nuclear weapons without continually circling back to concerns about the ethics of their use, then all policy will become an idealogical battle between nuclear pacifists on one side and hawks on the other. Cohn rightly points out that the hawks tend to hold most significant positions within our nuclear strategy command structure today; the problem is not that they are too rational, but rather not rational enough, allowing their (masculine, sexual) feelings about nuclear power to get in the way of good policy. The solution to this problem, however, is not to swing the pendulum to the other side, and replace an ideology overly concerned with power and neglectful of human costs to one which allows concerns about any human costs to cloud its judgement with regard to policy. When trying to combat the effects of the current, overly masculine approach to nuclear strategy, the truly rational and scientific advances that have been made in the field should not be thrown out as well.

    I believe this point is partly what Cohen was getting at in her articles. However, I think when focusing on the negative effects of the current nuclear culture, Cohn could have been more clear on which type of ideology she would like to replace it. She is correct in saying, “as defense intellectuals rest their claim to legitimacy on the untainted rationality of their discourse, their project fails according to its own criteria.” On the other hand, when she states “I do not wish to discuss or judge the holding of ‘objectivity’ as an epistemological goal” I cannot fully support her. Of course objectivity should be the goal. Just because unfounded appeals to objectivity have been made in the service of power and masculinity doesn’t mean the concept itself loses value. Replacing a system which loses sight of objectivity due to masculinity, calling those who disagree with it “sissies”, with one that claims the moral high ground over objectivity due to an emotional appeal to suffering, labelling its dissenters “insensitive” and “monstrous”, is a move sideways, not upwards. If one can be secure in his or her moral beliefs before considering nuclear policy, than the costs should be neither exciting (as they seem to be to many in our nuclear establishment) nor horrifying. Rather, they should be measured against potential alternative outcomes before a best course of action is decided upon, a process which requires abstraction and scientific language, although certainly not phallic imagery or sexual innuendo.

  15. Thanks for the response, William (and the conversation developed by others). There have been a lot of thought-provoking points and counter-points brought up already, so I thought it would be interesting to play devil’s advocate—regardless of my personal views—and push back on the idea that “distancing mechanisms” mechanisms and “technosrategic” lexicons as well as the related but not inherently synonymous outward bellicosity/aggressiveness are necessarily bad.

    Vis-á-vis the detachment of the language used in nuclear-response policy planning, it seems that perhaps maintaining a degree of hard-line rationality in the face of such costly decisions would be a requirement for the efficient creation and enactment of policy. In discussing the use of nuclear weapons, the decision-makers are arguably already in the realm of the absurd—that is to say making decisions that affect unimaginable quantities of people, and thus there is an inherent layer of separation simply due to the limited ability of the human mind to comprehend such staggering human costs. This would not be to say that human costs should be ignored, and in fact the opposite: the consequences of nuclear weapon use should be long dwelled-upon notions by all the decision-makers in the position to make such decisions, but this reflection should be done on their own time. Decision-makers should be encouraged to grapple with the implications of nuclear weapon employment beforehand, so that when they step into the policy/decision-making realms (i.e. the realm of technostrategic language) they are ready to discuss policies in a rational, detached even, manner without needing to stop to lament human costs (which is not conducive to effectiveness in time-limited policy-making situations in general, let alone in split-second nuclear-response decision-making).

    As a result, the issue lies perhaps with overzealous bellicosity and not with “rational”/“objective” separations between the grave, extraordinary quantitative considerations of nuclear policy and the emotional implications thereof. While this separation between reflection in the private space and in the “technostrategic” space can, or should, exist, we must be careful to avoid being excessively aggressive in advocating for the use of nuclear weapons.

    I think a proponent of the status-quo might point to the principles that Sam brought up when he reflected on the role of public-facing aggression in discussing nuclear weapons in order to make sure your enemies believe you capable of actually using your armament. I think one could form a reasonably persuasive argument that this political bellicosity is useful both to inspire fear in enemies and to bolster domestic political support, but might be hard-pressed to justify its use in private policy spheres, where the effects of showy aggression are significantly reduced, largely removing this line of justification.

  16. “Technostrategic” language isn’t unique to nuclear policy. In conventional conflict, we talk about things like “kill-ratios” (how many people you should kill before you die), “chain of command” (what to do when your boss dies), “military supply chain management” (how to get food and ammo to people so they can keep shooting at other people), and so on. Distancing and appeals to objectivity are all over conflict. Cohn notes this, saying it’s “not only about nuclear weapons…[but also] military and political power.” (716) But Cohn says “technostrategic” language seeks a “claim to legitimacy” (717) by using “abstraction and technical jargon,” (717) so why limit ourselves to conflict language? After all, does anything use “abstraction and technical jargon” more than academic writing? I want to be clear that I’m not trying to discredit Cohn or any of these blog posts with a cheap “you’re doing the same thing!” comment—I agree with the content of Cohn and many posts here, and I think her writing is more engaging than most academic writing. But I want to point out how much bigger the problem is and how much harder it is to solve than she or we let on.

