Point of View: Still Wondering

Our extraordinary military might ought to have made us humble, and yet it seems the opposite has occurred

“Don’t play it again, ’Nam,” I said to Mary as we agreed we weren’t up to watching what I’m sure is a very well done, years in the making Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War.

The lessons should have long ago been learned, though, admittedly, they probably need learning again, the most important being not to act rashly lest you (and many others) get burned. 

Our extraordinary military might ought to have made us humble, and yet it seems the opposite has occurred, as in “My stockpile’s bigger than your stockpile, my stockpile’s bigger than yours. . . .” Oppenheimer tried to nip a nuclear arms race in the bud, but Truman was deaf to his entreaties, writing the father of the A-bomb off as a wimp. We were the sole nuclear power for a few minutes, then the genie was out of the bottle and we were off to the races.

Will brains or brawn win out, Buckminster Fuller wondered. We’re still wondering . . . well, maybe we’re not.

The obituary of a Soviet officer whose gut instinct (and distrust of a hastily put together early warning computer system) prevented what could well have been a nuclear war in 1983 was in the paper the other day. It was, he said in later years, at best a 50-50 guess. Should the U.S.S.R. counter what appeared to be five Minuteman missiles heading its way? Given just a few minutes to decide, he concluded that if the U.S. were really serious it would have launched many more than five, and so, bless him, he guessed right — the satellite had misread the sun’s reflection off the tops of clouds as a launch! We should remember this close brush with Armageddon, and we should remember his name: Stanislav Petrov. Maybe we should put up a monument to him at the U.N. “To Stanislav Petrov, whose cool-headedness in the Cold War prevented World War Three.” Will cool heads or hotheads win out? That is the question, now more than ever. We know nothing of great importance apparently of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, except that he is pretty ruthless, as dictators are wont to be, and is an avid basketball fan. Dennis Rodman might be of value in that regard — a mutual exchange of touring N.B.A. and tae kwon do teams trumping an exchange of missiles in most people’s minds, I would guess. By contrast, we know quite a bit about our leader, and are about equally as dismayed. 

Most people, the everyday, average, normal sort, would rather there were no nukes, I imagine, but, given their prevalence, and the distrust that exists among nations, nuclear disarmament is wishful thinking, I’m afraid. (And, yes, I am afraid.)

It’s not wishful thinking, however, to ask that the world’s chiefs of state think, that they not think the unthinkable, and that they remember Stanislav Petrov.