Skip to content
February 22, 2011 / passiveprogressive

Carol Cohn: Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals

In this study of the defense community, Carol Cohn finds that theorists have used language and almost sexual excitement to construct a world in which gaming weapons is the only end.

Cohn begins by conducting participant observation, but soon finds herself excluded through the very language in which nuclear defense theorists communicate. This is not to say that conversations in the world of defense are callous and terse, indeed our author found many of her conversations to be quite charming and eloquent. Rather, Cohn claims that,

What hits the first was the elaborate use of  abstraction and euphemism, of words so bland that they never forced the speaker or enable the listener to touch the realities of nuclear holocaust that lay behind the words.

For example, Cohn speaks of her conversations regarding the MX missile, a delivery system capable of carrying up to 10 warheads. While there was significant scorn within the defense community when Pres. Reagan dubbed the weapon, “The Peacekeeper”, theorists often referred to it themselves as a “damage limitation weapon”. Cohn claims that the purpose of this language was to mitigate the visions of Holocaust produced by such a powerful device.

While technically nuclear defense theorists were correct in so far as the purpose of the MX missile was to destroy Soviet silos — thus preventing fallout from a second strike — it seems as though their language perverts the  perception of the actual function to the point where it could bias strategic thinking.

But it was not only the euphemistic language that Cohn found bizarre, it was the fact that theorists had created a language that was used not only to state personal credibility and objectivity, as well as the fact that this language denied certain concepts, such as peace. Rather, the term peace had been substituted with the word, “Strategic Stability”. The key difference of course is that “stability” implies an innate human desire for war that is only prevented by mutually assured destruction. In essence, theorists had rendered the idea of “peace” silly to the point of dropping it from their professional vocabulary.

But this isn’t just semantics, the language that Cohn observed created a framework in which the most horrific topics could be discussed without the slightest regard to the potential human suffering. Furthermore, the more she engaged in the vocabulary used within the defense community, the less she was able to explain previous ideals that she had held regarding the value of human life. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that the defense theorists did not calculate the outcome of nuclear war in terms of lives lost, but rather in who had the ability to carry out the most strikes.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: