Stanislav Petrov Day
September 26, 2015 8:10 AM   Subscribe

On this date in 1983, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov saved the life of every man, woman & child on the face of the Earth.

No joke.

If you've enjoyed the continued existence of the human species, please spread the word about Stanislav Petrov.
posted by MrJM (83 comments total) 93 users marked this as a favorite
 
Good man.
posted by flippant at 8:11 AM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yay, I guess. There's something pretty fucked up, though, about a world that relies on the sound judgment of a single guy to save us all from total annihilation.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:16 AM on September 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


There Is A Button : a lovely little story that came across my Tumblr dashboard this morning.
posted by Jeanne at 8:20 AM on September 26, 2015 [31 favorites]




Previously.
posted by thetortoise at 8:31 AM on September 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


A short interview with the man found from a tribute site here.
posted by solarion at 8:36 AM on September 26, 2015


There's a reason why for people of my generation, born in the seventies and just old enough to sort of understand how dangerously hot the Cold War was turning in the early eighties, 1983 was such a scary year. Not just Petrov saving the world from the holocaust, but also Operation Ryan and Able Archer and a political climate in which either side launching pre-emtive strikes seemed not just reasonable, but inevitable. Pop culture in the early eighties was drenched in that apocalyptic fear and 1983 was at the heart of it.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:38 AM on September 26, 2015 [57 favorites]


Pop culture in the early eighties was drenched in that apocalyptic fear and 1983 was at the heart of it.

At least we got Testament out of it.
posted by thetortoise at 8:42 AM on September 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


The life of a suburban American family is scarred after a nuclear attack.

Next to the word understatement in the dictionary.
posted by Splunge at 9:01 AM on September 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Threads was released less then a year later.

Growing up in a military family - always close to a 'Strategic Target' - was a formative experience. Like millions of others, I *knew* that nuclear fire was the way we would all die. We didn't even plan for survival. "If the war starts, <our base> ranks a "cookie*", said my father.

I never expected to live. Or love. Or have a fantastic, amazing, exciting, engaged and wonderful life.

But that's what I have.

Thank you, Stanislav Petrov!

*cookie: Fusion weapon of city-burning scale.
posted by Combat Wombat at 9:24 AM on September 26, 2015 [46 favorites]


Thanks, Stan. Good job.

During the years 1968 and 1971 I sat in a room in northern Japan (Hokkaido) watching four and sometimes five Soviet launch sites--these sites were tasked to our field station. They all lay just barely over our radio horizon. In those days the very names of the Soviet sites were classified TOP SECRET CRYPTO, but you can google them now, a thing I still can't quite do without feeling creepy. Those years were characterized by many launches per month from various places in the Soviet Union. Our job was to catch the telemetry as the missiles cleared the radio horizon, and determine first the angle of inclination of the launch, then break the telemetry into working codes. These two tasks let us decide if the launch was below or above 79 degrees angle of inclination, relative to the equator, and if the bird on board carried one or another kinds of scientific or communications payloads, or one or another versions of nuclear warheads. I was a signals analyst: talk to me Z302A, tell me who you are.

A launch above 79 degrees was a polar shot. This could be either a stationary satellite or a sub-orbital strike on North America. Polar shots were popular then, when both the US and the Soviet Union were thrilled to be able to position birds in stationary orbits, for use as primitive GPS and relay functions. We both launched literally hundreds of them in that two year span. In those days, Soviet sub-orbital ICBMs carried fractional orbital bombs (FOBs), perhaps ten or so per missile. As the missile descended it would scatter its seeds, so to speak, over a wide area, to spread the joy around and to help evade our counter-missile missiles. When first we discovered the multiple warhead configuration we called them SOBs (sub-orbital bombs), but that acronym was too much fun, so they changed it.

As a humorous aside, we figured we could counter about 90% of the bombs, because sites like the one where I worked intercepted the information soon enough to send up our countermeasures. The humor is that, sure, we would turn the sky white blowing that stuff up in the stratosphere (actually we would be detonating them over Canada, sorry guys), but when you get only 90% of about 4500 birds, that still leaves 450 hydrogen bombs to annoy the population. Ha ha. Then comes the second and third strikes, which we theoretically would meet with whatever we had left, plus however much help we'd get from the Polaris submarines after they finished destroying every large city in the Soviet Union. Ah. The Cold war was Good Times.

Sometimes we would get advance notice of a launch through COMINT or SIGINT channels, and sometimes we would get surprised by a launch nobody saw coming. A surprise launch was bone chilling. During the launch phase, we would sit on position, pretty much enthralled, while we tracked and analyzed the data from the launch. We could usually peg the data within one minute of getting the signal. Our tit would immediately relay the results to some guy in the fourth basement of the NSA building back in Washington DC (or Baltimore, if you prefer). He would tell DIRSNA either to relax it was a photo recon satellite, or go to the shelters, you have about 20 minutes until impact. Once the birds left our radio horizon it was about 90 minutes before they orbited, and our judgment was confirmed. In truth we would have known once they began to fall, but it was good to hear them coming around again, and get locked into orbit.

