THE MAN WHO SAVED THE WORLD
This week we discovered that Stanislav Petrov was dead. His death happened in May. On the 19th he left the planet he had done so much to protect. Stanislav Petrov was the man, Russian and Lieutenant Colonel who in 1983 resisted responding to the warnings of the computer defence systems that insisted that the Soviet Union was being attacked by missiles from the USA. Petrov gambled and waited for radar confirmation. Eventually the radar operators were able to establish that there were no missiles. The computers or the programmers had made an error. In the movie about the event someone shouts, ‘attention algorithimists’. Deadlines are always tight around a potential apocalypse, so it was no surprise that the geeks were not much use. The news that Petrov was no longer with us came out on the same day that Donald Trump suggested it would be a good idea to kill everyone in North Korea. The word he used was total – babies, schoolchildren, pregnant women, pensioners, the disabled and the rest, what the hell.
The estimate is that the decision by Petrov saved 200 million lives. Asked to explain why he hesitated, Petrov said he found it impossible to contemplate that amount of human destruction. He wanted a legacy that would be something other than a desert and charred bodies. Donald Trump, though, appears to have no such inhibitions. It takes insight beyond mine to understand the madness that obliged Petrov to make a decision about obliterating the world and to know why Trump now indulges in nuclear brinkmanship with a country that has no intention of invading the United States.
33 years have elapsed since Petrov refused to press the nuclear button. I have been alive for all of them. Some years were better than others but I thank Stanislav Petrov for every one. Years, hours and minutes, all were essential, and that is what Petrov held in his hand while he waited for radar confirmation, waited on a night cursed with poor visibility. Somehow Petrov held his nerve and was able to bless us all. At the time Donald Trump was thinking about money and trophy women. The Man Who Saved The World is essential viewing for all of us. It not only puts us on gloomy alert the film enables us to pay homage to a man who rescued the human race. The film was made in 2014. Faced with a camera, Petrov made gloomy predictions about the future. He felt a nuclear holocaust was inevitable. His view was simple. Nuclear weapons should not exist. But they do travel at 15000 miles per hour, and that must impress Jeremy Clarkson.
The Man Who Saved The World provides not only urgent history but also mixes themes that evoke Tolstoy. The wife of Petrov had a premature death because of cancer. He was caring for his wife when the nuclear incident happened. Mortality is understood to be precious. The violent and all violence transgress both intimacy and destiny. During the film his translator prods Petrov to reconcile with his mother, to bury the enmity that existed within his family and to follow the principles he urges on nation states. This connection between domestic and military conflict appeared in War And Peace, and its existence in the narrative of The Man Who Saved The World is both deliberate and telling.
The scenes that feature the young Petrov are played by actors. These scenes include the nuclear incident, the suffering of his wife and the subsequent frustration of the young Petrov. The rest of the film documents the interaction of the real 74 year old Petrov with the filmmakers. It also records an arranged visit to the USA. The complex elements of the film reflect on the choice between fraternity and enmity, the capricious relationship between coincidence and fate, and what constitutes heroism. If the movie has superficial aspects, it is because political analysis is sidestepped. The Man Who Saved The World ignores how nuclear armament is the inevitable consequence of military and industrial modernism. The film pleads for sensitivity, decency, empathy and conscience. All are desirable but it will take more than human beings behaving well to sort out this mess. The Man Who Saved The World is intelligent and is focussed but it aims for the heart rather than the head. Few will dispute that it hits the target.
Coincidence is at the heart of pure romance, and there are enough coincidences in what happened that night in1983 to satisfy any devotee of the Chaos Theory. Petrov was not supposed to be working that evening. Someone called in sick. He was also not a typical Army man. His parents pushed him into military service when he was 17 years old. According to Petrov, they did it because they wanted to reduce the cost of the household bills. Petrov refers to his years in the Army as a lost part of his life. The movie suggests that on another night with a more typical officer the Russian missiles would have been launched. This may be true or it may be movie affectation. For a man who endured alienation in his career Petrov was able to be successful. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was given responsibility for designing the protocols to manage nuclear incidents. This is not the usual criterion we associate with bureaucratic outsiders. And we will never know how others would have responded. The lack of radar confirmation may have tempted not just Petrov to be hesitant. It is not difficult, though, to imagine a personality that would have responded in a different manner. Petrov wanted to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Donald Trump wants to spend billions on building more. Perhaps we should not prod too much at the complex personality of Stanislav Petrov. He was as consequential and as mysterious as the circumstances that demanded his response.
The presence of Kevin Costner in the documentary element of the film is important. Petrov was a big fan of the famous Untouchable and his favourite movie was The Bodyguard. This is perhaps the most shocking revelation in The Man Who Saved The World. We owe our existence to a man who had terrible taste in movies. Such is human dependency. Petrov meets Costner on an unnamed film set. Robert de Niro and Matt Damon also appear and shake hands with Petrov. All the actors appear to be ill at ease. Petrov has never heard of Matt Damon, and the Danish filmmakers have fun with the surprise. This is a mere moment. Costner welcomes Petrov, and the two men have a stilted conversation. Both men are overawed by the hero in the opposite armchair. Later, Costner announces Petrov to the rest of the film crew and compares his role as an actor to the genuine heroism of Petrov. The Russian looks at his shoes. Costner is not articulate but we still sense how cinema has so often provided a narrow definition of heroism, defined it as no more than being ready for a fight. Petrov smiles at his admirers but he is a remote figure, a reminder of how heroism is also about the willingness to take responsibility, to stand alone and be defiant.
This strength is not always appreciated. Members of the CND in Britain have had at times needed to be heroic. They have had few friends. During the recent election campaign Theresa May won admiration because she insisted that she would pull the trigger on nuclear bombs when needed, whatever that may mean. The conflict and argument were unseemly. Middle-aged men appeared on television and with relish talked about potential destruction. Jeremy Corbyn was derided for his opposition to nuclear weapons. He was called gutless and feeble by far from man alone Michael Fallon. This barking poodle and his unseemly behaviour have precedence. In their determination to break the spirit of CND members, Michael Heseltine and others in British Government abandoned the rule of law and contravened more than a few democratic principles.
Nine countries have nuclear armaments. The proponents of nuclear weapons argue that they are a deterrent. They may or may not be. What they do, though, is persuade others that they also need some. The nine countries possess between them 15,000 nuclear weapons. If that lot went off, even God would notice, wherever he is. Imagine him raising an eyebrow and putting a finger in his ear. Replacing the UK Trident nuclear missile system will cost £205 billion. The total proposed Government expenditure for 2016-17 is £772 billion. The missiles will last beyond twelve months but the money has to be paid as the damn things are built. In Britain the NHS is in crisis and wages in the public sector have been reduced in real terms. Vital government services including homeland security are suffering because of staffing shortages. The only consolation the British have is that this crazy willingness to waste money does not make them unique.
Kevin Costner announced Stanislav Petrov as a ‘man amongst men’. Costner meant well but he misunderstood. Petrov made a brave decision that perilous night in 1983. He was prepared to be amongst no one. Nuclear weapons have arrived because of the sinister relationship that exists between economics, military appetites and imperial expansion. The weapons persist, despite the ridiculous expense, because there is a crowd that demands them, a crowd too prone to shaking its fist.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.