National Security & Defense

Remembering Stanislav Petrov

Stanislaw Petrow in 2016 (Queery-54-Own work/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)
He wouldn’t become the Left’s new man. Neither should we.

Thirty-five years ago, just after midnight on the morning of September 26, a midranking officer in the Soviet Army single-handedly saved both his country and ours. Now that the American public has emerged from the trial (pardon me, the “job interview”) of the century, it would be nice to mark the anniversary.

The setting on that terrifying night in 1983 was Serpukhov-15, a military command center from which nervous Communists monitored satellites in anticipation of Western nuclear aggression. Though ridiculous from our perspective, Soviet concerns about an American first strike were not entirely unjustified. Four weeks earlier, the USSR had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, a passenger jet carrying dozens of Americans and a United States congressman. President Reagan had responded with a milk-curdling speech (the phrase “inhuman brutality” couldn’t have pleased the Kremlin), and NATO had undertaken a military exercise — Able Archer — that had included a simulated nuclear launch.

In her extraordinary political biography of Margaret Thatcher (no timid Cold Warrior herself), NR contributor Claire Berlinski notes that nuke-laden Soviet fighters literally kept their engines running that fall. It was in that nerve-racking atmosphere that Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov faced what may well have been one of the most momentous decisions in human history. Ensconced in his bunker southwest of Moscow, Petrov was staring at his computer screen when satellite data revealed five approaching missiles — presumably nuclear, presumably American. Though his standing orders, as Berlinski relates them, were to “send this information up the chain of command and precipitate the launching of a massive nuclear counterstrike,” Petrov miraculously did nothing, understanding intuitively that what the radar showed “simply couldn’t be happening.” Petrov’s reading of the situation was, of course, correct — the false alarm was due to a combination of orbital angles and sunlight — but Moscow reacted with characteristic fury. “The Kremlin,” Berlinski writes, “rewarded Petrov for breaking his orders by demoting him and sending him into exile, where he suffered a nervous breakdown.”

Looked at a certain way, the story of the Cold War is the story of men who might have destroyed civilization but didn’t. “Our dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the earth,” Ronald Reagan told Japan’s parliament not seven weeks after the Serpukhov incident. “You boys must be crazy,” Dwight Eisenhower chided the Joint Chiefs upon being advised to aid the French defense of Dien Bien Phu with nukes. Though both presidents were world-bestriding figures by any measure, the case can be made that Stanislav Petrov was a hero of a superior kind. Unlike Reagan and Eisenhower — leaders who took up defined roles with explicit power to shape events — Petrov was a minor cog in an impersonal machine. It isn’t only that he had no business being a good man. He wasn’t supposed to be a man at all.

Rather, Petrov was meant, like every victim of the long, wicked experiment through which he lived, to evolve — to transform himself from Homo sapiens into Homo sovieticus, the “fearful, isolated, authority-loving personality created by Communism,” to borrow Francis Fukuyama’s apt definition. Petrov refused to comply — “I made a decision, and that was it,” he told the Washington Post in 1999 — and in so doing he claimed not only his humanity but the moral heritage of rational self-rule given to all men by God, if not by governments. That Petrov was punished by his Soviet masters is lamentable but ultimately beside the point. In a moment of unimaginable fear, he struck a blow for both conscience and reason. He saw what was right and chose to do it.

Will we?

Like their intellectual forebears in the authoritarian murk of the 20th century, the men and women of today’s Left wish also to create a new person. And just as Homo sovieticus was marked by a self-imposed blindness, so Homo progressus is the being who no longer knows, or dares say, what is true. One sees him chiefly in matters concerning sexuality and gender, but the new man is summoned whenever ideology and fact collide. At times, he is asked to defend the plainly ridiculous (as when an Australian “expert” posited last May that parents should obtain their babies’ consent before changing their diapers), but no absurdity is unworthy of his support. Homo sapiens may roll his eyes at such nonsense (or, in certain moods, grieve), but Homo progressus merely nods. “If this is what is now expected of me,” one hears him telling himself, “I must willingly do it.”

Because the new man is a creature without history, he is deaf to its appeals and admonitions. As the Kavanaugh saga illustrated, Homo progressus cannot be made to care (for example) that the presumption of innocence is a moral construct at least as old as Julius Paulus, the Roman jurist who lived a mere 200 years after Christ. To discard such a principle is nothing to him if a moment’s advantage can be had. To insist upon it is reactionary, misogynistic, hateful. That the new man may one day have need of such a presumption himself is not a factor in his thinking. Like the doomed Bolshevik in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, confessing his “crimes” as a final service to the revolution, Homo progressus in his perfected form happily sacrifices his life to the cause. One had a glimpse of him in James Franco’s response, earlier this year, to various sexual misconduct allegations. The women’s claims, Franco told Stephen Colbert, “are not accurate, but I completely support people coming out and being able to have a voice.”

“I didn’t do it,” in other words, “but to defend myself would be unthinkable.”

Preposterous rhetoric notwithstanding, the American Left will reclaim power one day, and a movement whose success depends largely on the curtailment of freedom of thought will attempt again to remake us in its image. How many of us will find the strength to resist?

As Stanislav Petrov showed, a man alone can do a great deal.

Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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