War Against Women as Revealed in Military Language
January 14, 2012 7 Comments
I just finished Marilyn French’s The War Against Women. It was published in 1992, but many of the truths it elucidates are still relevant and remain today. It was a great read, though difficult in parts. I would like to share a few pages of this book with you all.
The below is quoted from The War Against Women page 158-162, from the section entitled War Against Women as Revealed in Military Language. All bold emphasis is mine (though all of it is worth emphasizing).
(photo from wikipedia)
Carol Cohn spent a summer studying with male experts in nuclear strategy. To understand them–and speak so they could understand her– she had to learn their language, one made up largely of invented words, acronyms impenetrable to most of us. Cohn found it a “sexy” language, offering the delight in power that comes from knowing things ordinary people don’t know, that shows ones intimacy with the most secret, highest reaches of state policy. Appalled by her pleasure in this language, she acknowledges it to suggest how seductive the power of such knowledge can be. She not only found its words fun to say, but was gratified at knowing the language of priests privy to god, designed to mystify and awe. Indeed, from its inception, nuclear science has used religious imagery. The inventors of the atomic bomb called its first test “Trinity” after the Holy Trinity, the united Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, “the male forces of Creation”. As it exploded in its first test, its main inventor, Robert Oppenheimer, thought of Krishna’s words to Arjuana in the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the Shatterer of Worlds.” And the men who today devise strategic doctrine call their community “the nuclear priesthood.”
Nuclear scientists use another set of images– images of birth, birth through the male as in male initiation rituals. Scientists at Los Alamos called the atomic bomb “Oppenheimer’s baby”; those at Lawrence Livermore called the hydrogen bomb “Teller’s Baby.” Those who wanted to disparage Edward Teller argued that “he was not the bomb’s father but its mother,” and attributed fatherhood to Stanislaw Ulam, who “had the all-important idea and inseminated Teller with it. Teller only ‘carried it’ after that.” A briefing officer, excitedly describing the technical capabilities of a new satellite system, added self-effacingly, “We’ll do the motherhood role–telemetry, tracking, and control– the maintenance.”
As in religious hierarchies, birth through the male produces only males. The perversity of patriarchal thinking is such that these men felt the bombs that wreaked such human horror on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were their babies, “Little Boy” and “Fat Man.” Cohn remarks that the bombs were not only the atomic scientists’ progeny, but emphatically male progeny: in early tests, before they were sure that the bombs would work, the scientists expressed their anxiety by saying that “they hoped the baby was a boy, not a girl– that is, a dud.” After the success of the first test, General Leslie Groves cabled Secretary of War Henry Stimson: “Doctor has just returned most enthusiastic and confident that the little boy is as husky as his big brother. The light in his eyes discernible from here to Highhold and I could have heard his screams from here to my farm.” Stimson then wrote Churchill: “Babies satisfactorily born.” In 1952, after the hydrogen bomb (named “Mike”) tested successfully at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands, Teller Triumphantly telegraphed Los Alamos: “Its a boy.” Cohn comments: “The entire history of the bomb project… seems permeated with imagery that confounds man’s overwhelming technological power to destroy nature with the power to create.”
The view of life as a struggle for power generated a language in which life has no significance and only power matters. So nuclear scientists refer to the killing of human beings not on their own “side” as “collateral damage”. Military men, who adopted this parlance, used it in their television appearances to describe Iraqis killed in the 1990-1991 gulf war (whose actual number remains a state secret). Eighteenth-century physicians in Britain’s Royal Society began to use euphemisms in writing up their experiments because simple language made clear the horrifying pain they were inflicting. This policy is now followed in every discipline that attacks, mutilates, and kills humans (even those supposedly intended to help them, like medicine). The term “collateral damage” also suggests that human beings were not the targets of attack, but simply in the way of the important business. So defense analysts call the incineration of cities “countervalue attacks.”
Cohn’s article was published in 1987, but we are all now familiar with some of terminology she describes. We know that “surgically clean strikes” (shortened to “surgical strikes”) are “counterforce” attacks (attacks by weapons on weapons or militarily useful installations) that are supposed to “take out” (accurately destroy) an opponent’s weapons or command centers without causing significant damage to anything else. War is waged between weapons systems, not human beings, as if “enemies” sat at opposite sides of the globe playing video games. An MX missile carries ten warheads, each with the explosive power of 300-375 kilotons of TNT–a destructive power about 250-400 times that of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima. This is the weapon Ronald Reagan dubbed “the Peacekeeper.” While the defense analysis community mockingly scorned his euphemism, they themselves called the MX a “damage limitation weapon.” They also discuss “clean bombs”– nuclear devices that work largely by fusion rather than fission and therefore release more energy not as radiation but as blast, destructive explosive power. They are “clean” because they do not emit as much radiation, but they have a greater potential to kill and destroy.
