Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead - Robert Brockway (2010)

NEAR MISSES

The apocalypse is frequently discussed like it’s an abstract theory, a worry of the distant future. Everybody wants to tell you about the ways we might die, we could die, or that we’re going to die, but we’re always somewhat remiss in relating all the ways that it’s damn near happened already.

The universe is a war and, as a species, we’re basically just standing in the middle of the battlefield and crying while bullets whiz around our heads. It’s a miracle we’re still alive at this point, but don’t kid yourself for a damn minute: We’ve almost died a dozen times already. Here are a few of the lesser known near misses in recent history.

Chapter 1. STANISLAV PETROV

IT WAS JUST PAST midnight in Russia on September 26, 1983, and the Cold War was at its coldest … and warriest. A recent transgression by Soviet military forces had left U.S.-Soviet relations more tense than a Sammy Hagar/David Lee Roth threesome—that is to say, somebody was getting a dick in the eye; it was just a matter of time.

The “transgression,” in this case, consisted of Soviet fighter jets blowing a Korean Air Lines passenger plane straight out of the sky. Two hundred sixty-nine people died in this incident, including one Larry McDonald, United States Congressman. Considering that we’re talking about the height of the Cold War here—where a windblown fart would have been reason enough to nuke a continent—that’s a pretty big “incident.” The fighter pilot’s justification for exploding a small town’s worth of people flying in the danger equivalent of a giant retarded duck? The plane maintained radio silence when hailed. Some might call that a “holy fuck-ton of overreaction” just for getting the cold shoulder from a commercial airliner, but you must keep in mind that Russia at the time was a highly volatile place. These kinds of overreactions were probably common in the USSR, leaving hot-blooded young Russian males so high-strung that, upon receiving the cold shoulder from anything—even girlfriends—a reasonable knee-jerk response was to immediately fire high-yield explosives at the offending woman until she plummeted from the sky in flames … probably.

On top of all this preexisting tension, a NATO exercise was under way in Europe. Operation Able Archer had temporarily raised NATO nuclear alert levels in preparation of a simulated nuclear war. To help put the sheer, palpable levels of death in the air in more relatable terms, let’s use us a down-home analogy: Let’s say you and your neighbor don’t get along. Never have, never will. Such is life. But one fine day, your wife wanders onto the neighbor’s sidewalk, whereupon she is immediately hit with a hand grenade by said neighbor, who then runs up and down the border of your two lawns screaming obscenities and insisting that you “don’t have the balls” to do anything about it. Also, you happen to have been outside this entire time, conveniently polishing your collection of machetes and dynamite. Pretty much everybody is going to die here—it’s practically destiny.

And so was the mood when Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov took charge of Serpukhov-15, a Soviet satellite station monitoring the skies for signs of nuclear attack. Petrov had agreed to cover the night shift for a coworker, so he was there when a blip suddenly appeared and the klaxons sounded. The long-distance radar was picking up a nuclear missile launch from America, targeting Moscow. While his fellow officers most likely shit themselves with fear and began slapping at nuclear launch buttons like a bunch of epileptic seamstresses, Petrov calmly deduced that the missile was likely a computer glitch.

Top Four Worst Things to Sound

·        Puget

·        Of Silence

·        Of Music

·        Klaxons

And luckily the right man was in charge. Petrov literally wrote the book on pants-wettingly terrifying near apocalypses; he was actually the author of the manual dictating Russian military response in the event of a perceived nuclear attack. So, being a key member in the development of the early-warning system, he happened to know firsthand that it was a relatively new, untested, and inherently flawed system, little better than a bunch of bells duct-taped together and shot into space to ring if something hit them. Still, it was the only system they had, and it was Petrov’s duty to warn the government of whatever missile attacks it registered, so that they could retaliate before they inevitably died. Because that was all one could do in the event of a full-blown nuclear attack: Not protect yourself, not surrender, not evacuate—just make sure that whoever fucks you gets a good solid boning in return. That’s called Mutually Assured Destruction, and it was the only thing left to do except cry in Petrov’s situation.

But he held fast. “Why would the Americans launch only one missile,” Petrov reasoned, “doing comparatively little damage, but provoking a full-scale counterattack from the Russians?”

If the perceived attack was a glitch and they launched missiles in response, the Americans would launch their response for real, and the resulting nuclear holocaust would kill millions on both sides. Petrov called a halt to the Mutually Assured Destruction and waited. Seated next to his enormous, steel-clad balls, he stuck by his instincts and waited—waited to see if everyone and everything he loved was about to be turned to ash by virtue of his hunch.

And then it got worse! Short of getting sudden, massive, incurable rectal cancer, how the hell could this situation get any worse, you ask? The man is already waiting for a nuclear missile to strike, gambling his human instincts against the cold unerring judgment of a computer with the life of his entire country on the line—how much worse could it possibly get?!


MAD stands for …

·        A: Mothers Against Dockworkers

·        B: Muppets Are Demons

·        C: Malicious and Delicious

·        D: Mutually Assured Destruction

Five times, actually.

That’s an oddly precise number, isn’t it? Five times worse; one for each missile that seemed to be launched. One after another, five blips followed suit and appeared on his screen. One missile blip’s a fluke, OK, but surely fiveMinuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles showing up on screen, one after another, is a pretty solid omen of the apocalypse. Why not hit the “well, fuck you too, buddy” button and at least go down swinging?

Because Petrov is a stone-cold motherfucker, that’s why. In his own (absurdly calm, all things considered) words, “Suddenly the screen in front of me turned bright red. An alarm went off. It was piercing, loud enough to raise a dead man from his grave. For fifteen seconds, we were in a state of shock. We needed to understand, what’s next?”

