Monday, March 20, 2006

A candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize: Stanislav Petrov

How about awarding this guy (found via Dean Esmay) a Nobel Peace Prize, a bit belatedly? Unlike some of the recipients, he would have actually deserved it.

I hope the planned documentary Dean mentions makes a bundle and makes Petrov famous, so he can retire in style. And if it doesn't, perhaps the blogosphere could take up a collection.

I've often wondered about the makeup of people who take on jobs that require enormous responsibility for the lives of others. Presidents, generals, and air traffic controllers, for example. Such positions require the ability to remain extremely cool under fire and stress, and to preserve one's split-second and long-term decision-making capabilities without short-circuiting. A bit like the biathlon, which features punishing aerobic exercise followed by the need to compose oneself into stillness long enough to aim and shoot effectively. Not for everyone--and of course, those in positions of responsibility for the lives of numerous others are dealing with far greater stakes, staggeringly so.

For readers who refuse to follow links, a little background on the 1983 incident involving Petrov:

Just past midnight, at 00:40 hrs, the [Soviet nuclear monitoring] bunker's computers indicated that an American missile was heading toward the Soviet Union. Lt. Col. Petrov [who was in charge] reasoned that a computer error had occurred, since the United States was not likely to launch just one missile if it were attacking the Soviet Union — it would launch many simultaneously. Also, the satellite system's reliability had in the past been questioned, so he dismissed the warning as a false alarm, concluding that no missile had actually been launched by the United States.

If that had been the end of it, it would not have been quite as dramatic. But there was more:

A short time later the computers indicated that a second missile had been launched, followed by a third, a fourth and a fifth. Petrov still felt that the computer system was wrong, but there was no other source of information with which to confirm his suspicions...

Petrov's dilemma was this: if he was disregarding a real attack, then the Soviet Union would be devastated by nuclear weapons without any warning or chance to retaliate, and he would have failed at his duty. On the other hand, if he were to report a non-existent attack, his superiors might launch an equally catastrophic assault against their enemies. In either case, millions of innocents would die.

Understanding that if he were wrong, nuclear missiles would soon be raining down on the Soviet Union, Petrov decided to trust his intuition and declare the system's indications a false alarm.


Petrov had to override the information he was getting through instruments, and apparently decided to simply trust his gut. Astounding.

Perhaps Petrov knew how poor the system really was, and that was what was behind his ability to cast off the information he was receiving from it. At any rate, he was vindicated--although not rewarded till recently, and his career was effectively finished as a result of his disobeying orders.

And what of the warning system? The mistake apparently was caused by the following glitch:

...a subsequent investigation determined that the early warning satellite system had mistakenly interpreted sunlight reflections off clouds as the presence of enemy missiles.

Technology can only go so far, and the human element is key, as Petrov's story amply demonstrates. It is not reassuring to hear how narrowly a spectacular and unprecedented tragedy was averted. But sometimes the right person is in the right place at the right time, and Petrov certainly fits that description.

Whew.

5 Comments:

At 2:18 PM, March 20, 2006, Blogger newc said...

Forget Noble peace prize. That is all but an insult these days. How about setting up a trust for him so he can afford to go and see the world he saved?

He lives on meager salary now but I bet it would make alot of people feel better about that period if he were exaulted. It kind of proves that the human heart is good.

 
At 2:26 PM, March 20, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

But sometimes the right person is in the right place at the right time, and Petrov certainly fits that description.

Martyrs tend to get crucified. Which is what happened to Petrov's career, apparently.

Those who are right, are disliked by their peers because they are right. Jealousy and envy, those human flaws have not been expunged by the "End of History".

Yes, Petrov lied to his commanders.

Some people prefer the pristine moral clarity of complete annihilation to getting their hands dirty with common facts of reality.

It is one of the reasons why we should never elect the Democrats in charge of our national security. The danger is not that they will not react, the danger is that they will destroy the world with the power of the United States, simply because they are unwilling to be wrong.

Isn't that ironic. He mislead his superiors and people didn't die. What an irony.

He was given a reprimand, officially for the improper filing of paperwork, and his once-promising military career came to an end. He was reassigned to a less sensitive post and ultimately retired from the military.

Improver filing of paperwork

Deception is neither morally evil or morally good. The Democrats would be wise to understand this facet of reality.

American journalist Walter Cronkite at his CBS office in New York City. That interview, in addition to other highlights of Petrov’s trip to the United States, will be included in the documentary film The Man Who Saved the World, which is expected to be released in late 2006.

Oh, puleez, Cronkite calling a man who mislead his superiors, the Man who Saved the World? Who is Cronkite kidding here. It's not an implication that the Colonel is a fraud, but that Cronkite is a fraud.

No human is going to refuse to use deception if it serves his purposes. Excepting a few carefully rare individuals. (Bush)

The media news doesn't sound the same now that I understand the propaganda methods used.

 
At 5:51 PM, March 20, 2006, Blogger David said...

There was a similar incident on the U.S. side...shortly after the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System was installed, in October 1960, it suddenly reported a very high number of radar returns. It was later realized that the moon had just risen, and the designers had not considered the fact that the radar was so powerful that the signals would reach the moon--and return--with a delay of about 2 seconds.

The real-time computer analysis did not show a pattern that would be expected in event of an actual attack, but NORAD headquarters did go to emergency status for an hour or so.

 
At 2:47 AM, March 23, 2006, Blogger T J Olson said...

I love neo's comparison of various professions involving stress and care of large numbers of people. Insightful.

That said, wealthy benifactors looking to reward a worthy have surely got one in Petrov.

 
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