In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, the protagonist, a socially-minded small town banker facing disgrace and ruin, is contemplating suicide. As he stands on a bridge readying to take the fil plunge, he wishes he had never been born in the first place. A passing angel intervenes, showing the protagonist how he had touched many lives with his kindness and compassion. At the end of this inspiratiol 1940s film, the protagonist realizes that his had, in fact, been a life well lived — that the histories of the people he had known and loved, his town and even his country, would have been far different and darker had he never existed. This is true for every human, more so if he or she has the belief to make a difference when the situation so arises. But what can we say about a man credited with saving the world from a nuclear armageddon? Far from being a Hollywood fantasy, it is the true story of a Soviet army officer who breathed his last in May this year, but whose passing was so quiet that it came into news only last week. On what would have been a fateful night of September 26, 1983, lieutent colonel Stanislav Petrov was on duty at a top secret underground bunker a little south of Moscow. His job was to monitor the enemy missile early warning system, to which a new satellite network had lately been added. Suddenly, an alarm went off and Petrov saw on the computer screen that five nuclear missiles launched by the US were heading straight for his country. As over a hundred subordites panicked, Petrov coolly took a call. He had been exhaustively drilled to report any such attack immediately to his superiors; the protocol was such that they would not question his judgment but pass the alarm straight up the hierarchy. This ‘hair trigger’ retaliation would have culmited in the top authorised Soviet leader pressing the nuclear button.
The Power of One
That would doubtless have led to more counter strikes from the US and Europe under the ‘mutually assured destruction (MAD)’ doctrine, resulting in a nuclear holocaust that would have wiped away civilization as we know it. However, Petrov, standing in for a sick colleague that night, had a different background from other officers manning the system. They were professiol soldiers trained to obey instructions and protocols like robots, but Petrov with his civil education was more sceptical in approach. So he used his common sense to first ask himself why should the Americans be firing only 5 nuclear missiles when it had thousands aimed at the Soviet Union. When he sought independent radar and satellite confirmation about incoming missiles, the answer was negative. With just about 15 minutes to take a decision in a 50/50 situation, Petrov relied on gut instinct and reported to his commanding officer that the system had malfunctioned. It later transpired that a new Soviet satellite had mistaken very dense cloud movement as launched missiles and had triggered the false alarm. Ever afterwards, Petrov would refuse to accept he was a hero, protesting: “I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that’s all.” His sense of responsibility even in the midst of not knowing whether his country would be vaporised in minutes — is an exemplar as India and Pakistan stand eyeball to eyeball in nuclear confrontation, as North Korea and US trade nuclear threats, as terrorists talk of using ‘dirty nukes’ for genocide.
Stanislav Petrov was a middle ranking army officer who decided right when on the hot seat in the height of the Cold War. Nearly four decades back in World War II, the German Governor of occupied Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, had to take a call on Hitler’s command to reduce the capital of France to ‘a pile of rubble’. Convinced that the Fuehrer had become unhinged and was losing the war, Choltitz still had a reason to be wary. His family was virtually held hostage in Germany, and any failure would have led to their elimition. Nevertheless, Choltitz defied the order, for he could not bring himself to blow up the world’s most beautiful city to smithereens. These are but two examples of men placed in the capacity to wreak destruction, but choosing to forbear. Examples are legion of those who have waged lone battles to make a difference. The French mathematical genius Evariste Galois, scheduled to fight a duel (that would prove fatal) on the morning of May 31 in year 1832, wrote feverishly through the preceding night, compressing a lifetime of ideas into one last will and testament. That 60-page manuscript, with “I have not time” scribbled hastily at several places on the margin, forms a major part of his contribution to abstract algebra. A real story with happier ending is that of James Kent, the American scientist and master computer programmer, who worked day and night virtually non-stop in June 2000 to write a 10,000 line of code for the US government funded Human Genome Project. The competing Celera Genomics Corporation took three more days to finish the task with its powerful supercomputer. By his heroics, Kent ensured that the sequencing data of the human genome would remain in public domain. To make a difference, therefore, the person has to be prepared and at the right place at the right time. But at the moment of reckoning, he would prevail only if he backs himself to the hilt.