Men have appropriated not just birth but “women’s work,” using nursery and domestic images to mask the horror of what they do. They approve “clean” bombs and speak longingly of “patting” bombs and missiles. They named an electronic system designed to prevent the unauthorized firing of nuclear warheads “PAL” (permissive action links), a “carefully constructed, friendly acronym”, they called an early version of an antiballistic missile system “BAMBI,” an acronym for ballistic missile boost intercept. They call the president’s Annual Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Memorandum, listing short- and long-range plans to produce nuclear weapons, “the shopping list.” They choose from a “menu” of options when selecting targeting plans. Scientists call one model of nuclear attack the “cookie cutter,” and the pattern MIRVed missiles’ nuclear warheads make when they land a “footprint.” Men do not drop nuclear bombs; they are “delivered” by a “bus.” They do not use the terms “nuclear bombs” or “warheads” but call them “reentry vehicles” or “RVs”– as if they were recreational vehicles, trailers.
Cohn’s summer seminar included nine other women. She expected such highly educated, knowledgeable men, faced with ten women in their midst, to feel discomfort about their more macho expressions. But, she writes, she was wrong. They seemed innocent of feminist critiques of male behavior and openly said that for the American military, nuclear weapons were “irresistible, because you get more bang for your buck.” They told her that scientists would never seriously contemplate disarmament because disarmament is emasculation: “to disarm is to get rid of all your stuff.” One professor explained that the MX missile would not replace older, less accurate missiles, but be placed in the silos of the newest Minuteman missiles, “because they’re the nicest holes– you’re not going to take the nicest missile you have and put it in a crummy hole.” Scientists lectured on “vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay-downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks”–defined by one military adviser to the National Security Counsel as “releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump.” They expressed serious concern about “the need to harden our missiles and the need to ‘face it, the Russians are a little harder than we are.'”
Cohn found Air Force Magazine‘s advertisements for new weapons a rival to Playboy in cataloging men’s sexual anxieties and fantasies. Ads promoting weapons as “big sticks” or “penetrators”, or for their “cratering” powers. When French military men do nuclear tests on the Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific, they give every crater they gouge out of the earth a woman’s name. Phallic imagery is common in description of nuclear blasts. Cohn cites one by journalist William Lawrence, who witnessed the bombing of Nagasaki: “Then, just when it appeared as though the thing had settled down into a state of permanence, there cane shooting out of the top a giant mushroom that increased the size of the pillar to a total of 45,000 feet. The mushroom top was even more alive than the pillar, seething and boiling in a white fury of creamy foam, sizzling upward and then descending earthward, a thousand geysers rolled into one.”
A Pentagon target analyst explained that plans for “limited nuclear war” were doomed because “it’s a pissing contest– you gotta expect them to use everything they’ve got.” When India exploded a nuclear bomb, a professor remarked that “she” had lost her “virginity”; when New Zealand parliamentarian Marilyn Waring forced her government to ban nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered warships from its ports, a retired U.S. Air Force General, Ross Milton, wrote an angry column in Air Force Magazine called “Nuclear Virginity”. Cohn found the world of nuclear weaponry pervaded by friendship and even romance: “enemies ‘exchange’ warheads; one missile ‘takes out’ another; weapons systems can ‘marry up’; the wires linking warning and response mechanisms allow “coupling.” But this sex and romance aim at murder. If one of our own warheads “kills” another of one’s own warheads, that is “fratricide.” And while these men devoted considerable discussion to “vulnerability” and “survivability,” they were concerned not with the vulnerability and survival of people but of weapon systems.
Cohn quotes two descriptions of the aftermath of a nuclear attack. One, by Hisako Matsubara, who was a child in Kyoto when the atomic bomb was dropped, is based on surviors’ memories:
“Everything was black, had vanished into the black dust, was destroyed. Only the flames that were beginning to lick their way up had any color. From the dust that was like a fog, figures began to loom up, black, hairless, faceless. They screamed with voices that were no longer human. Their screams drowned out the groans rising everywhere from the rubble, groans that seemed to rise from the very earth itself.”
The second is nukespeak, by an Army general on the National Security Council during the Carter administration:
“You have to have ways to maintain communication in a nuclear environment, a situation bound to include EMP blackout, brute force damage to systems, ad heavy jamming environment, and so on.”
The most appalling and profound truth about all this is that these men are not even concerned with their own survival. Only power matters: it is god, an exalted disembodied force more important than humankind. It is difficult to plumb such absurd and perverse thinking. Cohn stresses that men’s reference point in technostrategic discourse is not themselves or even white men, is not human beings at all; it is the weapons. These men call human death “collateral damage” less to conceal human suffering than because human death is collateral to what matters to them– weapons themselves. But, Cohn points out, when men create a discourse that excluded human life in its calculus, it is impossible to include humans and illegitimate to expect the discourse to reflect human concerns. She realized that knowledge of this language did not enable one to introduce such concerns or influence political decisions. She even questioned whether the discourse was part of the process by which political decisions are made. Cohn believes that technostrategic discourse functions as a gloss, an “ideological curtain” disguising the real reasons for political decisions. It is however likely that those decisions are based on the same assumptions, the same values, as the discourse. Terrifyingly.
(TW) If you would like to see the “collateral damage” of this type of power, please click here.