They’re sometimes called “farms,” though they certainly don’t sustain life. At various nondescript installations around the western states, the US Air Force maintains about 450 MinuteMan 3 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). While an American President enjoys many options for extinguishing our species, these are the weapons that’d do so most thoroughly and reliably. As the American military scribbles in the final edits on a victory narrative for our latest Asian adventures, young Air Force officers sit beneath hundreds of feet of soil, concrete, and steel; prepared to execute the sequence that’d secure Homo Sapiens’ legacy as the latest species who failed to adapt to his environment.
70 years ago this week, US Army Air Corps aircrews attacked the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the only two nuclear weapons ever deployed in combat. The two incidents almost certainly account for the first and second most catastrophic instantaneous, wholesale killings in history. Such carnage was, of course, the intended effect. it’s doubtful many direct participants in the weapons’ design, construction, or deployment were unaware of the sheer volume of human misery they would – and did – cause.
The anniversaries of the bombings have become the appropriate occasion for Americans to ponder if the instantaneous killing of about 70,000 people was a good or bad thing. It’s a bad thing, of course, but almost all the courses of action at the time would’ve brought their own, exclusive flavor of human misery. Those who would have us condemn that decision base their position on naive and fanciful scenarios in which one of the most fierce and determined fighting forces of the 20th Century would spontaneously capitulate due to logistical and personnel shortfalls.
Unqualified to make any original contribution to how we understand the gruesome advent of the atomic age, I want instead to laud the people who are, by my calculation, the most moral humans ever: those who personally prevented the use of nuclear weapons in combat. Christian moral strictures contain include sins of commission – (doing something bad) and sins of omission (not doing something good). While I disagree with much of what Christian doctrine categorizes as good and bad per se, I nevertheless feel the classifications are valid: Inaction, failure to do what we know is right, can be a decidedly immoral act. None of the ideas I’ve discussed thus far are particularly radical. Doing good things is moral, doing bad things is immoral, and failure to do good things can also be immoral. However, we should at least consider another way to be moral: Failing to do something bad.
Simply not victimizing others does not make us good people. In almost all circumstances, it’s a morally neutral act. I’m not awarded moral capital for each day I don’t burn commit arson. Arson victimizes others. It causes suffering on many levels, and almost never prevents suffering. However, we should at least consider awarding a small degree of moral capital to someone who, trusted with the responsibility of committing arson, opts not to do so.
A nuclear war would, of course, be the grandest instance of arson ever committed. Civilizations would be consumed by fire. The closest we’ve ever come to such a global holocaust was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a nuclear standoff between the US and the USSR regarding Soviet nuclear-capable missile batteries stationed in Cuba. Most of the standard accounts of the crisis focus on the “brinksmanship” of President Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart Premier Khruschev. They negotiated mutual distrust and defining calls for war from hard-liners in their respective nations. After about two weeks of dancing on the brink of extinction, Khruschev ordered the missiles withdrawn from Cuba, and the world exhaled.
These chiefs of state deserve most of the credit they’re awarded. Any combination of fear, arrogance, or simple ineptitude on the part of either leader could’ve sparked the latest great extinction on our planet. However, neither Kennedy nor Khruschev pulled the world back from anywhere closer to the brink than this man:
Vasili Arkhipov is directly responsible for the continued existence of life on our planet since 1961. He’s the reason most of us are alive. He’s the reason our species did not revert to a state of nature, suffering “nasty, brutish, and short” lives on ashy, toxic soil. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was the sole dissenting voice on a Soviet submarine whose Captain had decided to attack an American aircraft carrier with a nuclear-armed torpedo. Given the communications limitations inherent to submarines, the decision to attack was fully entrusted to the commissioned officers of the ship. Given the extreme tension that already existed, it’s almost certain such an attack would’ve sparked a full-scale nuclear exchange between the two superpowers. Since we have never experienced a catastrophe remotely resembling what would’ve ensued, it’s not hyperbolic to assert that the suffering Admiral Arkhipov prevented is immeasurable. His is a name and a face and a story we should immediately associate with valor, with reason, and with the continued progress of humanity.
Similar incidents happened throughout the Cold War. While not in a position to directly authorize the employment of nuclear weapons, Stanislav Petrov did, for all practical purposes, prevent their use. As a junior officer in 1983, Stanislav blocked erroneous reports of an American attack from being forwarded to the Kremlin. An investigation later concluded those false warnings were caused by a technical malfunction in the USSR’s missile detection system. Due to the extremely limited window of time in which a retaliatory attack could be initiated, Lieutenant Colonel Petrov’s actions involved extraordinary personal risk. Had the warnings been correct, Stanislav would’ve been directly responsible for the unavenged slaughter of his entire civilization. It’s difficult to overstate the maturity or discipline of a junior officer who, seemingly thrust into a critical role in the defense of his nation, opts for a course of patience and rationality. Petrov objectively observed the limited data available to him, and concluded the missile launch sensors were malfunctioning. His superhuman patience and instinct towards skepticism is largely responsible for all life and happiness after the year 1983.
There are certainly others, most of whose stories will disappear in decomposing files deep in the bowels of the Kremlin and the Pentagon. We won’t know those stories, and many of those heroes won’t even appreciate the full humanitarian effects of their good judgement. We should to continue to mourn the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we also need to celebrate, to laud, and to praise the handful of fellow humans who stepped over the brink, and pulled us back.