    For example, Cohn writes “Deconstructing strategic discourse’s claims to rationality is, then, in and of itself, an important way to challenge its hegemony as the sole legitimate language for public debate about nuclear policy,” without sarcasm. If that isn’t an absurdly technical and abstract appeal to objectivity, I don’t know what is. Cohn’s point isn’t just that defense policy makers (and I would add academics) sound ridiculous. She says that how we speak and write affects how we think. Actually, she says “Most often the act of learning technostrategic language is conceived of as an additive process…however I have been arguing throughout this paper that learning the language is a transformative rather than an additive process. When you choose to learn it you enter a new mode of thinking—a mode of thinking about nuclear weapons but also, de facto about military and political power and about the relationship between human ends and technological means.” (715-716) Basically the same thing.

    The language of policy makers isn’t exactly the same as the language of academics, but Cohn’s thinking is a product of her language in similar ways. Where policy makers become insanely impersonal, Cohn is absurdly abstract. Tatiana summarizes Cohn’s solution: “to deconstruct a language’s claim to rationality and thus its hegemony in nuclear policy.” I don’t know what that means in practice. Cohn offers no details, because she is frustratingly abstract. Should we just will ourselves to think differently than we speak, or at least realize the connection? Should someone raise their hand every time we use powerful language and point out the effects it has on our thinking?

    It’s easy for students or academics to approach the issue of nuclear language as outsiders and say simply “don’t talk like that, it’s bad,” but, if we look at ourselves we can get a better idea of how hard that is. As students, we’re just as susceptible to language. For example, we talked about the pros and cons of missiles and planes in class today. We talked about all kinds of schemes and scenarios and concepts that discussed legitimately valuable differences. But for all that, we missed the first thing listed in the slides. Missiles are fast. Planes are slower. Something like this happens every time we have to think about a pro-con list: we focus on the abstract, the technical, the complex, and miss simple, obvious answers. I’m not any better—I didn’t think of fast missiles and slow planes. I also wrote this ridiculously, obnoxiously long blog post. Tatania and others flirt with solutions along the lines of adding other ways of speaking without considering them illegitimate, but I’m not sure that would work. The point of techno-jargon language isn’t only that it appeals to objectivity, but that it overpowers language that doesn’t. How often have we tried to read an academic article like Cohn’s and found it unapproachable because of its language? How many times do we end up skimming abstracts and conclusions instead, and how much has our own writing come to imitate that same academic tone? But we still end up sounding academic in our own writing, saying things like “the problem…is not its abstraction and rationality, but rather its claim to those characteristics,” and “it is not inappropriate for the United States to not have a no first use policy” (a quadruple negative??) even though we recognize and (sometimes) dislike academic writing’s issues. Cohn didn’t need to take thirty pages and a thesaurus to write what she did, but she didn’t just choose to write like that. :anguage doesn’t just affect the speaker’s thinking, but also of the listeners’.

    Simply willing ourselves to deny the “technostrategic” way of speaking its power sounds appealing from our perspective because we consider ourselves resistant to the effects of language in the same way that people tend to think themselves immune to propaganda. To be fair, that’s true when it’s not our language or propaganda that targets us. It’s easy to see what’s happening with nuclear policy makers, but harder to look at ourselves. When we look at the firm grip our own language has on our thinking though, I can’t help but think that the only way to eliminate the power of a language is to replace it with a different one that somehow out competes what it replaces. Sorry this was stupidly long, and sorry if I cherry picked your post.

  17. Cohn makes the argument that technostrategic language serves to 1) desensitize those who use it with to effects of nuclear weapons and 2) enforce a certain type of thinking (male-dominated, to a certain extent exclusive) in nuclear decision making.

    On her first point, I’m not convinced that the distancing of nuclear decision makers with the destructive power of nuclear weapons is the fault of any sort of language. She gives the example of an MX missile carrying 10 warheads (each with the exposure power of 300475 kilotons of TNT) being named “the Peacekeeper” as exemplifying “the astounding chasm between image and reality that characterizes technostrategic language.” I don’t think that desensitization is a phenomenon that we can successfuly fight (even if we make efforts to). By human nature, the more we are exposed to something, the less we are affected by it. We see this trend in many other industries (ex: how the tech industry things about privacy). Language is therefore a symptom, not a cause, of desensitization. Also, maybe this desensitization is not necessarily objectively bad? While this sort of language may understate the human costs of nuclear war, perhaps not constantly reflecting on the number of lives that nuclear weapons take has positive effects in terms of emotional stability and mental headspace.

    I think the second point she brings up is more valid / problematic. Technostrategic language not only ices out certain viewpoints (ex: “peace” is not a word in this language), but also promotes unhealthy gender norms. She states, “The culturally pervasive associations of masculinity with dispassion, distance, abstraction, toughness and risk-taking, and of femininity with emotion, empathy, bodily vulnerability, fear and caution, are embedded within the professional discourse.” This promotes the exact toxic masculinity that we see embodied by Trump. This is also why Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze called JFK a “pantywaist” when he displayed cautious behavior in approaching the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ironically, it was JFK’s decision to practice diplomacy / reject masculine ideals / be a “pantywaist” that essentially prevented the spiraling of the US and the Soviet Union in a full blown nuclear war. The strict adherence to gender stereotypes, as promoted by technostrategic language, is dangerous. It’s ironic that the job of nuclear strategists is to prioritize the security of their nation, but the language that they use (and the corresponding ideals that the language puts into place) puts that security at risk.

Leave a Reply