Deliberate Explosive Devices

After visiting the Titan Missle Museum in Arizona, Matt Blaze wrote, How did we keep from blowing ourselves up for all those years?

Good question.

Take a listen the next time you hear somebody say “Good question.” It means they don’t have the answer. Maybe it also means the best questions are unanswerable.

But maybe we also need to keep asking them anyway, for exactly that reason. This was a lesson I got a long time ago, and reported in 2005, in this post here:

About ten years ago I took a few days off to chill in silence at the New Camaldoli Monastery in Big Sur. One of the values the White Monks of the monastery share with Quakers in Sunday meeting is confinement of speech to that which “improves on the silence”. (Or, in the case of the monks, fails to insult the contemplative virtues of silence.) It was there that I had an amazing conversation with Father John Powell, who told me that any strictly literalist interpretation of Christ’s teachings “insulted the mystery” toward which those teachings pointed — and which it was the purpose of contemplative living to explore. “Christ spoke in paradox”, he said. Also metaphor, which itself is thick with paradox. Jesus knew, Father Powell said, that we understand one thing best in terms of another which (paradoxically) is literally different yet meaningfully similar.

For example, George Lakoff explains that we understand time in terms of money (we “save”, “waste” and “spend” it) and life in terms of travel (we “arrive”, “depart”, “fall off the wagon” or “get stuck in a rut”). For what it’s worth, George is Jewish. Like Jesus.

The greatest mystery of life, Father Powell explained, isn’t death. It’s life. “Life is exceptional”, he said. For all the fecundity of nature, it is surrounded by death. Far as we can tell, everything we see when we look to the heavens is dead as a gravestone. Yet it inspires the living. “Life”, he said, sounding like an old rabbi, “is the mystery”.

I was a kid in the fifties, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were busy not talking to each other while planting thousands of nuclear-tipped ICBMs  in the ground, pointed at each other’s countries. They were also sending thousands of additional warheads to sea in nuclear submarines. Every warhead was ready obliterate whole cities in enemy territory. Our house was five miles from Manhattan. We had frequent air raid drills, and learned how to “duck and cover” in the likely event of sudden incineration. Like many other kids in those days, I wished to enjoy as much of life as I could before World War III, which would last only a few hours, after which some other species would need to take over.

I was no math whiz; but I was an authority on adults and their failings. I could look at the number of missles involved, guess at all the things that could go wrong, and make a pretty good bet that something, sooner or later, would. I wasn’t sure we would die, but I was sure the chances were close to even.

In his new book The Dead Hand, Washington Post reporter David E. Hoffman explains exactly how close we came:

At 12:15 A.M., Petrov was startled. Across the top of the room was a thin, silent panel. Most of the time no one even noticed it. But suddenly it lit up, in red letters: LAUNCH.

A siren wailed. On the big map with the North Pole, a light at one of the American missile bases was illuminated. Everyone was riveted to the map. The electronic panels showed a missile launch. The board said “high reliability.” This had never happened before. The operators at the consoles on the main oor jumped up, out of their chairs. They turned and looked up at Petrov, behind the glass. He was the commander on duty. He stood, too, so they could see him. He started to give orders. He wasn’t sure what was happening. He ordered them to sit down and start checking the system. He had to know whether this was real, or a glitch. The full check would take ten minutes, but if this was a real missile attack, they could not wait ten minutes to nd out. Was the satellite holding steady? Was the computer functioning properly?…

The phone was still in his hand, the duty ofcer still on the line, when Petrov was jolted again, two minutes later.

The panel ashed: another missile launched! Then a third, a fourth and a fth. Now, the system had gone into overdrive. The additional signals had triggered a new warning. The red letters on the panel began to ash MISSILE ATTACK, and an electronic blip was sent automatically to the higher levels of the military. Petrov was frightened. His legs felt paralyzed. He had to think fast…

Petrov made a decision. He knew the system had glitches in the past; there was no visual sighting of a missile through the telescope; the satellites were in the correct position. There was nothing from the radar stations to verify an incoming missile, although it was probably too early for the radars to see anything.

He told the duty ofcer again: this is a false alarm.

The message went up the chain.

How many other events were there like that? On both sides?

I think there lurks in human nature a death wish — for others, even more than for ourselves. We rationalize nothing better, or with more effect, than killing each other. Especially the other. Fill in the blank. The other tribe, the other country, the other culture, the other religion, whatever.  “I’ve seen the future,” Leonard Cohen sings. “It is murder.” (You can read the lyrics here, but I like the video version.)

Yet we also don’t. The answer to Matt’s question — How did we keep from blowing ourselves up for all those years? —is lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov, and others like him, unnamed. Petrov had the brains and the balls to say “No” to doing the crazy thing that only looked sane because a big institution was doing it.

We’re still crazy. You and I may not be, but we are.

War is a force that gives us meaning, Chris Hedges says. You can read his book by that title, (required reading from a highly decorated and deeply insightful former war correspondent). You can also watch the lecture he gave on the topic at UCSB in 2004. The mystery will be diminished by his answer, but not solved.

