One of the more irritating aspects of Ian McEwan’s novel, Saturday (which I discussed last Saturday), was the rather overblown meditations of the protagonist, Henry Perowne, on the fragility of Western civilization in the face of fundamentalist terror. As he drives through the London streets, he can’t help but think that this affluent tranquility could be wrenched apart by a suicide bomber.Perhaps London is slightly closer than Dublin to the frontline in The War on Terror (apparently called TWOT in Washington circles), but do many people share this unshakeable sense that we’re on the edge of a chasm?
From my perspective, the world seems immeasurably safer now that humanity has removed the loaded revolver from its mouth with the end of the Cold War. (People my age, people in their thirties, can easily bore you with their teenage nuclear angst, the dreams of mushroom clouds, the fascination with civil defense films, etc.). Nuclear war, or the prospect of it, was the elephant in the living room we couldn’t stop ourselves from pointing at.
And the end of the world was closer than even we thought. Everyone has heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but how many know about Stanislav Petrov? According to this report in Mosnews.com, we should be thankful that Petrov was in charge of a Russian Ballistic Missile Early Warning System command and control post in the early hours of September 26, 1983. He was at his post when the system detected a missile being launched from the United States, targeted at the Soviet Union. The situation quickly escalated:”The warning system was by now showing five missile launches in the U.S., headed toward the Soviet Union. The ‘START’ command Petrov was expected to give would have started an irreversible chain reaction in a system geared to launch a counter-strike without human interference.”
I’m typing this today because Petrov insisted that the computers were wrong. His actions were particularly clearheaded and courageous given that the Russian military establishment was at that time in the grip of a paranoid theory that the U.S. was planning a preemptive nuclear strike (see this fascinating CIA report on the Soviet “war scare” in the early 1980s). So this glitch appeared at a particularly perilous time. Since retiring from the military, Petrov was been living “on a tiny pension.”* He was just been recognized the Association of World Citizens as ‘the forgotten hero of our time.’
*The fate of Petrov makes me think of an unremarked feature of the countless World War II documentaries I have watched. Usually the Red Army heroes are interviewed with them wearing a chestful of medals. But it doesn’t distract from the slightly shabby flat the veterans now occupy. Meanwhile former members of, say, the Waffen SS are seen in gemütlich surroundings, ample evidence of postwar success.