Perhaps the Best Decision Ever

Here’s one you might not have heard, yet, via Nina Porzucki of PRI’s The World:

PRI's The WorldA Korean Airlines commercial flight was shot down by a Soviet interceptor en route to Seoul from New York City.

And President Ronald Reagan announced his new missile defense program or as some people called it, Star Wars.

This was also the year when a military officer named Stanislav Petrov made the biggest decision of his life and maybe yours.

He was on duty at the Soviet nuclear command center when he saw what appeared to be five American nuclear warheads flash on the screen before him.

According to his system, the missiles were headed for the Soviet Union.

He should have alerted his superiors but instead Petrov did nothing.

Thankfully so, because it turned out to be a false alarm.

Given that this is the third time, at least, that Petrov has been honored for not doing his job, I wonder how it is that the story has evaded my attention for nearly fifteen years. Nonetheless, it’s worth the time to raise a glass to the greatest superhero whose special power is to do nothing the world has ever known.

Russia Today has a little more detail:

Stanislov PetrovOn September 26th, 1983, then-Soviet Lieutenant-Colonel Stanislav Petrov was on duty at an early-warning anti-nuclear center in the Moscow Region, when an alarm warning of incoming missile attack from the USA suddenly went off.

Petrov, who, amid mounting Cold War tensions, saw several ballistic missiles launched towards the USSR on his radar screen, was responsible for taking decisions on the spot, and had to report to his superiors immediately.

What he then told them might have caused the Soviet retaliation and unleashed World War III. But it didn’t – because Petrov decided it must have been a false alarm due to some system flaw. The counter-strike was eventually called off.

It later proved to be a technical failure of Soviet satellites that interpreted sunlight reflected from clouds as rockets fired from a US base. But instead of praise for making the right decision, Petrov’s base took part of the blame for not developing the system properly.

It was only after the case was disclosed in 1998 that the Russian gained hero status across the globe – something the retired officer living a modest life near Moscow is very reluctant to accept.

For his own part, Petrov said in 2011, after receiving the German Media Prize, “I never thought of myself as [a hero]; after all, I was literally just doing my job.”

This year’s Peace Prize was presented to the seventy-three year-old retired lieutenant colonel by a twenty-five year-old Dresdener who stood as a symbol “to the generation that would not have survived had it not been for Stanislav Petrov”.

Raise a glass? Raise a few.

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