Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Orgasmic Whump - an excerpt for Hiroshima Day

Two bits from Borderline today, the anniversary of the first atomic bomb being used to kill tens of thousands of men, women, and children.

Weapons are masculine threat displays:

The relationship between “masculine” men and weapons is such a prevailing cliché that one finds it everywhere, from advertising to leftwing revolutionary posters, fascist imagery to the novels of Hemingway, war memorials to homoerotic art, from the porn industry to feminist critiques of male militarism. Weapons systems are designed mostly by men, marketed mostly for men and used mostly by men—and in many parts of the world, they are the primary source of death for men. Boys are given guns and swords to play with or they make them for themselves. Adolescent male warriors and middle-aged male hunters pose for cameras brandishing their weapons. . . . War memorials depict muscular men clutching their guns or hurling grenades with flexed, oversized pectoral muscles bulging out of the opened shirts of their uniforms.48

When, in 1945, the outcome of the Second World War after Stalingrad was a mathematical certainty, the United States was already turning its eyes toward the Soviet Union. When the Manhattan Project successfully detonated an atomic bomb, President Truman made his decision to use this weapon against Japan, twice, with several factors in mind—none by itself sufficient to justify vaporizing two cities, but together enough for Truman. Though the Japanese were already suing for peace terms, one idea was that the bomb would summarily end the war and force the Japanese to surrender without conditions. Another reason was to satisfy the American need for revenge aftr Pearl Harbor. Mass bombing of civilians had already been established as a precedent with Dresden and the fiebombing of Japan; one bombing run over Tokyo alone had killed more than one hundred thousand people in 1944. Another justifiation was the enormous expense of the Manhattan Project. Finally, and this reason was perhaps the most strategically “defensible” one (on strategic and amoral terms), the bomb would send a message to the Soviet Union about how things were going to be after the war.49

The bomb was used for “demonstration effect.”

William Laurence, a journalist who was invited by the government to witness the bombing of Nagasaki, writing about the immediate aftermath of detonation, said, “Then, just as it appeared as though the thing had settled down into a state of permanence, there came shooting out of the top a giant 

48. Myrttinen, “Disarming Masculinities,” 37.
49. Donohoe, “Understanding the Decision to Drop the Bomb.”

Second World War 355

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 . . .”50

Two bombs had killed more than 105,000 men, women, and children, and injured more than 94,000.51 Within four months, another 105,000-plus would die of radiation aftereffects.52 With the end of the war, a new and frightful age of martial masculinity had been inaugurated.

Bombs, Babies, and ’Burbs

"Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds."

— Robert Oppenheimer,
up on witnessing the first atomic bomb test

"Progress is our most important product."

— General Electric tag line, 1954,
delivered on television by Ronald Reagan 1

In 1984, Carol Cohn—now the director of the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human rights in Boston—was invited along with forty-seven other college teachers to attend a summer workshop on “nuclear doctrine,” featuring a host of “defense intellectuals.” (After the war, in 1949, the War Department had changed its name to the Department of Defense, suggesting that every military action taken by the United States is defensive in nature.) Cohn was one of ten women who attended.2 She writes that the gathering threw her into a state of disequilibrium. Th “defense intellectuals” were affable, likeable men, who discussed “scenarios” that anticipated the deaths of millions of people, in a language that was simultaneously sexual and techni-

1. General Electric Reports, “The Reagan Centennial.”
2. Cohn, “Sex and Death in the Rational World,” 687.

Bombs , Babies , and 'Burbs 357

cal, never mentioning that human beings would be killed in these scenarios. She became so fascinated by this dissonance that she continued working with these “defense intellectuals” for a year to better understand them and her reaction to them.3

After a time, listening to lectures and panels and engaging in debates, she was surprised to find that her original sense of shock at the “extraordinary abstraction and removal from what I knew as reality” was not increased during her year with these men, but that she found herself becoming comfortable with the language and concepts they used:

As I learned their language, as I became more and more engaged with their information and their arguments, I found that my own thinking was changing. Soon, I could no longer cling to the comfort of studying an external and objectified “them.” I had to confront a new question: How can I think this way?4

