Last Thursday the United States military dropped a bomb on ISIS targets in eastern Afghanistan. Not just any bomb: the largest non-nuclear bomb in America’s arsenal, the 21,000-pound GBU-43/B, also known as the MOAB—a Massive Ordinance Air Blast. Apparently also known as “the Mother of All Bombs.”
And just like that, the media is abuzz with talk of this Mother of All Bombs. As if it were perfectly natural to ascribe maternal qualities to one of the most destructive devices on the planet.
Why give a second thought to this terminology? It is, after all, what the military uses. And really, there’s nothing unusual about this sort of language—the way we talk about weapons and warfare has long been infused with imagery of women and children, of sex and paternalistic domination.
It may not be unusual, but it is rather curious, once you start to think about it.
Carol Cohn, founding director of the Consortium on Gender, Security, and Human Rights at the University of Massachusetts Boston, was among the first to draw attention to this language. Back in 1984, Cohn immersed herself in the world of Cold War “defense intellectuals.” As she listened to these men (virtually all were men) coolly discuss topics like nuclear annihilation, she was struck by the language they employed. The men spoke of “penetration aids,” of “orgasmic whumps,” and of “the need to harden our missiles,” all without a whiff of embarrassment or even self-awareness. They tossed around innocuous-sounding acronyms (RV, PAL, BAMBI). And they spoke frequently of babies (remember “Little Boy”?) and motherhood—or rather of the masculine usurpation of the power of giving life, as they boasted of “giving birth” to nuclear progeny.
Such language has become so commonplace in discussions of military actions that it’s easy to overlook its significance. But if Cohn is right, this language matters. It turns discussions of life and death into a battle for manhood (a “pissing contest” with deadly consequences). It covers the horrors of warfare with layers of abstraction, and gives the illusion of control.
Yet this “techno-strategic language” is the lingua franca of the defense community. If you want to be taken seriously, Cohn discovered, you need to speak the language. And it turns out that for Cohn, gaining fluency was kind of fun. The words were “racy, sexy, snappy,” and gave her a sense of mastery—a mastery over the language that seemed to impart a mastery over the thing itself.
But even as she gained this mastery, she discerned a waning ability to articulate her own values. This discourse, for example, had no word signifying “peace”; to speak of peace was “to immediately brand oneself as a soft-headed activist, instead of an expert, a professional to be taken seriously.” Most disturbingly, the language itself actively prevented her from keeping human lives as her reference point: “The imagery that domesticates, that humanizes insentient weapons, also serves, paradoxically, to make it all right to ignore sentient human bodies, human lives.”
Once she began speaking the language, she found she could no longer really hear it. It turns out the process of learning this language was not additive, but transformative.
There’s a lesson here, for citizens, and for the media. In an increasingly militarized society, at a time when the motivations and strategies of our commander-in-chief are often impenetrable, it is more important than ever to remain clear-headed. Rather than tripping over one another to demonstrate mastery of the latest techno-strategic military-speak, we should be vigilant that the very words we use do not distract us from what’s really at stake.
And for those who want to work for peace, that effort may begin with the words we speak.