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There’s Something Wrong With How We (Not Just Trump) Talk About Nuclear War

President Trump has a remarkable ability to disarm longstanding leftist critiques of U.S. militarism by using language seemingly borrowed from those critiques as defenses of his militaristic foreign policy. Neoconservatives had bristled for years at the notion that the U.S. had gone to war for natural resources in Iraq and Afghanistan before Trump shamelessly came out and said we should take Iraq’s oil and Afghanistan’s minerals. (“To the victor belong the spoils,” Trump is fond of declaring.) Critics had charged for decades that American talk about human rights and democracy was a hypocritical sham before Trump asked Bill O’Reilly, in response to a question about why he sticks up for a dictator like Vladimir Putin, “You think our country’s so innocent?” Similarly, the notion of nuclear brinkmanship as a pre-apocalyptic dick-measuring contest was a cliché long before Trump all but tweeted “mine’s bigger” at Kim Jong-Un on Tuesday:

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This hardly seems out of character for a man who defended the size of his actual penis during a televised presidential debate, and who often takes a “size matters” attitude toward weapons of mass destruction. (Recall that it reportedly was his desire to have 32,000 nuclear weapons at his disposal, because that was the most any president had ever had, that prompted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to call him a “fucking moron.”) But Trump’s hardly the first man to wax Freudian in a discussion of nuclear annihilation. The term “missile envy,” after all, was coined by one nuclear disarmament advocate in the 1980s.

A 1987 article by Carol Cohn, a feminist scholar on gender and national security issues, has been making the rounds on Twitter since Trump’s tweet. Cohn describes a year she spent studying with a group of defense and arms control scholars at a major U.S. university. She writes:

I think I had naively imagined that I would need to sneak around and eavesdrop on what men said in unguarded moments, using all my cunning to unearth sexual imagery. I had believed that these men would have cleaned up their acts, or that at least at some point in a long talk about “penetration aids,” someone would suddenly look up, slightly embarrassed to be caught in such blatant confirmation of feminist analyses.

And later:

A professor’s explanation of why the MX missile is to be placed in the silos of the newest Minuteman missiles, instead of replacing the older, less accurate missiles, was “because they’re in the nicest hole—you’re not going to take the nicest missile you have and put it in a crummy hole.” Other lectures were filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks —or what one military adviser to the National Security Council has called “releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump.”’
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This sort of thing continues today. There was quite a bit of tittering among analysts when North Korea began testing the “Nodong” missile (get it?), made worse by the fact that, as Jeffrey Lewis has written, this was a U.S.-chosen designation for the missile the North Koreans call the Hwaseong-7. Nodong refers to a village near where it was first observed, which is normally styled Rodong. Surely the emasculating connotations are just a coincidence, just as NATO just happened to choose the code name “Fagot” for the Soviet Mig-15 fighter jet, rather than any other word starting with F as required by convention.

There’s been a strange sexualization of nuclear weaponry since the beginning of the Cold War. It was just two weeks after the U.S. nuclear test at Bikini Atoll in 1946 that a French swimwear designer released the explosively scandalous bathing suit named after the island, whose inhabitants would spend the next few decades in exile. The erotic charge of the arms race was also a major theme of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which opens with a memorably phallic midair refueling scene and only gets more blatant from there.

But Cohn sees all the sex talk as just one facet of a larger problem: the tendency among nuclear war planners to speak about the effects of these horrifying weapons in startlingly abstract terms.

“Anyone who has seen pictures of Hiroshima burn victims or tried to imagine the pain of hundreds of glass shards blasted into flesh may find it perverse beyond imagination to hear a class of nuclear devices matter of factly referred to as ‘clean bombs,’ ” she writes. “This language has enormous destructive power, but without emotional fallout, without the emotional fallout that would result if it were clear one was talking about plans for mass murder, mangled bodies, and unspeakable human suffering. Defense analysts talk about ‘countervalue attacks’ rather than about incinerating cities.”

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As journalist Franz-Stefan Gady recently wrote, citing Cohn, euphemistic phrases like countervalue attacks are very much a feature of the conversations of armchair nuclear analysts on Twitter during the recent tensions with North Korea and are “open to an Orwellian indictment that it is designed to make ‘murder respectable.’ ” This sort of language can also be seen as a symptom of the “institutionalized madness” of nuclear war planning described by Daniel Ellsberg, a former resident of that world, a world in which otherwise rational people make detailed plans for how to most efficiently and effectively carry out a war, which will almost certainly not turn out anything like they planned and could wipe out all of humanity.

This is the way that people who understand the potential effects of nuclear war much better than Trump talk about it, so it seems almost unfair to expect more of a guy who’s not exactly well-versed on the topic. Trump has none of the specialized argot used by specialists, so the macho posturing underneath is all the more evident.

Of course, he’s also not the first president to describe U.S. military might as if it’s an extension of his own manhood. Teddy Roosevelt famously cited a (probably made up) African proverb—“Speak softly and carry a big stick”—to describe his foreign policy doctrine. The speaking softly part probably wouldn’t appeal to the current president, though.

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