She termed their language “technostrategic.” It is characterized by bloodless terms like “throw weights,” “counterforce exchanges,” and “deterrent postures.” Bombs are called “clean” if they leave behind less radiation hazard. These defense intellectuals coined the term collateral damage. There are no bodies, no wounds; there is no agony or grief. One nuclear missile is actually named “The Peacekeeper.”5 Technostrategic language can also be, paradoxically, very sexual. Missiles and “payloads” are constructed with “penetration aids.” Missiles stand by in “silos” (evoking the family farm), which are alternatively referred to as “holes.” There was a discussion about why a good missile requires a “nice hole.” One official talked about releasing “80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump.” The introduction of a successful nuclear test means a country (like India) has “lost its nuclear virginity.”6

Male “defense intellectuals” also appropriate motherhood for themselves in what Cohn calls “male birth” tropes. This is a time-honored patriarchal tradition dating to prehistory, when we think about women “carrying” a man’s baby—this transfer of the power of generation from women to men. At Los Alamos, the first atomic bomb was referred to as “Oppenheimer’s baby.” The first hydrogen bomb was called “Edward Teller’s baby,” though others disputed this, claiming that Teller was just the mother and the true father was Stanislaw Ulam, who had “inseminated” Teller with

3. Ibid., 687–88.
4. Ibid., 688.
5. Ibid., 692.
6. Ibid., 696.

358 B o r d e r l i n e

the idea. During the fist nuclear tests, scientists said they hoped for a “boy” (a successful explosion) and not a “girl” (a dud). The fist successful test of the hydrogen bomb at Enewetak Atoll was announced with the message to Los Alamos, “ It’s a boy.”7

Nuclear technostrategic talk also has a theological/ecclesial idiom. Oppenheimer’s reference to the Hindu god Krishna’s boast “I am become death” was just the first claim to godhood when the first bomb exploded. Nuclear scientists and policymakers still refer to themselves unabashedly as “the nuclear priesthood.” The first bomb test was referred to as “Trinity”—a reference, as understood by the scientists, to “the unity of the male [sic] forces of Creation.”8

Cohn admitted that she learned to enjoy using technostrategic language. Its terms were “racy, sexy, snappy.” Upon reflection she realized that she enjoyed “the thrill of being able to manipulate an arcane language, the power of entering the secret kingdom, being someone in the know.”9 Cohn said that using the language made her feel in control and that her mastery of it made her feel that the “whole thing” of nuclear weapons and nuclear war is therefore “under control”:

The more conversations I participated in using this language, the less frightened I was of nuclear war. . . . Structurally, speaking technostrategic language removes [us] from the position of victim, and puts [us] in the position of the planner, the user, the actor.10

Peace, notes Cohn, is replaced in this man-jargon by the term strategic stability. We can begin to see, then, using Cohn’s testimony to her own experience, the capacity of language to simultaneously reproduce and conceal power. Cohn was not the victim of coercion, but seduction. Technostrategic language, a highly reified and targeted form of abstraction, becomes intellectual Rohypnol, a conceptual “roofie.” She concludes that “as the pleasures [of talking this man-talk] deepen, so do the dangers. The activity of trying to out-reason nuclear strategists in their own games gets you thinking inside their rules, tacitly accepting all the unspoken assumptions of their paradigms. You become subject to the tyranny of concepts. The language shapes your categories of thought and defies the boundaries of imagination.”11

7. Ibid., 699–700.
8. Ibid., 702.
9. I’ve seen this same delight on the faces of war-reporting newscasters when they throw around their military lingo.
10. Cohn, “Sex and Death in the Rational World,” 704.
11. Ibid., 704.

Bombs, Babies, and 'Burbs 359

The Cold War, the “baby boom,” and the invention of the American car suburb comprised the context of my birth. On August 29, 1949, less than fifteen months before I was born, the Soviet Union conducted its fist successful atomic bomb test, shocking President Harry Truman, who had ordered the annihilation of two cities just four years earlier as a warning to Stalin. The warning had “worked,” but not in the way Truman had anticipated. Upon learning of this successful test, Truman ordered a nuclear and conventional military buildup. The arms race and the Cold War had begun.12


  1. Right on, Stan. Always bears repeating!

  2. A most wonderful book exploring this import an topic.