Joseph Masco is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, winner of the J. I. Staley Prize from the School for Advanced Research, the Rachel Carson Prize from the Society for the Social Studies of Science, and the Robert K. Merton Prize from the American Sociology Association. His current work examines the evolution of the national security state in the United States, with a particular focus on the interplay between affect, technology, and threat perception within a national public sphere.



Sonia Grant: Thank you for taking the time to talk about your new book, The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror (2014). I’d like to start by getting a sense of what brought you to this project, and what kinds of continuities you see between it and your first book, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (2006). Both books engage with Cold War national security culture, technoscience, and secrecy, among other key themes. How did The Theater of Operations, as a project, develop for you? Did it feel like an obvious ‘next step’ from your work on the Manhattan Project?

Joseph Masco: While I was concluding fieldwork on The Nuclear Borderlands, the September 2001 attacks occurred and provoked a massive U.S. military buildup while renewing national fears of a nuclear catastrophe. White House officials were quick to declare a “new normal” of counterterrorism, marked explicitly as a radical break from Cold War notions of security. This rejection of deterrence, combined with an amplification of existential threats, were central themes in what became a pretty shocking militarization of American society. The War on Terror – as a political project — was a systematic attempt to create amnesia about the 20th century security state (and its prior actions in Iraq and Afghanistan) while at the same time using the familiar Cold War notion of nuclear danger to foment an existential crisis, one enabling quite radical actions around the world.

Some of the first conversations I had in Los Alamos in the early 1990s concerned the future of the laboratory, and of the U.S. nuclear weapons program more broadly, in light of the demise of the Soviet Union. At that time, U.S. weapons scientists were already talking about nuclear terrorism, the threat of radical forms of Islam, and, above all, were positing the arrival of a violent global adversary that could not be deterred. So, in a sense, the counter-terror state project was articulated to me almost a decade before the 9/11 attacks.

The formal conversion of the Cold War security apparatus to counterterror after 2001 has been hugely consequential: it has involved multiple war fronts, massive new realignments of security agencies and expansive new budgets, a new use of contractors to extend the range and scope of the existing security capabilities, a whole new series of laws and understandings about warfare, detention, surveillance, and killing, as well as multiple Manhattan projects across the vast range of national security sciences. These actions were all tied to the ideological mobilization of 9/11 as not simply a terrible and shockingly violent act, but as an ongoing existential danger to the United States.

In this regard, submerged in the language of the “new normal” was an extraordinarily powerful reproduction of an older logic and system of American power. The Cold War security state apparatus was rationalized in the mid-20th century as an effort to prevent a nuclear Pearl Harbor. Between September 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the loudest messages in the American media space involved depictions of nuclear fears, surprise attacks, and existential dangers. While finishing The Nuclear Borderlands I felt obliged to consider how nuclear fear was being mobilized to transform the Cold War national security apparatus into a counter-terror formation. This involved researching the similarities and differences between the first decade of the Cold War and the first decade of the War on Terror. It also involved an anthropological consideration of the political reliance on existential danger in the United States. I became interested in the affective and imaginative logics that were already so well entrenched in American life that all the Bush Administration had to do was reference them – remember the casual, if strategic, use of “mushroom cloud” rhetoric in the build up to invading Iraq? — to enable a quite radical set of policies.

SG: Amid these crucial continuities between the Cold War and the War on Terror, The Theatre of Operations also traces how the spatial, temporal, and conceptual contours of U.S. national “security” have changed in this era of counterterror. Can you walk us through these shifts?

JM: Nuclear power was at the center of a set of administrative and geopolitical logics that we call the Cold War: the bomb was simultaneously an external threat and an unprecedented offensive weapon – constituting the very basis for “superpower” status.

The Cold War was a new kind of war, however, one that was fought globally though proxy wars, an arms race, covert actions, and economic competition, but that also was limited by the destructive force of the bomb. I’ve been interested in tracing the dystopian/utopian narratives of the national security state itself. The early Cold War, for example, offered lots of images of immanent demise, but also promoted technological revolution itself as the basis for a constantly expanding economy and a steady improvement in the qualities of everyday life across health and welfare. One achievement of the Cold War system in the United States was this quite schizophrenic concept of the future – where a utopian vision of everyday life was grounded in a new kind of totalizing danger, one that could end life itself in an instant.

This “nuclear system” required managing everyday American life at new levels of intimacy: it demanded that citizens become militarized subjects, reconstituted as Cold Warriors generally supportive of large scale military investments as a permanent aspect of everyday life. Prior to WWII American armies disbanded after war. After WWII, U.S. leaders made a decision to never demobilize. This is a huge distortion of American democracy. And what comes with permanent mobilization in the nuclear age is a concentration of power in the figure of a President, who is authorized now to start a nuclear war any second of the day. Alongside this new kind of President comes a huge apparatus of secrecy. The nuclear state, which makes claims on the life and death of every citizen, is essentially not part of the public democratic sphere but it does create new resources for manipulating the public sphere. This is something I’ve also been trying to trace: the political mobilization of existential danger as part of an expansion of the security apparatus itself.

