Thursday, October 4, 2007

He Saved The World (No Cheerleader)

photo Giyori Antoine/Corbis

Didn't Do a Damn Thing Either

On September 26, 1983, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, the Duty Officer in the Hole -- the secret bunker outside Moscow monitoring the world for nuclear launches -- choose to do nothing.

It just didn't feel right.

The alarm said there were five missiles inbound from the United States. Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov bet the future of his country -- and a worldwide nuclear counterstrike -- on his own personal best judgment. That the alarm ringing loudly simply didn't make sense.

Wired Magazine

Given the heightened tensions between the two countries -- the alarm coincided with the beginning of provocative NATO military exercises and barely three weeks after the Russians shot down a South Korean airliner that had wandered into Soviet air space -- Petrov could have been forgiven for believing the signal was accurate. The electronic maps flashing around him didn't do anything to ease the stress of the moment.

But Petrov smelled a rat. "I had a funny feeling in my gut" that this was a false alarm. For one thing, the report indicated that only five missiles had been fired. Had the United States been launching an actual nuclear attack, he reasoned, ICBMs would be raining down on them.

"I didn't want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it." Petrov's gut feeling was due in large part to his lack of faith in the Soviet early-warning system, which he subsequently described as "raw." He reported it as a false alarm to his superiors, and hoped to hell he was right.

Petrov was initially praised for his cool head but later came under criticism and was, for a while, made the scapegoat for the false alarm. Further investigation, however, found that the satellite in question had picked up the sun's reflection off the cloud tops and somehow interpreted that as a missile launch.

As we count down to war with Iran, I just have to keep hoping -- boy, that's a word I really hate using when it comes to nuclear weapons, carrier groups, and Armies -- that the Joint Chiefs and their immediate subordinates haven't lost sight of how much sense it sometimes makes to...

Just. Do. Nothing.

Sometimes it can even save the world. (Cheerleaders included.)