Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Apocalypse That Wasn't

So, thinking of Russians reminded me of a news story I'd seen a few weeks back that I thought particularly striking.
Imagine this scene: it's a particularly tense moment during the Cold War, when one of the two Superpowers has just provoked the other in an incident which left hundreds of civilians dead. Both are on heightened alert; the offender on edge, waiting to see what the retaliation might be. You're the commander in charge in a secret bunker that receives all the satellite information about what the other side's doing.
Then, the unthinkable happens. The screens go red: the satellites report that other side has just launched five nuclear missiles at your country. What do you do?

All this is not a scene from an alternate cut of DR. STRANGELOVE (or, perhaps more aptly, FAIL-SAFE), but something that actually happened on September 23rd, 1983. The officer in charge was Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, who during the crucial minutes that followed disobeyed standing orders to launch a counter-strike, concluding (correctly) that the information he was receiving was erroneous and no such attack was on its way. He thereby averted nuclear war and, as a side-effect, doomed his own career; once the crisis was over, he was forced into early retirement for not following protocols. Lucky for us. If it's possible to receive a Nobel Peace Prize for NOT doing something, Lt. Col. Petrov certainly deserves one.

There's an account of the Petrov incident here:

What's truly remarkable is that I know of at least one other similar incident on our side, when in the late seventies or early eighties during a routine test of the communications system the actual orders to attack were sent out to our nuclear missile silos in the Montana-Wyoming-Idaho area (I forget which). Not a single one of the two- or three-man crews who received the orders followed them: they all either decided not to launch, spent the time arguing amongst themselves about what to do, or contacted their superior officers demanding more information.

Thank goodness.


"What might save us, me and you, is if the Russians love their children too" --Gordon Sumner, 1985.

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