Basically, from the 1950s onwards, each decade has a moment in which there is a large-scale public media campaign fomented from within the U.S. security apparatus constituting an immanent danger to the country. Fear, in other words, becomes a political resource to an every emerging set of institutions. Consider 2002, a year in which the White House pursued a careful campaign to link the government of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to the 9/11 attacks. This message played out across all of the media spaces in the U.S. in a highly successful propaganda campaign. We forget now, but something like 70% of people in the U.S. believed at one point that Saddam Hussein was actually behind 9/11 – how did that happen?

I also want to emphasize that in February of 2003 there was a global anti-war march – the first of its kind. This was a synchronized, global political resistance ahead of a war – and it was a huge achievement in and of itself. So lots of people could see problems with the war narrative, but the Bush Administration was extremely adept at capturing the media for this story. You can’t understand why that strategy was successful unless you have a historical understanding of the political uses of nuclear fear in the United States, and that’s a story that goes back to the 1950s.

Part of the challenge of the Theatre of Operations is to try to make those connections very concrete and clear, but also to do something else, which is to say that the counterterror state is now very different from the Cold War security state. It’s a new kind of system, and this I think is the complicated twist in the story: what happens in 2001 is both reproduction and reinvention at the same time. Some of the terms of that reinvention would be: the shift form containment and stability as the organizing principles to anticipation and preemption as the goals. The counterterror state is no longer fighting a particular enemy but rather sees the future itself as a domain of potentially endless dangers, each one needing a program to manage it. The logics of counterterror involves a movement from thinking about existing and measurable dangers, the kinds of things that classic risk assessment can be helpful in, to the imaginative worlds of threat assessment.

Threat identifies dangerous events that have not yet happened. So threat calculations rely on imaginative work, and thus create an expansionary field for policy. For when do you reach the end of things that one might worry about? The security logics after 2001 are increasingly organized around managing threat, and invite every security agency, every contractor, to identify the worse-case scenarios of danger. Threat identification becomes a highly competitive expert domain in the United States. One effect of this kind of anticipatory governance is a constant shifting of official attention away from the everyday violences that people actually experience towards warding off the imaginary, but potentially catastrophic, ones.


Homeland Security Advisory System chart, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Homeland Security Advisory System chart, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.


SG: Right. You refer to this as “the promise of a world without events”.

JM: Yes, the goal of a counterterror apparatus is to achieve a world without events. No surprise, ever, and certainly nothing that could be capable of producing the feeling of terror. That’s an important thing to talk about too: it is a global War on Terror, not on terrorism; it is not a conflict with a specific group but rather an effort to eliminate the experience of terror itself. What is so radical about the new counterterror state is that it pursues a war both on and through negative affects. A “war on terror”, let’s be clear, is quite literally nonsensical – for how can the experience of terror ever be eliminated from the human condition? So the American security state now embraces an unachievable goal, and as such naturalizes an endless search for new capabilities and a permanent war posture.

After 2001, the new counterterror state deploys categories that are so open-ended that almost anything can be slotted into them. The term terror, for example, is not defined in official practice even though it is the core of a planetary-scale mobilization. The other key term is the WMD [weapon of mass destruction], which originally was a shorthand way of talking about nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. It appeared infrequently in the 20th century security discourses but became the near universal way of talking about danger after 2001. The “WMD” infuses a vast range of technologies and dangers with the existential threat of the atomic bomb. Today the term is used to describe home made explosives as well as hydrogen bombs, chemical weapons as well as viruses – it is an ever-expanding category of danger that does not register scale. In a kind of cosmological way, what the War on Terror has done is link a vague concept of political action marked as terror – and remember all you have to do is feel terror for it to be real – to the ever-expansionary category of “WMD”. The fusion of these two aspects constitutes the grounds for a perpetual insecurity, as well as for perpetual counterterror mobilizations against an ever-shifting set of concerns. Its open-endedness to the future means that what constitutes terrorism and what falls into the category of the WMD today will likely shift over time. It’s an argument essentially for a permanent state of exception. What we’re talking about now is no longer a form of technical rationality but a threat-based system of affective governance.


“Endgame” Redacted page from a Central Intelligence Agency report on interrogation techniques, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (2004).

“Endgame” Redacted page from a Central Intelligence Agency report on interrogation techniques, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (2004).


SG: In the book you explore how the War on Terror has reconfigured the social contract in the U.S., in such a way that is quite problematic for democracy. Can you elaborate on this?

JM: What a security apparatus does in the name of protecting citizens is the classical form of a social contract. The perversity of the Cold War system was that the new terms were never up for public debate. The decision to pursue nuclear weapons as the center of American defense policy is key to the transformation of the Department of War into the Department of Defense in 1947, perhaps the first act of the Cold War system. After 1947 the U.S. is deployed globally in various overt and covert ways. Crises become mediated by something I call the “secrecy/threat matrix”: this involves portraying the world as an endless spectrum of danger while also classifying all the metrics, logics, and judgments supporting those claims in the name of protecting the security apparatus itself. In such a system, it becomes literally impossible to have an informed democratic process. The Theater of Operations explores the various mechanisms for creating understandings of collective endangerment in the United States in relation to such an expansive use of state secrecy.