That’s right. Read that again: fifteen seconds.

I spend ten times longer than that deciding what socks to put on in the morning, and that’s how long it took Petrov to a) process the very real potential of an apocalypse, b) psychoanalyze just how hard-core the Americans’ death wish was, and c) reason out a never-before-seen computer glitch in the Soviet Nuclear Defense system, whereupon he decided to place his entire career on the line in order to save the Earth. In fifteen seconds, Petrov made his assessment, and in three minutes, he would find out if he was right.

You just spent as much time reading the recap of his actions as Petrov did saving the world. But though the decision was made quickly, the wait was impossibly long. As the word START ominously flashed bright red on his terminal, practically begging him to reconsider, Petrov stuck by his decision not to retaliate for three eternal minutes. Three minutes of waiting to find out whether the nuclear missile heading for his face was real. Even if they were waiting in complete and total silence, three minutes is a tense and terrifying length of time to consider your own death. But they weren’t waiting in tomblike quiet: If the system registered more than a single rocket, it was programmed to send immediate word to headquarters. Which kind of makes you wonder what the purpose of Petrov’s whole Atlas-like “only you can decide if the apocalypse is real” duty was, if the computer just goes straight over his head the minute shit gets real anyway, like a little brother in a headlock calling for Mommy. So instead of respectful silence, Petrov spent those three minutes arguing with a panicked man over the phone, screaming commands into the intercom, and, knowing Petrov, probably winning a quick game of Heads-up Basketball while banging eight supermodels in a Ferrari.

More Things You Can Do in Fifteen Seconds

·        Tie your shoes

·        Brush your teeth (if you’re gross)

·        Disappoint a woman

System checks kept being run on the computers, and everything kept coming back not only positive, but also registering the highest level of accuracy in its assessments. “Everything’s cool,” the computer whispered, “just kill everybody and we’re totally cool.”

Because you’re not a dramatic silhouette burned into a sidewalk right now, you already know what happened: nothing. The “launches” were false alarms, glitches in the system caused by stray sunbeams registering as missiles (although the fact that the Russians’ elite military systems confused a sunny day for a nuclear holocaust and nearly wiped out the Earth in retaliation probably does little to set your mind at ease). The system was actually designed specifically to rule out this exact effect, but due to a near-cosmic alignment of the sun, U.S. missile fields, cloud coverage, and atmospheric phenomena, it was tricked into doing the one thing it was built to avoid, making any possibility of this particular error occurring practically nil. And still Petrov called it out.

If this were poker, Petrov would’ve just bluffed God out of his winning hand without even holding cards. When asked about his personal opinion regarding such an impossibly fucked situation, Petrov laconically replied that it was all just “God’s own little joke of outer space.”

I hope he put on sunglasses while electric guitar solos raged behind him after a line like that.

So regardless of the situation, he saved the world! He’s a hero, right? Nope. Not exactly. As stated before, if those satellites registered an attack, Petrov’s only duty was to hit that retaliation button and murder a continent. The entire human race, Russians included, is alive today only because this particular Soviet soldier made an impossible judgment call. What happened to the man who saved the world?

His superiors were so embarrassed that there was even a problem in the first place that they began a “formal investigation” into Petrov’s “failure of duty.” Among other things, they were quite perturbed that Petrov had not taken notes during this ordeal. They insisted that, between talking down Russian Nuclear Tactics headquarters from their kill frenzy, personally assessing the viability of the most advanced technology on Earth, and playing chicken with the angry hand of God, Petrov should have also shown his work, like a grade-school algebra student. Why didn’t he, they asked?

His exact, word-for-word response:

Because I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don’t have a third hand.

When confronted with such infallible logic by the man solely responsible for the continuing lives of your children, what did the higher-ups do? They reassigned him to a “less sensitive” position, from which he soon retired. He received a pension of about two hundred dollars a month, and the record of this incident was kept top secret until 1998. That’s fifteen years of complete obscurity. Fifteen years of knowing you saved the world, and getting the career equivalent of being reamed in a broom closet for your troubles, and somehow Petrov still soldiered on. During this period of obscurity, he suffered a series of debilitating tragedies: His wife died, his legs became so badly infected that he couldn’t walk for months at a time, and the village he lives in wouldn’t even give him a job sweeping the streets.

Stanislav Petrov’s Shown Work

Step 1: Maintain calm in face of Armageddon.

Step 2: Call computer on its bullshit.

Step 3: Divide by GIANT BALLS.

Step 4: Stand by hunch with fate of humanity hanging over head.

Step 5: Carry the balls.

Step 6: Save world.

So, to recap: He was basically fired, for not completely fucking over his own government. Because in Soviet Russia, government fucks you.

Since 1998, however, when word of his astounding deeds was finally made public, he has received a World Citizen Award! Amazing! It may have taken forever and a day, but a good deed is rewarded!

With one thousand dollars and a trophy!

That’s not a typo. One thousand dollars. And a trophy. The same reward for winning a regional amateur bowling tournament, for the man who saved the world. Thanks for not ending humanity; buy yourself an ’83 Honda Civic.

But what does Petrov himself have to say about his pivotal role in the continuing existence of human life as we know it? What does he think about his own actions, the fate of the Earth, and the subsequent disbarment and tragically inadequate rewards?

“I was simply doing my job and I did it well. Foreigners tend to exaggerate my heroism.”

Well, shit. Let’s hope he never reads this. He’d probably kick my ass.