I had only sketchy details of what the drill would be if we called up an ICBM, but we all figured that if that happened we wouldn't be going back to America, ever, so the after action plan probably would involve staying in Japan, if Japan still existed. Needless to say we never sat on a hot ICBM launch. By the way, we called the scenario Mutually Assured Destruction. Not a bad plan, eh? MAD. And everyone signed off on it.

So, Thanks again, Stan. Good job. I understand completely about the nervous breakdown, if that's what happened to you.
posted by mule98J at 9:29 AM on September 26, 2015 [253 favorites]


Maybe the great filter can depend on the actions of one person.
posted by TorontoSandy at 9:36 AM on September 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


Спасибо, товарищ полковник.

Growing up in a military family - always close to a 'Strategic Target' - was a formative experience.

I feel you, Combat Wombat. My father was a fighter pilot, then a B-52 commander, then a helicopter cabbie for ICBM crews in the Midwest. I have lived on a Class 1 military target for pretty much my entire life (including now, heh.) I developed a sense of fatalism early on. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 I cried tears of astonishment and relief. For a while there, it looked like the human race had dodged a bullet.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:41 AM on September 26, 2015 [16 favorites]


More than once I've gotten frustrated trying to explain to those reared after the fall of the Soviet Union, what it was like to grow up with existential dread when you didn't even yet have the vocabulary to describe what that was. Sure, I can call it that now, but at 13 I can't recall having yet run across the concept, much less be able to define it.

The knowledge that all-out nuclear war could start at any moment, it was just…there, all the time, and it colored everything. For me, looking back, it was kind of like a persistent haze. You wouldn't always notice it, but it was always there, and no matter how fine a summer day, you might look out and suddenly realize, yep, there's the haze, like always. The knowledge and fear just sort of lurked in the background of life, and you never knew when you'd stumble across it. Dark stuff for childhood, fear of total annihilation. It didn't help that everyone older than you assured you those killed in the blasts were the lucky ones, that surviving was even worse. Even in small-town Tennessee we'd convinced ourselves we were on the Soviet's target list because we had a small military school nearby—a school, as if some schoolboys were going to be seen as a threat by the Soviets. No one wanted to live through a war.

So yes, thank you very, very, much Lt. Col. Petrov. Has anyone ever nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize? He may say he's no hero, but I can think of no one more deserving than the man who saved us all.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 9:46 AM on September 26, 2015 [45 favorites]


More previous posts
posted by filthy light thief at 9:49 AM on September 26, 2015


A movie about him came out last week.

We also dodged bullets in 1979 and 1995, as well as plenty of could-have-been situations. If humanity was a single person, it'd be in a straitjacket.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:58 AM on September 26, 2015 [10 favorites]


When I was 12 or 13, at the height of the fatalist generation, almost my entire school participated in a national 5k event where we ran towards the blast centers around the country. Count me as another one that didn't live outside cookie zones until after college. We grew up knowing we weren't going to grow up. Many of my generation are still astonished that we've almost gotten to the aarp milestone.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 10:13 AM on September 26, 2015 [14 favorites]


There certainly was a mythos of the dangerous maddog ruskies during the cold war, certainly supported by the reality of a toughness somewhat different that yankee toughness. But it's taken a long time to accept that they are no less smart and empathetic as westerners and with as little interest in self destruction. But boy were there moments on both sides of insane brinkmanship.

I expect there were other unreported incidents but Lt. Col. Petrov certainly deserves all our respects and thanks.
posted by sammyo at 10:17 AM on September 26, 2015


The excellent TV series, Deutschland 83, gives a good account of the Cold War atmosphere of those times.
posted by vac2003 at 10:58 AM on September 26, 2015 [11 favorites]


This story gives me chills every time I read it.
posted by 4ster at 11:02 AM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


People not in the military were fairly aware of how close to a 'strategic target' they were. In grade school (grade 5) when we had nuclear war drill (?!?!? 'put your head under your desk and kiss your ass goodbye' was the 'joke' that us grade schoolers had).

Turns out, most of the population in the US lived pretty close to a 1st strike target (every military base, every major city), or thought we did. If you didn't live close enough to a 1st strike target, you were still pretty aware that you'd be living in a post-apocalyptic hell afterwards.
posted by el io at 11:08 AM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


I sometimes wonder "what if the lone soldier making that world-changing decision had been an American?" And, having seen what's happened to both nations in the 32 years since, I now assume we would not have survived.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:11 AM on September 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's interesting that my generation (which came of age after the fall of the Soviet Union) did not share in the same existential dread as earlier ones. It does not seem rational. There are more states with nuclear weapons now, the delivery systems are faster and more reliable, we (the US) still send nuclear-armed submarines on regular patrol, that UCS article linked above even cites a close call incident from 1995. How is it that awareness of this no longer pervades everyday life?
posted by indubitable at 11:17 AM on September 26, 2015 [8 favorites]


I think about this man at least once a week. Thank you, sir. Thank you.
posted by echocollate at 11:22 AM on September 26, 2015 [8 favorites]


And just a few months after Wargames was released in theaters. Coincidence?