SG: One of the exciting contributions that you make in The Theater of Operations is to offer tools for expanding how we think about infrastructures. The book parses the material, imaginative, and affective infrastructures that constitute the security state. Can you say more about your methods for getting at the counterterror state apparatus, and how a concept of infrastructure helps you to do so?

JM: The concept of infrastructure I use is threefold. The first has to do with how the material capacities of the security state get built in the first place. The U.S. security state builds itself in times of panic. This is true dating back to the start of the 20th century and the creation of what we now call the FBI. I see a fundamental linkage between a nationalized politics of fear and the building out of a set of emergency institutions (which then become permanent). Such a process requires constituting a set of imaginative dangers that produce the right affective response in the population, a response that not only enables investments in new institutions and technologies but that also eliminates rival notions of insecurity. I see this now as a basic part of American political culture.

The Theater of Operations pursues a hybrid methodology, combining archival work with ethnographic work across a variety of security agencies, with a very careful attention to media cultures as the place where nationalized narratives are rendered. I also wanted to be attentive to the ways in which certain tropes and images are compelling in the U.S. because they are constitutive of specific security cultures, and to thinks with the specific histories of those forms. Consider the mushroom cloud, an image widely circulated in official U.S. education campaigns, which links a new technological form to a concept of mass destruction to negative affects in a new way. I would say it has become infrastructural to American security culture, a set of images, ideas, and affective intensities that can be triggered and used strategically.

SG: This reminds me of your chapter “Survival Is Your Business”, where you present scenes from different blockbuster movies in which the destruction of the United States becomes an enjoyable object for American audiences. You show that these movies also have a deep lineage with Cold War civil defense films and propaganda that worked to militarize citizens through the contemplation of their own destruction.

JM: One can do a very precise genealogy of nuclear fears through a study of the renderings of mainstream cinema. For instance, when planes are flown into key buildings in New York in 2001, one of the immediate refrains around the country was that people thought they’d seen it before. And in fact they had: there were several films that enacted the destruction of the World Trade Center in this way and a half century of atomic cinema which frequently destroyed New York. The American public was primed to experience 9/11 in a particular way by practices of viewing the destruction of major American cities on film. This is another way of saying Hollywood and the security state have been deeply aligned going back certainly to WWII. A central aspect of American nuclear culture is the constant rehearsal of certain images over and over again to such an extent that it becomes hard to think of nuclear danger without reliance on those images.


Blast radius of the first U.S. hydrogen bomb explosion set against the New York skyline, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Blast radius of the first U.S. hydrogen bomb explosion set against the New York skyline, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration


SG: You show how the notion of a “planetary” crisis develops in the Cold War period, through new earth sciences and military planning. At the same time, you argue that the legacy of the nuclear weapons complex in the U.S. has created a blockage in U.S. political culture that makes it hard to mobilize collective social action around threats that aren’t state-based. Can you speak more to this difficulty and its historical formation?

JM: The early Cold War system established a global technological infrastructure. In the formal nuclear system this was called “the triad”: bombers, intercontinental missiles, and submarines. These were always on-alert systems that were connected to radar and ultimately satellite surveillance, designed to have real-time planetary observation. The construction of this global nuclear infrastructure revolutionized many scientific fields; it also linked the security state to the biological and earth sciences in a new way. The 1950s becomes the predominant era in which the global surveillance technologies that enable earth systems to be understood as sets of interlocking forces are built. Paul Edwards talks about this as “infrastructural globalism”, and it takes off in a really major way in the 1950s.[i] It is hugely consequential not only for warfare and militarism, but also for science and technology across the board. The story that I tell in the book is how, right from the very beginning of atmospheric nuclear testing, earth scientists were warning about the environmental dangers of the testing regime itself. One should think about a nuclear atmospheric test as a planetary environmental problem. And the understanding of it as a planetary event is starting to be visible almost at the beginning, with people studying atmospheric fallout as a problem for global health. There are direct lines of association between the military funding for the earth sciences across a 40-year period, and the data sets and expertise that come together to really create the current knowledge around climate change.

The Bush Administration, while proliferating fears of the WMD, took quite extraordinary steps to limit the climate change conversation in the United States, from censoring scientists to defunding aspects of the environmental sciences world, to not participating in a serious way in international discussions about how to manage the mounting effects. So one thing everyone should know about the War on Terror is that it took climate change off the table as a serious American issue for a decade, and it did so in the name of fighting terror. Part of my interest is to study efforts to proliferate threat in certain categories and to ignore and restrict emerging dangers in specific categories. One might say that is what sovereignty is today: the ability to decide which dangers matter and which can be ignored.

SG: Thank you so much for these reflections! To close, could you say a little bit about your next project?

JM: I’m working on a consideration of the post-national security logics of environmental crisis today. Climate change is but one measure of the effects of industrialism on the biosphere. Toxicity is now not only a cumulative process (both collective and asymmetrically felt) but also requires new kinds of planetary governance. I’m interested in thinking about what a new geopolitics might look like, post-terror.



Edwards P (2013) A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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Sonia Grant is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her work focuses on the environment and environmental regulations, and the rise of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the US.