What Twitter Taught Me About (Nuclear) War With North Korea
Image Credit: Rodong Sinmun screen capture

What Twitter Taught Me About (Nuclear) War With North Korea


Do social scientists, and defense/foreign policy writers (yours truly included) trivialize nuclear warfare by using social science vernacular? This might appear to beg the question of whether words alone can mitigate the obvious gravity of nuclear holocaust. Although Hamlet might demur, certain words do matter, especially when they appear as the precision guided tools of a professed expert understanding of the world.

Let me try to elaborate on this point by referring to my own personal experience.

As North Korea continues to accelerate the pace of its testing of variants of ballistic missiles, accompanied by habitual threats of nuclear war, Twitter has become a major platform for experts and the wider foreign policy community to discuss the implications of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons program for global security.

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Following every ballistic missile launch or verbal threat of war, academics, defense analysts, and foreign policy writers flock to Twitter to analyze, discuss and dissect North Korea’s latest capabilities and likely future moves. There, experts in missile technology and sundry academics (mostly social scientists) are influencing the conversation.

From my perch within this sphere, it appears that the default professional argot used during microblogged exchanges on North Korea (and subsequently often filtered into articles) is that of social scientists (and more so than when discussing other hot spots such as Afghanistan). Scientific jargon expedites the efficient and coded traffic of ideas. “Extended deterrence,” “second-strike capability,” or “first-strike stability,” are concepts that would require extensive explanation to the layman, but are immediately understood by similarly trained experts.

Yet, while social science vocabulary — designed to facilitate the systematic and objective analysis of human behavior and human events — has a place in academic publications and peer-reviewed journals, its overuse among non-experts may have a detrimental impact on the public discourse about North Korea. Among other things, social science neologism by design can detach us from what is most salient when discussing the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula: the appalling enormity of nuclear war.

For example, using the term “countervalue targeting” rather than clearly stating what it stands for in a nuclear conflict, i.e. the killing and mutilation of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of civilians in cities, is an atrocious euphemism (full disclosure: I have used the phrase before) and is open to an Orwellian indictment that it is designed to make “murder respectable.” This kind of usage is commonly replicated in practice.

As Carol Cohn stated in a 1987 journal article: “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. Human death, in nuclear parlance, is most often referred to as ‘collateral damage’; for, as one defense analyst said wryly, ‘The Air Force doesn’t target people, it targets shoe factories.’”

There are several reasons for the favored use of social science idiom when discussing war with North Korea.

First, nuclear strategy emerged out of the social sciences. For example, the concept of nuclear deterrence and all subsequent variations of it during the Cold War and beyond, were crafted primarily by social scientists or scientists. Absent a nuclear war, any of the concepts introduced in the last couple of decades remain essentially nonfalsifiable. Nuclear deterrence works because we believe it works. Social science constructs will persist as long as no dramatically improved ballistic missile defense systems are deployed or a nuclear war breaks out.

Second, social scientists tend to dismiss the particular and focus more on structural elements when discussing nuclear war. This emphasis on structure can turn nuclear war into an abstract concept rather than a real possibility. True to Stalin’s dictum that “a single death is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic,” structural analysis has an unintended dehumanizing effect. For example, relatively little analysis has taken place in the U.S. Twittersphere about the likely consequences of war on the Korean Peninsula for the civilian population both in the North and South, besides occasional reference to casualty estimates.

Carol Cohn eloborates: “Structurally, speaking technostrategic language removes [experts] from the position of victim and puts them in the position of the planner, the user, the actor. (…) [T]he speakers of technostrategic language are positionally allowed, even forced, to escape that awareness, to escape viewing nuclear war from the position of the victim, by virtue of their linguistic stance as users, rather than victims, of nuclear weaponry.” This applies especially to North Korea’s nuclear program, as most analysts for the time being (unless they are situated in South Korea or Japan) are in no danger of being the victims of a North Korean nuclear strike.

Third, we obviously have never fought a nuclear war. Consequently, there is a vacuum usually filled by those who have experienced certain wars firsthand and who through their experience and anecdotes can help diversify the debate about war. For one thing, combat veterans and civilians who have endured war are more likely to highlight the human elements of conflict than the structural features a social scientist would derive from it. Also, studies indicate that people value information based on first-hand experience more than detached analysis. Since there are no personal experiences of nuclear war, however, we are left to rely on social scientists and their unemotional narrative when discussing the subject.

Provisionally, social science neologism is useful to enable hypothetical discussion, but not when it obfuscates rather than clarifies the nature of nuclear war. Experts have a responsibility to emphasize the multiple horrors of a nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula in plain language.  While it likely will not prevent an outbreak of hostilities, a regular reminder  of the gruesome realities of war, can make discussions more circumspect and less one-sided (including on Twitter.) In the long run, this can perhaps influence policymakers to adopt a more nuanced and less confrontational approach vis-à-vis a nuclear-armed North Korea.

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