Yes.
posted by dersins at 11:49 AM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was 15 in 1983. I definitely had some *interesting* nightmares.
posted by supermedusa at 11:50 AM on September 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


Since I'm an old guy, I can recall that fear/dread my entire life. Duck and cover drills regularly at school in the 50s (like hiding under your school desk is gonna save us from atomic weapons...), the Bay of Pigs and brink events around Cuba in the 60s, all of the escalation over Vietnam in the late 60s/70s, then the arms race craze in the 70s to 80s.

The last half of the 20th C was a haze of background fear, existential dread, and constant sabre-rattling.

I'll wear my CCCP tshirt today in a salute to Petrov.
posted by CrowGoat at 12:00 PM on September 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


I caught the tail end of the cold war being in primary school when the Berlin Wall fell. We sung the lyrics for songs like Forever Young, Two Tribes, 99 Balloons without knowing the greater context behind them. I'm kind of thankful for my ignorant bliss being a young kid living out in the ass end of the world away from the nuclear conflict not worrying about things like first strike or "kiss your ass goodbye" drills.
posted by Talez at 12:09 PM on September 26, 2015


It's interesting that my generation (which came of age after the fall of the Soviet Union) did not share in the same existential dread as earlier ones. It does not seem rational. There are more states with nuclear weapons now, the delivery systems are faster and more reliable, we (the US) still send nuclear-armed submarines on regular patrol, that UCS article linked above even cites a close call incident from 1995. How is it that awareness of this no longer pervades everyday life?

No longer politically useful
posted by one_bean at 12:13 PM on September 26, 2015 [8 favorites]


Everyone dead? Everyone on the whole planet? No way.

I don't mean to put a damper on what he did and I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 100 million to a billion killed, tops! Uh, depending on the breaks.
posted by happyinmotion at 12:17 PM on September 26, 2015 [8 favorites]


No longer politically useful

There's also a lack of childish and irresponsible brinkmanship that worried people about something actually happening.

Of the list of terrible shit that Reagan did, ripping the guts out of what was left of Détente was probably the most irresponsible things.
posted by Talez at 12:19 PM on September 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


That and he ordered his steaks well-done.
posted by stet at 12:26 PM on September 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


like hiding under your school desk is gonna save us from atomic weapons...

If you see the flash of a nuclear blast, you're probably far enough away from the main target that you're not looking at immediate vaporization.

However, in about 20-40 seconds, a blast wave is going to arrive, shattering all of the windows and dropping debris around you.

When a meteor exploded - with the equivalent blast of about 25 Hiroshima bombs - over Cheylabinsk in 2013, few people were injured by the actual blast. But lots of people immediately ran to the window to see what the bright flash of light was, probably with smartphones in hand, and when the blast wave hit, were injured by debris and broken glass.

So, in short, if you see a bright flash of light outside your window, get under something sturdy. Like, for instance, a 1950s-era school desk, those things were built like tanks.
posted by Hatashran at 12:27 PM on September 26, 2015 [25 favorites]


If you weren't there, it's hard to describe what it felt like to desperately hope you wouldn't survive the initial nuclear attack.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 12:32 PM on September 26, 2015 [15 favorites]


happyinmotion: I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 100 million to a billion killed, tops.

And after this close call did we eliminate the mineshaft gap? No! We learned nothing!
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 12:33 PM on September 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


How is it that awareness of this no longer pervades everyday life?

There's still plenty of guns around the house, but Fred and Boris no longer keep them pointed at each other, yelling I dare you, motherfucker! I double dare you!, now they content themselves with glowering and muttering ominously under their breath.
So to speak.
posted by hat_eater at 12:34 PM on September 26, 2015 [8 favorites]


Hunh. I grew up in rural California in the 70s, and I don't really recall any sense of dread or impending doom related to nuclear holocaust. We were aware of the Bomb, of course. But I don't think we actually feared it. In fact, our parents used to tell us how much worse it was for them in the 50s, what with Stop, Drop, and Roll, survival shelters and so on. We had none of that.
posted by notyou at 12:40 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was only 4 in 1983, but as a child who moved around too much to have friends, I spent most of my early childhood around Adults. Adults who didn't ever censor their conversations, assuming I was too young to understand or care. Adults who worked in foreign affairs and politics. As a result I don't remember a time without the dread of Nuclear War always hanging about in my gut. I had other things going on in childhood that built upon this, but at 36 years old, I still have a really really hard time believing in the existence of a future. Every time the TV goes blank or a radio station turns to fuzz I have a split second of waiting for the flash.

My husband went through a 1983/cold war obsession a few years back (really it's ongoing, but he's exhausted most of the material) and has talked extensively about his admiration of Stanislav Petrov. He's gotten some cold war themed stuff for Christmas the past few years. Maybe this year, I'll get him a framed portrait of Lt. Col. Petrov to go with his 1962 copy of The Effects of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Bomb Effects circular slide rule.

