Friday, April 13, 2012

The Man Who Saved the World

On September 25th 1983, the world was a few second away from a nuclear holocaust. President Reagan's tough talk had convinced the "soft-brained" hardliners at the KGB that an attack was imminent. As US military began extensive war exercises, the Soviet Union went into a high alert. And then a terrible accident happened. A simple glitch in the computer, made the light bouncing off clouds over the USSR look like incoming missiles on Soviet radar. Computer error happens every once and a while but the alarm went off and sounded the call for a counterattack.

Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov was at the computers that night. He was the officer at the forefront of potential airplane and missile threats before they entered into Soviet airspace. Working from the Soviet radar center, Serpukhov-15, Petrov was the commanding officer in charge. When the alarm sounded it was his call.

Petrov dismissed the initial warning as too bizarre since it only showed one missile coming in. Then the warning light flashed again and again and began showing multiple incoming American ICBM missiles. The USSR computer system counterattack called for an immediate launch of ICBMs on all major US cities. The computer began gearing up for a counterstrike. This Soviet counterstrike would have launched a REAL American attack, which would have triggered a response form NATO, the Soviet bloc, Turkey, and most of the world. Within a period of a few hours the world's major cities would have been experiencing nuclear horror. The estimated death toll would be in the hundreds of millions. The additional survivors would have suffered dozens of generations of the most horrific lives on a scorched, ruined planet.

Imagine Lt. Col Petrov sitting at his desk at that time, which was around the middle of the night for most of the USSR. The alarms deafening roar and lights flashing, people running around, waiting for his orders. All those years of preparation to launch and execute orders. After forty years of talk, the Doomsday had finally arrived.

Petrov's had an impulse. He didn't believe what he saw, what his eyes and ears in the sky were reporting.  So he sat and waited. Although the USSR was atheist, I imagine he would have had some prayer running through his head at that time. It might have been a prayer to Lenin, the founders of the country, his computer or the radar system. He might have even been muttering a few words toward God. But when staring at the end of Western civilization from his desk, I imagine he would have been in dialogue with something or someone, seeking advice greater than his awareness or the computer's call for an attack.

Petrov waited a few seconds, which soon became a few minutes and then several minutes. The Soviet missile sat in their silos. There was nothing to do but wait and give up. Petrov was not going to launch the missiles. After a while, the alarms went dead and lights stopped flashing. The incoming US missiles on the radar screen merely disappeared back into blackness.

It was the biggest computer glitch in modern history. Petrov had quite literally saved the world. But he had also disobeyed orders. Being in a bureaucracy can be tough. I can picture his superiors saying something to the effect of:

Yes, you did save mankind...

 But you didn't follow the manual!

Petrov's was investigated, critiqued, and held under suspicion for being disloyal. Eventually the whole 'saving the world' thing began to weigh on the conscious of even the hardest KGB lifer. Petrov would not be punished but he wouldn't be rewarded either.

As far as bureaucracy goes, his career was finished. He had not filed out the proper paperwork for this particular incident.

Later on, when people realized the severity of what almost happened, Soviet officials downplayed the error and Petrov's contribution. It was all under control, just a tiny glitch. To this day, Soviet officials -out of embarrassment- dismiss Petrov. If they heralded him for what he did, then it would only highlight the gaping errors of a system that resulted in multiple nuclear catastrophes on land (Chernobyl) and in sea (with several nuclear submarines nearing meltdown at sea).

Petrov retired with his little pension and home. His wife passed away and he continued to live on a modest government settlement. Over 20 years later, the Association of World Citizens in San Francisco gave Petrov a little trophy and $1,000 prize for what he did on that day in 1983.
There is no statue marking his life or monument for Petrov's deed. The retired officer underplays his actions in interviews of the years. Petrov continues to claim that he was just 'doing his job.' But he wasn't. If he was just doing his job, then he would have triggered the counterstrike. If Petrov was just doing his job, the world would be a vastly different place.

To imagine that there are people like this in the world every day is astonishing. Retired generals who had an impulse of trust, nuclear plant engineers who took the extra effort one day to notice a crack or leak, or just a bus driver who had an instinctive reaction to hit the brakes when a blur passes across his view turns out to be a kid running across the street. These impulses come from something deeper than the conscious mind. They are triggered by emotions greater than seeking a promotion or getting home as early as possible. There are people out there who are saving the world every day. Petrov's case is just a reminder that I have no idea how much love and trust it takes to keep this world going.

Although not nearly as dramatic as Petrov's case, I have no idea what I am doing in my small actions that is saving the world. Most people will never get the chance to be at the forefront of nuclear war or running into burning buildings to save a trapped resident. But what about the teachers who instructed Petrov? What about his parents who instilled in him the slightest impulse of compassion and patience that would ripen decades later into a most extraordinary occurrence? Were they not saving the world as well by extending love and trust into the mind of a little boy who would refuse his duty to start a nuclear war?

The idea of saving the world sounds so big. But what if salvation was something very small, like kindness to a stranger who will go on to do something quite unexpected. Could it not be that my family and friends -without my knowledge- are saving the world through writing a poem that will inspire action or create a website that will trigger social revolutions? In my actions every day am I not making that very same choice: atonement through love or attack through fear. I have to make that choice. In my little actions I pray that I am impulsively choosing the salvation of the world. May the whispered words of Angels carefully direct my small instincts, urges, and feelings toward that one goal: saving the world.

Petrov and millions of others like him remind me what is at stake every day in what I say, think, or do. I am going to bed now to wake up early and work in the city parks in the morning. Volunteer work in helping to plant new trees and brush. They're building a new park in the East Village that will touch the lives of  thousands of residents long after I have gone. Then from that I will be at a shelter, teaching computer skills to unemployed adults. If I can keep my ultimate goal in mind, then this will be another day that where the salvation will come.

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