Friday, October 26, 2007

What It Was That Saved Us

You have got to read this story (Hat tip: Dyspeptic Mutterings).

Twenty four years ago today was almost the end of the world as we know it. All the most rabid Cold War rhetoric came within minutes of being horribly justified. Everything we hold most dear might really have vanished in a bright flash of terror and clouds of doom.

I couldn't stop thinking about this last night. I was a teenager in 1983; like most of us who remember those years, my memories are laced with the looming awareness of the possibility of Global Thermonuclear War. There were words that were part of my vocabulary then, just like words like terrorist, Osama bin Laden, Iraq, Baghdad, insurgents, torture, and preemptive strike are part of our children's vocabulary now; only our words were Communist, Brezhnev, Russia, Moscow, KGB, mutually assured destruction, and first strike.

In so many respects, 1983 was rather like today. There were grim-faced television talking heads pondering the many ways we might be destroyed by the enemy, and other equally grim-faced pundits accusing the first group of being ready to sell out to the enemy. There were both reality television and cop shows; there just weren't as many of them. There was a visible anti-war segment of the population, agitating for unilateral disarmament. There were even people like my religion teacher, a former flower child who thought we could find peace through nonviolence, transcendental meditation, an overt but passive rejection of the pervasive and materialistic mall culture, a return to deliberate simplicity, and the appreciation of organic vegetables.

Politics was partisan and vicious. Democrats were regularly scolded for being soft on Communism and for lacking the resolve to stand up to the U.S.S.R.; Republicans were derided for being war-mongers, for seeking to enrich themselves by endless defense spending, for preferring bombs to programs for the poor. There was little bipartisanship, and lots of angry words.

Yet despite all of these things, or possible unaware of many of them, my friends and siblings and I didn't spend a lot of time contemplating nuclear annihilation. It just didn't seem likely or worth worrying about, given that there was nothing we could do about the situation anyway. I remember being bored with the fiercely anti-Reagan sentiments of most of my Catholic school teachers, and irritated by the hypocrisy when they would, in the classroom, bemoan the evils of the arms race, but remain silent on abortion. I associated the most over the top speech predicting total destruction with these people, and shrugged, and thought that it would never happen.

And it didn't.

But reading the story of Stanislav Petrov, I realize how close we came to it. More, I find myself in awe at just what it was that saved us.

For Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet forces, would have been even more inundated with talk of Doomsday scenarios than any civilian on either side. He might even have had to do drills and simulations based on possible attack scenarios. The policy was clear: if the computer shows the launch of even a single missile, you retaliate, and inform those in power only after the missiles you've sent screaming to wreak death upon the enemy are well underway.

And the computer showed the launch of a single missile.

What happened next shows what a Cold War hero Petrov really was. He knew instinctively that something was wrong, that the launch of a single missile didn't make sense. Even when a handful of other missiles appeared to join the lone nuke on the screen, Petrov remained steady, and refused to order the counterattack that was supposed to be ordered under exactly these circumstances. Despite rhetoric, despite high tensions, despite policy, despite pressure from the others in his bunker who were increasingly panicked over the appearance of subsequent missiles, Petrov refused to start World War III over something that he just knew was an error in the system.

If we are to survive the War on Terror, we have to remember something. It isn't weapons or offensives or attacks or expansion of war that leads to survival. It isn't popular opinion or punditry or politics. It isn't propaganda that paints our enemy in inhuman colors; it isn't the abandonment of our own basic moral principles against such things as torture for the sake of some vague fear that without such things we will lose. It isn't panic; it certainly isn't fear.

What leads to survival is a simple gift that so many forget they have, and forget how to use. But because Stanislav Petrov had this gift in abundance and employed it with calm skill, we--all of us--survived what was mere moments away from becoming the worst day in the history of man.

We are here because Stanislov Petrov evaluated the threat in the light of this gift, and dismissed it, and stuck to that dismissal even for those horrible moments when it looked like he might have been wrong.

Thank you, Lord, for the gift of Stanislov Petrov's common sense.


freddy said...

Sometimes I think that what we call common sense is nothing less than an infusion of grace from our Guardian Angels. Perhaps for them it is most common, indeed, but for us, often less so. Yes, thank You, Lord, for Stanislov Petrov!

And who says one man can't make a difference?!

Divine Mercy said...

i used to remember as a teenager being scared of that doomsday clock. i have prayed for world peace, and will continue to do so! if the wall n berlin had not come down, i would not have met my hubby and he might not have become Catholic as a result of our meeting.

Red Cardigan said...

Divine Mercy, that sounds like a fascinating story!! Have you ever written about it?