Here is his 1980s cold war Spotify playlist
posted by Lapin at 12:41 PM on September 26, 2015 [13 favorites]


happyinmotion: " I do say no more than 100 million to a billion killed,"

The story associated with the billion figure has 45% of prewar Americans living on 2% of prewar food production in a country with totally devastated infrastructure. Seems a might unrealistic considering they pretty much can't depend on aid from anyone else.
posted by Mitheral at 12:55 PM on September 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


all that fear/dread my entire life. Duck and cover drills regularly at school in the 50s (like hiding under your school desk is gonna save us from atomic weapons...)

In the 50s, it might. A fission bomb dropped on an urban centre could leave the suburbs with relatively little damage, and there weren't enough bombs for the fallout to render the earth uninhabitable. Those drills became a sick joke later, when hydrogen bombs had become commonplace, but at the start of the cold war they made sense.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:58 PM on September 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


Born in 1967. Have a "We survived the inevitable nuclear apocalypse"-grouphug....
posted by mikelieman at 1:12 PM on September 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


like hiding under your school desk is gonna save us from atomic weapons..

Well, there is a radius of almost certainly not surviving, and a radius of probably be ok (from the blast effect.) When you're in the donut shape between those, it makes sense to do what you can to tip the odds.
posted by ctmf at 1:13 PM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Mitheral: "The story associated with the billion figure has 45% of prewar Americans living on 2% of prewar food production in a country with totally devastated infrastructure. Seems a might unrealistic considering they pretty much can't depend on aid from anyone else."

Ok, no more than 1.1 billion. What's a hundred million or so here?

But seriously, I've never seen a serious analysis that resulted in more than a billion deaths, even for the excessive stockpiles from the early 80s.
posted by happyinmotion at 1:18 PM on September 26, 2015


There are more states with nuclear weapons now, the delivery systems are faster and more reliable, we (the US) still send nuclear-armed submarines on regular patrol, that UCS article linked above even cites a close call incident from 1995. How is it that awareness of this no longer pervades everyday life?

Well, first, they've become more or less honest deterrents against first strikes instead of implicit threats of first strikes. Second, there's just not as much tension between NATO and Russia as there was between NATO and the USSR, even with the recent uptick. The US and Russia aren't engaged in a global map of proxy wars with each other any of which could accidentally explode into global thermonuclear war. Third, the military capability of Russia has declined precipitously since 1983 while that of NATO has increased substantially*, and the conventional forces of NATO are almost certainly sufficient to repel any Russian incursion except in the Baltics (and forces can always move there if tensions increase).

*I think it wasn't until the first Gulf War that people really understood how really deadly NATO armed forces has become, and folks forget how surprising the speed and scale of victory were at the time.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:37 PM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm an '84 baby but grew up in a military family right in the thick of the Cold War early 90's wrap-up. Some memories that stand out to me now: the shortwave-AM-FM battery powered radio that got pulled out for every blackout along with the candles; the VERY VERY MANDATORY "tornado drill" with the weird alarm I never heard again that my 4th grade art teacher laughed off and said I could stay in her room with my sprained ankle for; my uncle's evacuation plan of buying the most expensive bottle of champagne at the liquor store and drinking it on his roof; nervously asking my mom what Communism actually was, aside from being completely evil of course don't get me wrong Mom.

Nowadays, of course, the bombs have already been launched and started landing, more and more are launched every minute, and it's downright gauche to speak of it. California burns, the glaciers melt, storms get stronger and more frequent, the weather in general just gets more unpredictable and strange. But there's no immediate single apocalyptic event and no evil Other to blame it all on so there's no emotionally compelling narrative for pop culture to glom onto. Any actual attempt at a solution would involve not setting up society to enrich the already-billionaires which just ain't gonna happen without systemic global political overhaul which good God would be unpleasant to live through regardless of outcome (which would almost certainly also be terrible IMO).

I lost a few years of my life to Poor Mental Health over this shit (along with peak oil catastrophizing), but MetaFilter I tell you, I have learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb. I'm young(ish) and healthy and sexy and not exactly likely to have kids any time soon so let's get crunk and f*ck. Or at least I can take up hiking and photography and not worry about how my goddamn hiking and photography gear is injuring Gaia since civilization will burn itself out and Gaia will sigh contentedly as if she finally got rid of a persistent case of athlete's foot. Perhaps someday I'll get back on track to raise chickens under my agroforest but that shit is tedious.

Oh yeah and those nuclear bombs are still all over the place and Russia and China and USA et al have some serious shit to work out in the next couple decades. And this comment is being added to my permanent record along with my spending and porn viewing habits. Plus my job is in question as the Pacific runs out of tuna and Congress threatens to shut down the Federal government over disobedient uterii. That shit too.
posted by 3urypteris at 1:54 PM on September 26, 2015 [15 favorites]


I remember being six, and falling into terrified sleep to the image of a flash on the horizon outside our window. That was three years after the world didn't end. Every time I think about how close we came, I feel a cold shiver. Some childhood nightmares were far too real. (I still don't know how I came to understand so young, but like people have said - it was everywhere back then, like a miasma.)
posted by harujion at 2:00 PM on September 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


I remember Reagan's "we begin bombing in 5 minutes" joke. I remember driving along a highway a few years later in the mid/late 1980's and saw a flash of some sort, and for a brief moment, I thought "is this it?" and then realized it was lightning illuminating a cloud or something fairly harmless like that. But for just a moment...

