Stanislav Petrov might not have had anything extraordinary in his life other than for those few minutes in which he possibly saved the entire mankind from nuclear war. We tend to believe that such a feat is a prerogative of political leaders, statesmen, top military officials or visionaries. But we are wrong.
Petrov was just a Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet Army manning one of the numerous missile attack early warning stations; this one South of Moscow during the height of Cold War. On the night of September 26, 1983, he was on duty and an alarm started ringing, indicating that an intercontinental ballistic missile has been launched by the US against USSR; he had been trained to alert instantaneously his military superiors who in turn would inform the Top Leadership who would, in all likelihood, order retaliatory nuclear missile attacks on their arch enemy US or its Western Allies.
Yet, Stanislav was a tempered, mature man to realize that the Soviet satellite spying on the US territory could commit errors specially when dusk fell on the missile fields in the US, leading the computers to come to wrong calculations; yet on the monitor it came as a high reliability warning of a launch which heightened the tension he and his team might have felt. Relying on his gut feeling, he informed his superior that although there was an alarm it was probably false. This gut feeling told him that the US would not confine an attack to a single missile if it were intending to attack the Soviets; then the sirens blurted and signaled five launches, but still he informed his superiors over the phone that it was a false alarm.
Afterwards, it was confirmed that had he mechanically conveyed up the alarms as reliable, as he was trained and on orders to do, the top leadership was bound to launch reprisal missiles within minutes, with no time for further verification and under the cold war tension would have meant, probably the Third World War and possibly the extermination of human race from this green planet.
The reason for the false alarm was sunlight reflected on clouds at dusk creating an illusion to the satellite.
Petrov died on May 19 this year, aged 77, his death hardly acknowledged by the media; Western media have at times called him the man who saved the world. When I read his story on the Washington Post recently, I could not help but be amazed by the mature, tempered, instinctive and far-sighted vision of an ordinary soldier, in an extraordinary situation, in ensuring the safety, not only of his motherland but of all mankind. In his mind he was not only aware of the possible technical glitches that might raise alarm, but was wise enough to have a gut feeling that the US was not in hands of leaders who would attack without reason. The judgment of a moderate on one side of the frontline about the restraint of moderates on the opposing side.
Although Petrov was positioned in a chain of command where he did not have the luxury of discretion on nuclear threats to USSR but simply to convey threats to superiors, with whom, was reposed the discretion of reprisals, he did exercise his common sense. This is a quality that is sadly lacking in many national as well as international leaders of present, specially at a time the utter irresponsible and actually fanatic actions by the North Korean leaders as well as highly incendiary and provocative rhetoric by the US President, seem to be flirting with a danger; a danger that the whole of mankind could well do without.
The same applies to the national leadership; few and far between are leaders who could project their vision to long-term prospects of the nation, act with restraint, both verbally and in action, take decisions based on reasoned moderate judgment for the benefit of the larger sections of society and with reliable intuitive ability as to what should be done. Cold sober, restrained and mature in decision-making. In Petrov’s case, he called his decision not to report, a gut feeling.
If Petrov were of a maniacal patriotic mindset, which in effect is a misconceived, flawed and dangerous trait, especially among politicians, leaders and military men, the obvious reaction would have been to urge the military leadership to strike back. But he was wise; did not panic; argued with himself, probably in a matter of seconds or minutes the most, that the US would not confine such an attack to one missile; when five was signaled he still believed that it was a hoax and did not urge the superiors to take retaliatory action.
I wish Petrov was a Sri Lankan and a leader, at that.
The North-South divide in our land might seem a miniature figure compared to the Cold War divide between USSR and USA with their allies all entangled in cold war power games, flirting with total annihilation of mankind; yet the distrust, suspicion and coldness with which the leaders eye each other is no less intense. The faintest of remark, the slightest slip of the tongue from the other side seem to inflame the opponents in to racially-motivated heated fury. The Sinhala side does not want the Northern Tamils to sing the national anthem in their own language; they object to the swathes of lands occupied by the military almost a decade after the war, being released to the Tamil civilians; they are hell-bent on not releasing the Tamil youth detained under the PTA. In short, everything that happens in the North arouses suspicion in the South.
- We desperately need leaders who would not use the emotional urge of the masses in areas of religion, race and caste
- The faintest of remark, the slightest slip of the tongue from the other side seem to inflame the opponents into racially-motivated heated fury
- Everything that happens in the North arouses suspicion in the South
The vice versa holds true with the Northerners. They too are of a mentality that everything done by the Southerners are aimed at depriving them of their right to peaceful living; they believe or tend to declare that the Sri Lankan armed forces have committed war crimes surpassing those of Slobodan Milosevic. They choose to believe that they could guarantee the rights of the Tamils only by pursuing a policy of suspicion and aggression towards the Sinhala majority.
The opportunity, the conclusion of the war offered to both parties to get their relations back on track, is rapidly evaporating into thin sky. Looms large the specter of perpetual communal hatred and division. Luckily, both sides are not in possession of missiles, nuclear or otherwise.
If they did, it is very unlikely we would have men like Petrov manning our alert stations on either side; with us are people who would jump to ring alarm bells and provoke reprisals. Wise counsel, moderate insight on national issues as well as objective and rational thinking are things of the past or of foreign origin.
We, as a nation, are in dire need of moderates, people not given to base emotions, impassioned, sober and not in polarised extremes in terms of political, racial, religious lines; those who would be quick not to point out fault lines but potential for compromise; not of provocative conduct but of pacifist tendencies; not hasty to point out the speck in the others eye while having a log in his. Yet, it is exactly the opposite that we have.
Irrational, extremist, polarised and intolerant. From the day we enacted Sinhala only and from the time the Tamil politicians sported Eelam, we have been having our fingers on the hair trigger that could launch destructive forces, that eventually would devour us all, en masse!
We desperately need, on the one hand, leaders who would not use the emotional urge of the masses in areas of religion, race and caste, but act as buffers against those; on the other we need citizens who would not play to the tune of those leaders who ignite base emotions.
I wish Petrov was a Sri Lankan, alive and in leadership! Yet he is not. But there is a silver lining in the equation. We do not have nuclear missiles.
To have them you have to be a powerful, undivided and an efficient nation.
So, a Petrov will not be missed that badly, after all!