Saturday, June 09, 2007

The banality of heroism.

I've counted myself lucky that, at the age of 61, I could only recall three instances in which I was, or believed myself to be, in immediate danger of death. The first occurred when I was seven, living in rural England. I was taking a walk one summer day and spotted Bonnie, our neighbors' draft mare, grazing in pasture. Full of boyish spirit, I decided to have sport with her. I ran a couple of figure eights around her legs, crisscrossing under her belly. Her response came on my second or third iteration: I can still clearly picture in my mind the leg lifting a few inches and the precisely calibrated flick of the hoof, enough to knock me away and cause a small abrasion to my shin, but no more. It's what I think of now whenever I hear the expression "surgical strike." I've since had great respect and admiration for horses, though I've never owned one or learned to ride.

The second was the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. I was sixteen, a junior in high school in Tampa, within easy range of the missiles in Cuba. We lived about a mile from MacDill Air Force Base, an obvious target. One night, my parents and I were in the living room, watching TV news, when a siren began to blare nearby. I looked at my father, a retired U.S. Air Force officer, and said, "Do you think this is it?" He looked back at me, and I felt a chill when I saw on his face an expression I had never seen before, one of hopeless resignation, as he said, "Yes, I think maybe it is."

The third was when I was 24, driving on an interstate highway near Binghamton, New York in a torrential rainstorm, when I saw a sign for the exit I wanted and jerked the wheel. The car went into a spin; I could see other cars close behind, but, fortunately, none hit me. Almost before I knew what had happened, I found the car stopped, pointed directly onto the exit ramp I needed to take.

Now, thanks to this article, I know of one other instance, of which I was unaware at the time, in which I dodged the bullet (as did millions of others). While it is not certain that, had Lieutenant Colonel Petrov reported the radar sighting up the chain of command, this would have resulted in a thermonuclear strike against the U.S., the probability seems high given the reported paranoid mindset of the Soviet leadership at the time (see here).

What I find interesting about this story, besides its obvious relevance to my present day existence, is the fact that the person at the lowest point in the relevant chain of command, the one I would think most likely to want to prove his worth to his superiors by quickly reporting any suspicious sighting, instead exercised restraint. As a military veteran, I can't but wonder how I, having been trained to react quickly and aggressively to any perceived threat, would have acted had I been in Petrov's place.