Thank you, Stanislav. Thank you.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:06 PM on September 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


It's funny—under Reagan, I was thoroughly whipped into that fear of nuclear war like a proper little drone.

Then, of course, the old fuck sat by and watched thousands of people like me die as a conscious political act and mostly, America just kept on doing America things like nothing was going on, except for when they paused to make fun of us.

Nuclear war is better.
posted by sonascope at 2:11 PM on September 26, 2015 [10 favorites]


I knew not to touch the kettle.
I knew to look right, left and right before crossing the road.
I knew never to go off with a stranger.
I knew that at any time the Four Minute Warning could sound.

Thank you Stanislav Petrov.
posted by comealongpole at 2:13 PM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


I remember those nightmares as well. Was 13 in 1983. The most frightening moment for me was being out in soccer practice. 4 in the afternoon. And the sirens go off. On a bright beautiful fall day. No clouds. No threat of tornado. Wasn't even the weekly siren test, which was noon on Wednesdays.

Had a complete meltdown for a few minutes but tried to hide it because no one wanted to appear weak. Coach made an off-hand comment about how we might as well work on our passing techniques since we had 30 minutes or so until the missiles hit. But no one did anything until the sirens finally stopped.

Was a weird time to be a kid. I dealt with it by consuming everything I could, fiction and non-fiction, about nuclear war. Which was terrifying. And I read everything I could about Reagan's massive military buildup and all the hardware and strategies involved, as well as the many, many books speculating about the next wars and inevitable conflicts. One book not only listed every big and small potential international conflict in the world, but also ranked them as to their likelihood of sparking WWIII. Was oddly reassuring in a way. Having odds and numerical probabilities attached to my nightmares.
posted by honestcoyote at 2:27 PM on September 26, 2015 [10 favorites]


I didn't know how to format links.

*ahem*
posted by comealongpole at 2:30 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Thank you, Stanislav Petrov.
posted by Anne Neville at 2:54 PM on September 26, 2015


But seriously, I've never seen a serious analysis that resulted in more than a billion deaths

I have a hard time taking seriously an analysis that is quite this terrified of hippies, but I haven't read the references.

Recent studies (PDF) show that even limited conflicts with low yield weapons produce orders of magnitude more climate effects and fatalities than previously estimated. After we finish feasting on the goo inside of each others' skulls, it'll be like the Dark Ages with robots.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 3:17 PM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


You know, if all the guy did was prevent a billion unnecessary deaths, I'm pretty sure that's more than anyone here will ever accomplish. I'm willing to give the dude his day.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:19 PM on September 26, 2015 [21 favorites]


I was in high school in Boston in the early 80s, and this kind of fear was the water we swam in. Students at Brown voted in 1984 to have the university stock cyanide pills for use in case of a nuclear attack. It was mostly a symbolic thing, an awareness-raising thing, but it was also something we-of-that-age discussed seriously and not infrequently: what would we do if we had enough warning to do something? Would we try to get to our families if we were not already together? Would we try to get to a shelter? Was it reasonable to carry some efficient and quick method of suicide with you all the time?

We had conversations like this as 13- and 14-year-olds. It was indeed a weird time to be a kid.
posted by rtha at 3:22 PM on September 26, 2015 [16 favorites]


I don't remember ever being particularly afraid of that sort of thing, even though ah...apparently I grew up in a cookie town, not that I knew that reference. I just remember my mom (grew up there as well) casually mentioning once that oh, we didn't bother with bomb shelters here because we'd be the first to go. I was all wait, whaaaaat? I guess I really didn't pay attention to jack shit at the time.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:48 PM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


A few years before, in 1980, when I was in 6th grade, we had a teacher who was supposed to do the "duck and cover" stuff. Instead, we got a lecture about how, if nuclear war happened, which he thought it would soon, we would all be dead (we were in a suburb of NYC, so yeah) and it wouldn't really matter what we did. That kinda stuck with me, as it was the first time an adult had stated I was unlikely to make it to adulthood, and when Regan did his "we start bombing Russia" schtick, I really thought that was it. Somehow, though, we managed to make it through the first phase of the Cold War. I still think that nuclear weapons are the likeliest possibility of human extinction, though, and don't really understand why most people nowadays don't really think it's a threat.
posted by Blackanvil at 4:17 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


RobotVoodooPower: Yes, to the climate effects, with a big "but".

There's three big unknowns about the potential death toll, over and above the direct deaths.

The first is the impact upon climate - the nuclear winter scenario. There's modelling results suggesting that even small nuclear exchanges could lead to substantial global cooling which causes a major loss of food production. However, all of modelling is very sensitive to how much soot gets lofted how high when cities burn. Fires on this scale are not well understood, so there are a lot of assumptions in the work by Toon or Robock. We're not going to be able to reduce the errors in these models until we have, god forbid, a real-world example. (And no, the regular haze in SE Asia isn't a good example - that's many small sources not one megacity-sized source.)

