Monday, October 13, 2008

The Man Who Saved the World

This is a great story I found last week.

The Man Who Saved the World

by Joel Durham Jr.
Oct. 2, 2008

Somehow it took more than twenty years to honor a man who saved us all.

If you were alive on September 26, 1983, when I was 12 years old, you almost didn't make it through the day. If you are too young to have lived that day, you were almost never born.

Accounts vary, as the facts of historical events often become jumbled over the years. What we believe we know for fact, if there is such a thing in history, is that there was a man in a bunker whose inaction saved the world from a full scale nuclear war. His name is Stanislav Petrov, he was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces.

The Soviets, whose scientists were considered extremely honorable and elite human beings, had recently put into place a new system to detect missile launches—first strike type missile launches. The system was largely untested, but with the arms race constantly escalating during the paranoid time of the Cold War, there wasn't always time for second guessing. The Soviet Union and the United States were both desperately keen on keeping the upper hand—as well as maintaining the sickening notion of "mutually assured destruction." MAD. The most appropriate acronym ever in all of history.

Lieutenant Petrov was in a bunker monitoring for what every Soviet feared: a US first strike. To his surprise, it happened. A missile. Another. More. A total, according to some accounts, of five nuclear warheads were dashing toward the Soviet Union.

There were protocols to follow. There were buttons to push. There were launch officers to alert—the only appropriate response to a US first strike was full scale retaliation. As hundreds of Soviet missiles filled the air, the US would have countered with everything it had.

The survivors would be the unlucky ones.

Against Protocol

But Petrov realized something with that new detection system was faulty. His training had taught him that if the United States launched on the Soviet Union, it would launch a massive, devastating barrage. Five missiles did not make sense. The tech, in Petrov's quick and ultimately accurate judgment, was failing.

Petrov didn't push any buttons. He didn't follow protocol. What he did, to save my life and yours and the rest of the world population, was nothing.

He did file a report. According to some accounts, he was to be honored by the Soviet government, but the lobby of scientists realized that such an honor for Petrov would, by proxy, cause a dishonor of the scientists who created the faulty detection system.

So whoever had the power to do so made it all go away. Petrov was reassigned. The launch detection system was repaired. Everything that happened was classified. The man who saved the world left the military on early retirement and quietly settled down with no fanfare.

In 1998, another man who'd been in the bunker with Petrov, Yuriy Vsyevolodich Votintsev, published his memoirs. Word of Petrov's cool headed, nearly action-free heroism finally became known to the world. He's received honors and awards from groups like the Association of World Citizens and even the UN, and there's evidently an independent film about his (in)action that saved us all.

Of course, accounts differ. Some military experts of the former Soviet Union claim that a single man could not start or stop a nuclear war. The militaries of both the US and the USSR had too many checks and balances. Still, it's hard not to shudder if you imagine that Petrov had done what he was supposed to do and reported the launch to his superiors as the faulty detection system evidenced, and the non-event escalated into, well, let's not think about it anymore.

Twenty five years ago last week, a Soviet lieutenant took no action and quite possibly saved us all. When you think of your heroes, remember Stanislav Petrov.

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