Feminist scholar Carol Cohn wrote a story about her experience working with nuclear war strategists in the 1980s. In this story, a white male physicist, working on modelling nuclear counterforce attacks, exclaims to a group of other white male physicists about the cavalier way they are talking about civilian casualties. “Only thirty million!” he bursts out. “Only thirty million human beings killed instantly?” The room went silent. He felt ashamed.
This is an important story about nuclear weapons—or rather, about the ways in which those who think they benefit from nuclear weapons maintain their dominance over how we think and talk about these weapons.
We are supposed to think about nuclear weapons as “deterrents”. Their advocates argue that the mere possession of nuclear weapons deters and prevents conflict. In the right hands, they are good for humanity, the argument goes. Nuclear weapons are to be talked about in the abstract, as magical tools that keep us safe and main stability in the world.
“War is peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” So goes the slogan of The Party in George Orwell’s novel 1984.
Weapons prevent war. So goes the “realist” discourse about nuclear weapons.
But, when it comes to nuclear weapons, who is really being unrealistic? Those who assume that we can exist in this world, with all its tensions and conflicts and fears and instabilities, and not see the use of nuclear weapons? Those who believe that a theory called “nuclear deterrence,” cooked up by nuclear war strategists, is infallible?
Or is it those of us who are see the inherent dangers in the atomic bomb and seek its abolition? Who believe that security cannot credibly be based on threatening to commit genocide, or to destroy the entire world?
If we are willing to admit there may be some flaws in the discourse of deterrence, we should ask how has it survived and thrived? How has it usurped and held onto the mantle of “realism” for so long?
A feminist analysis is very useful to answer this question. It can help us understand how nuclear weapons are a patriarchal tool, and how it benefits the patriarchy to advocate for their continued existence in the arsenals of a select few governments.
The patriarchy is a social order dominated by men—in particular, men performing a certain brand of militarised masculinity that associates weapons and war with power. This form of masculinity influences the possession, proliferation, and use of everything from nuclear weapons to small arms. This is a masculinity in which ideas like strength, courage, and protection are equated with violence. It is a masculinity in which the capacity and willingness to use weapons, engage in combat, and kill other human beings is seen as essential to being “a real man”.
This type of violent, militarised masculinity harms everyone. It harms everyone who does not perform that gender norm—women, LGBTQIA-identified people, non-normative men. It requires oppression of those deemed “weaker” on the basis of gender norms. It results in domestic violence. It results in violence against women. It results in violence against gay and trans people. But this kind of masculinity also means violence against other men performing violent masculinities. Men mostly kill each other, inside and outside of conflict. Violent masculinities make male bodies more expendable. Women and children, obnoxiously lumped together in countless UN resolutions and media reports, are more likely be deemed “innocent civilians,” while men are more likely be to be considered militants or combatants. Often, in conflict, civilian men are targeted—or counted in casualty recordings—as militants only because they are men of a certain age.
But militarised masculinity is not just about death. It is also a major impediment to disarmament, peace, and gender equality. It makes disarmament seem weak. It makes peace seem utopian. It makes protection without weapons seem absurd.
The concept of nuclear deterrence is a product of the patriarchy. It is designed to justify outrageous behaviour by those with power and privilege—the behaviour of spending billions of dollars on weapons that risk the world’s total destruction—in order to maintain that power and privilege. And those espousing this theory have managed to maintain their dominance over the nuclear weapon debate by employing the tools of the patriarchy, such as gaslighting and victim blaming.
The term gaslighting comes from a play written in 1938, in which a woman’s husband slowly manipulates her into believing she is going insane. We can see the technique employed broadly in politics, particularly right now in the United States over issues of economic injustice, racism, and sexual violence. It is the denial of the lived reality of marginalised populations; the assertion that, “there is nothing to see here, everything is fine.”
Gaslighting in the realm of nuclear weapons has been practiced since the beginning of the atomic age. The discourse of deterrence denies the lived reality of those who have experienced the intergenerational harms of nuclear weapons use and testing. It makes it a thoughtcrime, à la 1984, to consider the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.
One of the ways it does this is to “feminise” anyone who tries to raise these issues. That physicist in Carol Cohn’s story confessed to her, after his outburst to the room of other male physicists, “Nobody said a word. They didn’t even look at me. It was awful. I felt like a woman.”
The association of caring about the murder of thirty million people with “being a woman” is all about seeing women as being weak. Being a woman means caring about wrong things; letting your “emotions” get the better of you; focusing on human beings when you should be focused on “strategy”.
This means that caring about the humanitarian and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons is feminine. It is not relevant to the job that “real men” have to do to “protect” their countries.
It not only suggests that caring about the use of nuclear weapons is spineless and silly, but also makes the pursuit of disarmament seem to be an unrealistic, irrational objective.
This is not just an issue of the 1980s. This happens now.
As diplomats at the UN worked to ban nuclear weapons, they were ridiculed by their counterparts in nuclear-armed countries. They were called “radical dreamers”. They were told they were being “emotional”. They were told they do not understand how to protect their people. They were told their security interests do not matter—or do not exist at all. They were told that banning nuclear weapons is illegitimate and naïve. They were even told that banning nuclear weapons might undermine international security so much it could even result in the use of nuclear weapons.
Which brings us to another patriarchal technique: victim blaming. This is where men argue that women who have been victims of sexual assault must have been acting or dressing a certain way to deserve the assault. With nuclear weapons, the argument is similar: if you try to take away our toys of massive nuclear violence, we will have no choice but to use them, and it will be your fault.
Feminist analysis helps us understand the gendered nature of support for nuclear weapons. It also gives us tools to deconstruct the opposition of banning nuclear weapons.
It helps us see how certain expectations about masculinity and femininity, coded through our social norms, mean that bombs make us strong and disarmament makes us weak. About how “more weapons” is rational and “less weapons” is irrational. About how those who want to challenge the dominant narrative are kept in line by having their manhood threatened.
A feminist analysis also offers us techniques to overcome this. It provides space for alternative voices. It does not diminish care for human beings by associating it with weakness, but with strength. It offers a concept of security based on equity and justice rather than weapons and war. It means being guided by affected communities. By survivors. By those living in places and spaces that are marginalised and excluded from dominant narratives.
Nuclear weapons are the ultimate symbol of injustice. They bring death and destruction, but also inequality and manipulation. They are the ultimate patriarchal tool: the ultimate way for the privileged to maintain their power.