The second is the impact upon food distribution. If we lose a large amount of our shipping, docks, and oil refineries, then the world may have plenty of food, just not where hungry people are. I live in New Zealand where we grow enough food for 20-50 million people. We're not going hungry here, but that food won't stop people from dying of starvation until it is delivered. And it may take months, if not years to get substantial amounts to what's left of Europe/Russia/USA.

Then there's the third effect and this is hardest to quantify. It's the loss of belief in civilisation - that it will all get better so we should keep on trying. A nuclear war is a pretty good reason to think that civilisation contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, so why bother? Why bother behaving or even investing for the future, whether that's saving money, getting an education, or just not drinking yourself to death? The damage of a nuclear war to people's minds and beliefs is vast, potentially over and above the damage to their bodies. And that damage may come to the surface as riots, as revolutions, as religion, or as despair. How many will die from that? Who can say.

But I try not to think too hard about these questions, as they lead to being very miserable. Fuck it, it's sunny, I'm going outside.
posted by happyinmotion at 4:20 PM on September 26, 2015 [8 favorites]


About Cold War fears: In 1985 I was 15 and living in Florida, and we had to read Alas Babylon in our English Class. It's about the aftermath of a nuclear war, and it was set in Florida. At 44 years old I am still super-pissed that someone decided that it was a good idea to make a bunch of kids read this awful book, as much because of the execrable writing as the terrifying premise. There was one scene where the sexy-but-greedy Latina character responds to the disaster by looting all the dead people's fancy jewelry. But ha! The joke's on her, because metal absorbs more radiation, according to the book, and so she dies horribly, graphically, of radiation poisoning.

At the time I read this book, I had braces on my teeth, and I immediately began to obsess about what would happen if there were a nuclear war while I still had my braces on. This book totally said that MY TEETH would absorb all the radiation in the immediate area, and I would die a painful, utterly grotesque death. My mouth would be transformed into a shapeless, tattered, bleeding maw, with yellow teeth hanging from twisted, glowing wires, and even worse, I would not be able to eat, drink, or talk while all of this was happening to me.

I never could work up the nerve to talk to anyone about this -- even as a kid I realized that "but what about my braces?" was pretty far down on the list of Things to Plan for in Case of a Nuclear War. So instead, I surveyed the political landscape carefully, trying to ascertain if we'd somehow be able to hold on for 16 months or so until my braces came off.

When I got them off I smiled at everybody, not because my teeth were so straight, but because I knew that at least one barrier to my survival had finally been removed.

Stupid Cold War.
posted by staggering termagant at 4:44 PM on September 26, 2015 [31 favorites]


another good time to rec Schlosser's Command and Control?
posted by j_curiouser at 4:50 PM on September 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


Mule98J, that is a fantastic post.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 5:10 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't remember ever being particularly afraid of that sort of thing

Me either. I actually ended up doubling down and when the Berlin Wall fell I watched the coverage in my barracks room at a SAC base where I worked loading nukes onto bombers. I don't recall feeling relieved in any way just thinking something along the lines of "That's cool, I should probably be taping this.".
posted by MikeMc at 5:41 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's been moments of my life when I've realized that older members of my family have been scarred by global events that I'll never be affected by. I realized it when my mother made a passing reference to a drug making my father's scalp look like "an AIDS patient." ("You knew someone who had AIDS?" I'd asked her incredulously. "Of course," she'd told me, confused. "I lived through the '80s." She didn't elaborate.) My great-aunt, who kept everything because she'd lived through the Depression. And, more to the point, I realized it when I read my grandmother's journal entry during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when she wrote about the sheer futility of sewing my aunt's Halloween costume when everyone she knew could easily be dead by the end of the month.

I don't remember a time I was ever afraid of the bomb. The only memory I have of the USSR is when I was told that it had collapsed.

I'm not sure what my generation will be scarred by. Terrorism seemed likely once, but the threat is minuscule by comparison. Global warming, perhaps?

Either way, I'm glad we seem to have survived this threat long enough to face new ones.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 6:15 PM on September 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


Whenever I hear this story I wonder how many of these guys there are out there, who had to make a quick decision whether to kill everyone or not, and went against protocol to decide "not."

Anyway, my cold war memory: my dad was on a B-52 crew. They went on alert for, I don't know, a few days at a time? And they couldn't leave the "alert pad," it was called, where the plane was loaded up with nukes and ready to take off at a moment's notice. But they all had wives and kids and stuff. So there would be a specified time for the families to come visit and we'd have a picnic with the dads in their flight suits and then I think there was a playground at the alert pad for us and we'd play on that. (I was under five at the time, this is all very fuzzy.)

Just, you know, having a picnic with Dad, who might need to go end the world in a couple minutes.

My memory of the cold war ending is very vivid and it's not the Berlin wall coming down, it's standing in the living room of a family friend and hearing on the news that they were taking the B-52 crews off alert.
posted by gerstle at 8:31 PM on September 26, 2015 [19 favorites]


Terminator and T2 really reignited the "survivors have it worst" terror WRT thermonuclear war in my mind but the big pop culture existential crisis movies that I watched repeatedly (born in 1980) were Red Dawn and War Games.

