Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Man Who Saved The World

Yesterday could have been the 23rd anniversary of the End of the World. It was not, due to the actions (or inactions) of Colonel Stanislav Yefgrafovich Petrov. On the 26th September 1983, Petrov was in charge of monitoring Soviet satellite warning systems that were supposed to give the warning, should a pre-emptive nuclear missile strike be launched against the country. When the early warning systems triggered that day, Petrov simply refused to believe that he was really seeing the beginning of World War III and did not immediately respond.

Initially he saw a single missile launch, a while later he saw another. He reasoned that this was an unlikely scenario if the US was really going to launch a pre-emptive strike against the USSR. In such a situation, it would make much more sense for all the missiles to be launched at once. Instead of alerting his superiors, he reasoned that the cause of the warning was much more likely to be some kind of system glitch. He had the option of waiting for the missile launches to be confirmed by ground radar. Unfortunately, the down side of this is that it would not have left sufficient time for the Soviets to respond.

At the time, the official doctrine was so-called 'Mutually Assured Destruction', quite fittingly known as 'MAD'. Had he alerted his superiors, the Soviet missiles would have been launched against the US and other targets in the West, with a predictable, devastating and very real response from the Western powers. Petrov's cool reasoning quite simply saved the World. It turned out the cause of the alert was indeed a system glitch.

This decision was not without cost and danger to Petrov himself. By not following the standing orders and reporting up the chain of command, he had violated military protocol. Although he was ultimately never punished for his inaction, he was no longer considered a trustworthy officer. He was given less sensitive duties, until he retired from the military. The true story of the events of that day only finally came out in 1998. Perhaps the most worrying thing is that this incident was only one amongst many -- there is a catalogue available here.

Now, the world is a very different place. Indeed, earlier this year Petrov visited the US and a major documentary about the incident is planned. However, the important lesson to take away from this is how very important it is to think for oneself, in a cool and dispassionate manner. Thinking in this way is one of the skills that philosophy develops. It is a shame that, given all the screaming, ranting and raving that goes on across the arena of blogs, these skills are so poorly valued. So, next time you observe a flame-fest, or an outbreak of ideologically driven name calling on a blog, think of Petrov. Had he behaved in such a manner all those years ago, there would be no blogs to read now.

The CP


Blogger sonia said...

Thank God this glitch didn't occur during the Cuban Missile Crisis (or during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia), because then, even a rational fellow like Petrov would probably believed that a nuclear war really has started...

4:18 PM  

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