Patriarchy and the Cult of Coercion
Pale, male, and stale will make deterrence fail
Carol Cohn is the G.O.A.T. Back in 1987, she wrote what is still the best gendered take on the pathologies of deterrence in a piece called, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.”
It absolutely demolishes the cult of the missile bro. And every deterrence scholar I know who’s not a caveman kneels before this article with overt praise. Many swear they even teach it.
Yet, modern deterrence theory is basically all rationalist—an implicit rejection of Cohn’s critique. The language of the field—from “Minuteman missiles” to “vertical erector launchers”—remains unbelievably phallic. And while that article has 2,081 citations in Google Scholar as of now (which speaks to its fame), most of those cites are not from deterrence scholars. In fact, I know of few deterrence scholars who even account for her critique—or consider a feminist perspective generally—in their work.
What are we supposed to make of that? It seems that Carol Cohn is to the deterrence community as kente cloth is to Nancy Pelosi amid the Movement for Black Lives: symbolic deference as an alternative to material redress.
The community’s failure to take Cohn’s critique of rational deterrence—and defense intellectualism—seriously has left a dangerous legacy.
I was reminded of all this when I saw that US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM)—in charge of the nukes—just hosted a big “deterrence” symposium. It’s an annual thing. Years ago, as part of another life, I may have attended it (I did multiple USSTRATCOM engagements back in the day but I don’t recall precisely what they were).
What I didn’t notice then, but couldn’t help but notice now, was just how old, white, and male it is. I mean look at that sea of sameness.
Jesus H. Only five of the 36 speakers were women. I assume there were about that many (or fewer) ethnic minorities too.
Now, I’m a cis-hetero dude. I’m half white. And as an elder millennial, I probably qualify as an “old.” Which is only to say that 1) I should choose my words carefully, and 2) I’m not trying to vilify the old white dudes—they have a place in this world too…they just shouldn’t get to dictate to everyone else.
But I’m also not crowing about diversity for the sake of it. There’s a thesis in a photo like that. I mean, if that picture were black and white, I’d swear it was from the 1950s.
What it makes me think is this: The in-group homogeneity of the social network whose vocation is fingering the nuclear button creates and reifies ideological conformity about coercion and national security strategy.
Put differently, the world of nuclear strategy is full of bros of a certain age, and the nuke-bro way of thinking is hard to dislodge because there’s such a high percentage of nuke bros. Consequently, we’re stuck making choices that don’t just make the world dangerous for the rest of us, but also that—ironically—erode our own power over time.