I lived in Colorado at the time and currently do; my dad had registered firearms and liked to draw attention to the scenes in Red Dawn where the Cubans and Russians mow down a bunch of gun owners, so I quickly integrated my dad into that narrative...also he kind of had the mannerisms of Powers Boothe which was weird...in retrospect I think he really admired him as an actor, heh. I also felt really bad for Yuri the young Russian who is killed while sight seeing. My parents were like "oh hey we've been there!"

"War Games." You can't get more direct about MAD than that damned movie. It was practically a documentary about NORAD to whatever extent it was true. I liked it so much I bought the novelization (yuck) and wrote my own war dialer a couple years later.

I was an aircraft nerd and liked to point out the poor facsimiles of Russian aircraft -- the pseudo Hinds in Red Dawn, the F-4 phantoms playing MiG in Iron Eagle, the "MiG 28" aircraft in Top Gun that were really friendly training wheel jets (F-20 or F-5)...
posted by aydeejones at 8:49 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also consider me a Stan Stan
posted by aydeejones at 8:51 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


another good time to rec Schlosser's Command and Control?

I read Command and Control last time I saw it recommended on the blue and was shocked and fascinated to read the story of the Titan II silos in rural Arkansas. My dad was stationed at Little Rock AFB from 75-80 and the book gave me an in-depth look at exactly what he was doing when he "pulled alert" and went to spend a couple days and nights in something called a "missile silo." Coincidentally, he worked closely with Captain Mazzaro - the commander in the Damascus incident - and the Mazzaros are still close friends with my mom. We left LRAFB just before the incident in the story, as near as I can calculate, so didn't see it first hand. The Air Force admitted after his death that working in the silos probably caused the cancer that killed him. After reading about the chemicals in the Titan II silos that explanation makes a lot more sense to me.

I was happy to read the book - it gave me a great insight into my dad's life that I wouldn't have understood at the time since I was still in single digits and that I never had the chance to ask him about.

Next time I go visit my mom I may try to meet up with Col. Mazzaro and hear more of the story.
posted by bendy at 8:55 PM on September 26, 2015 [16 favorites]


Wow, bendy. Damn.
posted by rtha at 9:10 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Anyway, my cold war memory: my dad was on a B-52 crew. They went on alert for, I don't know, a few days at a time? And they couldn't leave the "alert pad," it was called, where the plane was loaded up with nukes and ready to take off at a moment's notice.

The crews lived at the alert pad in a sort of building/bunker complex known as the "Mole Hole". I loved the Mole Hole (we would have to go out there periodically when the alert birds were swapped out and down/upload the weapons), they had a big screen tv with HBO, their own chow hall with good food, a small library etc... IIRC there was a small house just outside the gate of the alert pad where married aircrew could visit with their families.
posted by MikeMc at 9:34 PM on September 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: disobedient uterii
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 10:29 PM on September 26, 2015


Yeah, I'm old enough to remember being utterly terrified by this story because I understood how one little mistake could mean nuclear war. It was a very real fear for several years of my childhood.

Thank you Stanislav Petrov.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:00 PM on September 26, 2015


the Damascus incident

Here's the Wikipedia article on the Damascus silo, in case anyone here hadn't heard of it.

I remember when that happened. Was living in Little Rock and had family not too far away from Damascus There was wall-to-wall coverage on the local stations. I remember asking mum if there was any chance the warhead could have gone off. She said "probably not" and then proceeded to tell me for the first time about her plans for us in case of nuclear war.

She thought we had a decent chance, since our house was a good 15-20 miles away from LRAFB. I was told why she kept one pantry full of water bottles (each one dated), and another full of can goods. She explained how she thought the house's interior (and windowless) hallway was far enough away from the exterior walls. That the radiation would be at a survivable level there. Especially if we lay flat on the floor and covered ourselves with mattresses. She thought we'd have to stay in such a position for 2 weeks. If there was enough warning, she had plans for how to cover windows and doors in order to minimize dust penetration. Mum had practically memorized the old Civil Defense guidebooks.

Even though I believed my mum was tough enough to survive (and probably become the Warrior Queen of the Little Rock Wasteland), I was terrified of the prospect of being covered up in mattresses and plastic sheets in a dark hallway with no toys and no sun and not even able to stand up. I wondered how we were going to the bathroom. If mum had a plan for that part (and I'm sure she did), she never told me. She also never told me what she thought the world would be after our two week internment.

Anyways, the Damascus silo site was recently opened for a tour, in honor of the 35th anniversary. Wish I could have gone.
posted by honestcoyote at 12:53 AM on September 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


Lest we forget, there are still airmen pulling alerts in missile silos in Montana (my sister-in-law spent 6 long years there) and North Dakota and presumably in Russia and other countries. Although the Cold War is over, what Petrov did could happen again.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:21 AM on September 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


However, in about 20-40 seconds, a blast wave is going to arrive, shattering all of the windows and dropping debris around you.

When you're in the donut shape between those, it makes sense to do what you can to tip the odds.


