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September 28, 2007

“I did nothing” – and saved the world

by quaesitor

There once was a man who was simply doing his job as he best understood it – but was vilified by his countrymen for not fulfilling their expectations of his duty. He kept his cool when emotions were running high. His political masters expected one thing in the circumstances, but he did another. A self-effacing and humble man, he did not seek the limelight. In fact when asked to comment on what he had done, his only response was to say ‘I did nothing’. But it was the very fact of his doing nothing that saved the world.

I’d never heard of him until this week – but it is doubtless due to the action, or rather inaction, of Stanislav Petrov, that you are still alive today and reading this post. What he did was kept secret until 1998 (sorry but I’m a bit slow on the uptake with these sorts of things). Apparently a documentary is coming out next year about him what he did was nothing less than single-handedly averting World War 3, towards the end of the cold war. Soviet-US relations were tense because 3 weeks before the incident, Soviet fighters had shot down a Korean passenger plane, which killed everyone including a US Congressman.

Stanislav Petrov was a Strategic Rocket Forces lieutenant colonel, the officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow on September 26, 1983. Petrov’s responsibilities included observing the satellite early warning network and notifying his superiors of any impending nuclear missile attack against the Soviet Union. In the event of such an attack, the Soviet Union’s strategy was an immediate nuclear counter-attack against the United States, specified in the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction.

At 00:40 hrs, the bunker’s computers identified a US missile heading toward the Soviet Union. Petrov considered the detection a computer error, since a United States first-strike nuclear attack would hypothetically involve hundreds if not thousands of simultaneous missile launches to disable any Soviet means for a counterattack. Furthermore, the satellite system’s reliability had been questioned in the past. Petrov dismissed the warning as a false alarm, though accounts of the event differ as to whether he notified his superiors or not after he concluded that the computer detections were false and that the United States had not launched any missile. Later, the computers identified five additional missiles in the air, all directed towards the Soviet Union. Petrov once again concluded that the computer system was malfunctioning, despite there being no other source of information to confirm his suspicions. The Soviet Union’s land radar was not capable of detecting missiles beyond the horizon and waiting for them to positively identify the threat would limit the Soviet Union’s response time to mere minutes.

Should Petrov have disregarded a real attack, the Soviet Union would have been struck by several nuclear missiles. Had he reported the incoming American missiles, his superiors might have launched a catastrophic assault against their enemies, precipitating a corresponding nuclear response from the United States. Petrov trusted his intuition and declared the system’s indications a false alarm. Later, it was apparent that his instincts were right: no missiles were approaching and the computer detection system was malfunctioning. It was subsequently determined that the false alarms had been created by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites’ Molniya orbits (an error later corrected with cross-reference to a geostationary satellite).

Petrov later indicated the influences in this enormous decision included the facts that he had been told a US-strike would be all-out, that five missiles seemed an illogical start, that the launch detection system was new and not yet in his view wholly trustworthy, and that ground radars were still failing to pick up any corroborative evidence even after minutes of delay. (From the Wiki page on Petrov).

So by doing nothing and saying nothing, Petrov saved the world. Despite this, he got into serious trouble with his bosses: he was reprimanded, transferred and finally dismissed, resulting in a nervous breakdown and retirement into poverty.

Perhaps I’m overegging things a little here and there are of course many differences: but I couldn’t help but be reminded of another despised figure who refused to speak and thus speeded his own demise, while at the same time ushering in a new global era of peace – but with a far grander scope: peace with God.

 

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