Still, every dose of sanity helps.

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10 comments

  1. Andrew Leyden’s avatar

    The Open Gate.

    This was a classic article that appeared in Air and Space magazine well over a decade ago but which was burned into my memory the moment I read it.

    http://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/The_Open_Gate.html

    It tells the story of a B-57 crew at the height of the Cold War, practicing and practicing for armageddon, but knowing each drill was just a drill as the gate to the runway was always closed.

    Except this time…

    “What the hell do you mean, ‘Don’t start’?”

    “I mean don’t start up. Not yet. This one’s real. We can’t waste fuel. We’re on our way.”

    Mugavero stared at him. “You’re kidding. Right?”

    “I’m not kidding. We’re on our way tonight. But don’t start up until that truck moves.”

    Mugavero stared into the night and saw the impossible: the gate was open.

    A must read for anyone who wonders about how close we were at times…

  2. Mike Warot’s avatar

    With the recent push to try to drive us into a new digital cold war, which could lead to a similar hot war… it’s time to back down and say “not on my watch”. As I’ve said many times before (even in comments here)… the powers that be are trying to use the insecurity of the ends to justify taking control of the internet.

    We’ve skated by for a long time without worrying too much about security on the home PC… but now things are evolving to the point where its being used to justify another cold war.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. The ends CAN be secured… it’s called capability based security, it’s been under development (and some use) since the 1960s and it works.

    I’ve made it my mission to point these facts out, with an aim towards preventing the oncoming cyber cold war, and its billions of dollars of waste.

    I could use some help getting the message out. I’m willing to discuss this stuff on the phone, via blogs, email, whatever. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  3. Russell Nelson’s avatar

    So, the real question is not why we never pushed the button, but instead: would anyone have ever pushed the button?

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Andrew. Great story. One thing we’ve all but forgotten through in the decades following JFK’s assassination is the cold war context of those times. One could not govern the U.S. in 1963 outside the context of the cold war in general and anti-communism in particular. Kennedy was a cold warrior. He was the commander in chief for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, had a direct conflict with Russia in the Cuban Missle Crisis, and started the war in Vietnam. Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s assassin, was a committed Marxist. So it makes sense that there would be events such as the open gate in Korea, following the assassination. I was fifteen at that time, and remember well that the default assumption following the assassination was that it had been a Soviet hit. This was supported to some degree by the background of Lee Harvey Oswald, the ex-marine who had defected to the Soviet Union and returned with a Russian wife. I would not be surprised to learn that there were many other close calls in the hours and days following the assassination.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Mike, I’m not sure exactly how to help, mostly because capability based security is opaque to me.

    So here’s a suggestion. Start by cleaning up, or helping clean up, the Wikipedia entry on the subject, which is currently flagged as one with problems. This entry is one where people will go first to search for a definition, and some understanding of the technologies involved.

    Second is by starting a blog devoted exclusively to the topic. Link out generously to everybody else writing about it. Make yourself a prime authority on the topic.

    I’ll be glad to link to your work and support it.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Russ, the question iWhy would anyone have ever pushed the button begs the question, Why would anyone have created the button in the first place?

    But I do think I see where you’re going there — toward a point: that individuals are more sensible about these things than big dumb government systems — and I agree with it. After all, individuals foiled the shoe bomber, the Christmas bomber, and the fourth flight on 9/11.

    But I still think we often came close to WWIII during the Cold War, even if the reasons we didn’t start that war came down to the good choices of individuals in the best positions to make them.

  7. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Thanks for the pointers, Doc. I started http://capabilitiesdigest.blogspot.com/ a while ago for this purpose, but its been quite discouraging watching the google analytics return 0 or 1 visitor per day.

    I’ll get some things up there to make it worth people’s time.

  8. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Another thing I have a problem with is that capability based security doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, nor does it make for easy Google searches.

    Is it better to try to come up with a shorter term for it, a neologism, or to let it stand as is?

    Thanks again for the help.

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Yes, come up with a neologism. Hell, make one up. Pick one that has no .com or .org, and buy both. Write your blog on the .com and use the .org to collect nothing but links and scholarship on the topic. Make it a clearing house for all things on the subject. Then, as interested parties show up, create a real .org that others can join. Work with them on making it whatever it needs to be.

    Add both the .org and the .com to the Wikipedia entry, as references.

    Make both with WordPress or Drupal, but don’t stick with a defaulted layout. Customize them a bit. Don’t need to do much — just enough so they don’t look cookie-cutter.

    Again, link generously. Also, don’t be dogmatic, or polemic. Look at the topic as a field in need of greater substance, and contribute all you can that is plainly substantial. Don’t evangelize. Just set the bait and wait for the right people to come. Promotion is distorting and mostly starts arguments.

    If the topic deserves a parade, you’ll be in front of it. If that happens, be humble and let others take the lead with various parts of the overall project.

  10. george kyaw naing’s avatar

    It is scary to read “Dr Strangelove” stuffs anywhere. We should be able to find a future other than ‘murder’

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