And FYI, even if you survive the initial blast effect, the biggest barrier to surviving Acute Radiation Syndrome (when you otherwise might) is what's called a combined injury. That's when you have ARS and also a serious injury like broken bones, open wounds, etc. The odds of not surviving the combined injury are WAY higher than the odds of not surviving the individual injuries combined. If you're going to get ARS, don't get injured first.
posted by ctmf at 7:03 AM on September 27, 2015


there are still airmen pulling alerts in missile silos

List of Ohio-class submarines
Vanguard-class submarine
posted by ctmf at 7:15 AM on September 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


There's a reason why for people of my generation, born in the seventies and just old enough to sort of understand how dangerously hot the Cold War was turning in the early eighties, 1983 was such a scary year.

I remember waking up being scared shitless about this stuff (I was 27). But now everything's ok now, right? Somehow the fact that "we" still have thousands of ICBMs and nuclear warheads trained at each other is not a problem because we're got Liberty and once we lower taxes and sign the TPP our economies will grow for generations without a hitch! It's a brave new thing.
posted by sneebler at 7:32 AM on September 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I lived in Arlington, nearly exactly five miles from both the White House and the Pentagon. I remember drawing blast and heat radii on an old map with a protractor for a health class presentation, and coming to the regretful conclusion that I didn't live close enough to die in the blast, so I would get to live long enough to die in the firestorm afterwards.
posted by tavella at 2:49 PM on September 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


If you've enjoyed the continued existence of the human species...

I'm on the fence, but Petrov still sounds like a helluva guy. The documentary looks like it is worth tracking down too.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:19 PM on September 27, 2015


<sonascope> Nuclear war is better.

No, it is not.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 8:34 PM on September 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I remember drawing blast and heat radii on an old map with a protractor for a health class presentation, and coming to the regretful conclusion that I didn't live close enough to die in the blast, so I would get to live long enough to die in the firestorm afterwards.

Silver metal is better than bronze (radiation sickness)
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 9:17 PM on September 27, 2015


He was a hero. And let's also remember he got to be a hero because Vasili Arkhipov kept a cool head 20 years prior.
posted by Gelatin at 9:29 AM on September 28, 2015


My touchstone for the Cold War era was the ABC TV Movie "The Day After" (previously), which I saw as a confused teen in 1983.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:53 AM on September 29, 2015


Erratum: orbitals.

In review, I remembered that those polar orbits were used mainly for photo-recon birds. They took a few dozen orbits to cover a targeted area, photographing swaths of land from north to south. Telemetry in those days was too primitive to transmit usable photos. Photo-recon birds had to come down to Earth so that the film could be recovered. The Soviets did this by bringing the bird down somewhere inside the Soviet Union—a hard landing—while we did it either by splashing into the ocean, or by under-flying the bird as it re-entered, snagging its parachutes with a hook, then dragging the bird into the cargo bay of an aircraft.

Being a Cold War REMF was a mindfucking experience. I did that job, 98J, for almost three years. The Cold War was not all cold. Over 100,000 American military people were killed between the years 1960 and 1975, the "Vietnam Era." The well-known (58,000 or so) number applies only to Southeast Asia. Not all of the rest of the casualties were "training accidents" or oops events.

Before I was a REMF in Japan, I was a dumb grunt, a scout in a LRRP platoon, 11B2P. That job had its own brand of surrealism, but mostly it was a roller-coaster ride fed with adrenalin. I saw Dr. Strangelove on the side of a 20-foot van while sitting on a PSP bench, inside a roofless room with sandbag walls that were about six feet high. 3.2 swill that passed for beer, and cookies sent by the ton from concerned folks back home who wanted to see that the boys overseas were remembered. Our platoon was a church project, and I got dozens of letters every month from people I didn't know; they sent us boxes upon boxes of home-baked cookies. After a while we fed them to the coatis and rats that lived under the floorboards of our tent.

This was in 1965, just outside the perimeter of Bien Hoa Airbase. Between us and the airbase was a heavily mined double apron fence. The idea was that the VC would first get through us, then get through the fence if they wanted to attack the airbase. Anyhow, the van's side was painted white, so the movies would be easier to see, and it faced outward from the perimeter. The idea was that Charlie wouldn't start his mortar attacks until after the movie. I'm not making this up.

Some nights we could look across the runways to where the newly arriving 25th Infantry Division (maybe it was the 1st Inf Div, the Big Red One, I don't remember which) was encamped, and watch the green and red tracers passing one another during their firefights. Now and then a C-47 would overfly them, dropping parachute flares. They had a hell of a time for a few weeks, trying to figure out how Charlie was getting inside their perimeter. It got to the point where the firefights were nightly happenings, and everyone was standing perimeter. We would sit on top our sandbag bunkers watching the show, wondering why them, not us. We liked to think it was because we were badass paratroopers and they were legs. (Yeah, I know, but we were young.)

Then, one afternoon a bulldozer was pushing back the brush to clear the perimeter when it uncovered the entrance to the tunnel system over which the division had unknowingly encamped. Charlies came out like ants, running for the trees, and a mess of a fight ensued. This sort of thing was more or less typical of the goings on, so Dr. Strangelove seemed oddly appropriate, and not at all hyperbolic at the time.
posted by mule98J at 9:19 AM on October 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


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