Courage saves the world

The alarm siren wails loud and urgent; the radar system reports an enemy rocket – an enemy rocket fast approaching – measurements and sensors and computer data all confirm this.  Now if you think this sounds like a scene from some war or space action movie, you’d be right. Only it was pure reality and not all that long ago.

In 1983 the USA and Russia were engaged in a nuclear arms race and relations between the two great powers were at breaking point. So what happened? 

Red alert

On the evening of 23rd September 198, the Soviet satellite monitoring system  reported the launch of an American nuclear intercontinental missile against the USSR. The first report was shortly followed by further reports indicating that four more missiles had been launched.  

Had these missiles exploded on Russian soil, they would have wiped out the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. A Soviet countermove to intercept them might indeed have prevented their reaching Russia yet would certainly have provoked a retaliatory nuclear strike by the USA which could have unleashed the unimaginable cataclysm of a global nuclear war. Disaster seemed unstoppable. 

What to do? The answer to this question came not from the Kremlin but directly from the command center, from the officer on duty that night, lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov.  

Obedience or courage?

He choose to ignore both the orders set forth in Soviet military protocol and the reports of the radar system.  

Disobeying orders at the best of times is no easy matter and even in everyday private or professional life requires inner strength and a certain degree of courage. Yet in totalitarian systems like the Soviet Union, such courage is seen as resistance and is punishable. It comes with a high level of personal risk that people who live in a functioning constitutional state fortunately don’t know.  

Yet the principle of command and obey is found in all armies no matter in which political system they are embedded. There is no military system in the world that makes provision for such an unauthorized operative-level decision as the one Stanislav Petrov made on the evening of 23rd September 1983. Accordingly, in the opposite case, an American officer would unquestionably have found himself in a similar conflict of interest. 

A lonely decision

Stanislav Petrov didn’t refer the decision to his superiors as military protocol demanded. He stayed calm, thought it over, used logic and came to the conclusion that the data he had been given was wrong. “I don’t trust this computer”, he said and did nothing.  

An extremely courageous decision that probably saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. 

Because he was right. The alarm that he ignored was really a false alert, triggered by the software error of a Soviet spy satellite that had interpreted a sunrise and alignment of sunlight on high altitude clouds as a USA missile attack.  

An almost forgotten hero

The “error-free” system of the USSR wanted to spare itself the embarrassment of having to admit that it wasn’t that infallible after all Accordingly, Petrov wasn’t honored but reprimanded, dishonorably discharged and would have fallen into total obscurity had the totalitarian system of the Soviet Union proven more resistant. Yet with Perestroika and Glasnost his case came to public attention. Even so, he still hasn’t been rehabilitated.  

Petrov never saw himself as a hero. He always considered what he had done as pretty matter-of-fact. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize, yet never received it. Only the substantial documentation on his case has kept his reputation alive long after his death.   

Making decisions is acting in uncertainty

Petrov’s decision could well have turned out to be the wrong one. Nothing in that critical moment gave him the certainty that he was doing the right thing. He trusted his own brain more than the computer. If he had been wrong, it would have entailed exactly those drastic consequences he was seeking to prevent. There was no cast-iron guarantee. Today we know that he made the right decision and we are grateful. 

The trouble with every difficult decision is that it always entails a slight degree of uncertainty. Because whether a decision is right or wrong can first be determined when its consequences – sooner or later – are revealed and become tangible. These consequences are irreversible. 

Whoever decides by themselves, whoever trusts their own mind and their own perspectives instead of blindly following rules and regulations, is moving on very shaky ground where no rulebook can guide them. 

So should we rather stick to the safe side? 

A partial answer to a momentous question

We all must find out the answer to this question for ourselves. Yet history encourages us with its countless examples, both small and big, of courageous correct decisions – from continuing to speak truth despite  public pressure to civil disobedience, from refusing to obey military orders that contravene human rights and the Geneva Convention to the equally power-conscious and consistent decision of an American president in the 1961 Cuba crisis.  

Steps forward and steps backward in this world are based on decisions, both large and small. Every day each one of us makes decisions which have an impact on others. We all bear responsibility for what we think and do. Nothing more and nothing less. Wouldn’t you agree? 

Continually making this clear to yourself and bearing it in mind is already a partial answer to the vexed question of the previous paragraph. At least that’s what I think.