Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
I’m not inclined towards visiting famous graves.
I understand that this is an important ritual for others, to make the journey to the monument where the remains may or may not have been interred and commune with whatever spirit they believe resides there. To leave behind letters never to be read, flowers never to be smelled. A stolen kiss upon the weathered marble to express a passion for whatever that person brought to the world; a song, a novel, a manner of living that burned brightly enough for however long it needed to such that it resonated long after life had left the flesh behind.
I’m not one who does this but if I was there are two graves I could see myself investing the time and funds to attend in person. One of these is in Moscow, and the other one might also be except nobody seems to know if it exists at all. And even as I visited one or the other I might be seized, as I am now, with a sense of indignation if all these two men have are mere markers in the nation of their birth, when there should be statues of them in every nation on the planet.
In life, they were Vice Admiral Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov (1926 – 1998) of the Soviet Navy and Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yefgrafovich Petrov (1939 – 2017) of the Soviet Air Force. In 1962 and 1983 respectively each of them averted a catastrophic nuclear war, which are acts of heroism that could arguably be considered The Acts of Heroism if only because no other acts of heroism may occur if all of humanity has been reduced to smoking craters and suffering radiation victims.
Yet what strikes me in particular about both men, the common thread between them that elevates my nebulous gratitude to unshakeable, ironclad admiration, is knowing that they saved the world not as much by performing an action as by thinking better of performing another.
Arkhipov was a known and respected commodity within the Soviet military in 1962, having served with courage and distinction during an infamous nuclear incident that had occurred the year prior aboard the submarine K-19, upon which he had served as executive officer. Promoted to flotilla commander, he then found himself aboard the nuclear submarine B-59 during the last 48 hours of what history would name the Cuban Missile Crisis. While maneuvering through the Caribbean, B-59 was marked by the United States Navy, who pursued the submarine through international waters and dropped a complement of low-power, signaling depth charges to impel them to the surface for identification. The captain instead chose to dive deeper, out of the reach of radio communications.
From that distance below the surface, the captain had grown to suspect that the charges dropped upon them by the Navy had in fact been indications that open war had begun, and as such it became their duty to retaliate. In order to fire one of B-59‘s nuclear warheads, the captain was required by regulation to achieve unanimity among himself, the Soviet political officer, and Arkhipov; only Arkhipov refused, reasoning that the failing climate systems and lowered oxygen levels of the submarine were driving the crew to act irrationally. Without orders directly from Moscow or undeniable proof of an attack, Arkhipov refused to authorize the launch, ultimately convincing the captain to surface in front of the American ships and then return to the U.S.S.R.
If this sounds a lot like the plot of 1995 Tony Scott film Crimson Tide, it’s because that’s exactly the story upon which that the film was based.
Petrov’s test, in contrast, began not as a questionable tactical choice but a failure of technology, again during a period of high tension between the world’s two lumbering nuclear behemoths. Late September 1983 was six months removed from Ronald Reagan naming the Soviets an “evil empire,” and less than a month after the U.S.S.R. had shot down a South Korean passenger plane that had crossed into their airspace — killing 269 people, among them several Americans and one of them a sitting Congressman — allegedly due to the assumption that it was a spy plane on their radar. The United States had also been running PSYOPs for several years prior by conducting naval exercises designed to demonstrate how closely they could approach Soviet military bases before being detected, the sort of needling instigation that would over time plant the dangerous idea that the U.S. feints were cover for a devastating attack to come.
The incident itself occurred when the Soviets’ early-warning system detected a single ICBM en route from the United States just after midnight on September 26. Lt. Col. Petrov, on duty at a bunker near Moscow, correctly assumed that a real opening salvo would involve an onslaught of dozens or hundred of missiles, and decided against delivering a report up the chain of command that might have led his superiors to believe otherwise. Later, the system delivered a warning of five additional launches, and again Petrov determined these were false alarms.
They were, obviously. You know this because it’s 2019 and you’re reading this at all.
Human civilization regularly finds itself negotiating the balance between advancement and assessment. There are only so many thought experiments we can run before moving forward with an innovation, but also too often we find ourselves not running nearly enough of them. In many cases there has been literally no way to predict either the benefits or consequences of what we have wrought; I doubt our ancestors understood anything save for the warmth they felt when they first managed to build a fire. It’s a common assumption that there are no limits to human imagination, but imagination is not the same thing as foresight.
We split the atom, weaponized it, and began mass production of the weapon and its delivery systems at a time when we had been convinced Evil Itself had cast aside all pretense and was now wandering the Earth intent on murdering with abandon. We gave ourselves over to a sense of urgency. Some of us rode that simmering panic at full gallop and screamed back that those who had instead chosen to place saddles on communication, on quality control, and on nuance would have to catch up as best they could. And on at least two occasions that we can name — but quite possibly more — that distance between our tools and our competency brought us perilously close to our end.
As of this moment the United States, whose nuclear stockpile is second only to Russia’s and dwarfs next-ranking nuclear-powered France’s by more than a factor of 20, is in the process of developing a new nuclear device that can be more conveniently carried on a submarine. Perhaps we’re meant to feel more comfortable because it’s only estimated to inflict a third or so the havoc of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima, which killed 80,000 people in the explosion and tens of thousands more over time through the radiation exposure. Perhaps it’s hard to feel comfortable when the man in charge of that arsenal has been at best cavalier and at worst eager about the prospect of deploying it.
As of this moment the United States is also preparing to withdraw from its nuclear arms treaty with Russia, with both parties accusing the other of having long violated its terms.
After watching the first atomic bomb test, Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
But fates are intertwined and choices are interdependent, and each of us is such a collection of traits and thoughts as to encapsulate an entire world within ourselves. We as a species have always been capable of Death; we have not always been so proficient or so prolific. As such we have not always had to answer such difficult questions about that power and whether any of us have achieved the threshold of understanding required to wield it.
I’m not recounting these histories or sharing these observations for their own sake, or at least not only for their own sake. I do believe these are events and people we should all be aware of, but that’s not why I’ve been thinking about them.
A couple of months ago I experienced a moment of stark clarity; like walking between two atmospheres set at different pressures and having fluids you didn’t know you had drain from one part of you to another. I realized that the impending winter darkness, stress from both work and creative projects, and the unrelenting tides of the news cycle in our era of chaos had combined to imbalance my psyche in unhealthy ways, and that social media had become the conduit for my damages instead of my self-expression. Where I had meant to be deliberate I had become haphazard; where I had meant to be righteous I had become reckless.
I have worked very hard, over a course of decades, to maintain the integrity of the cauldron in which I keep my anger. When I choose to approach it I do so with as much caution and protective armor as I can muster, siphon only as much as I need, and then forge it into arrows or blades; instruments that require skill and precision to strike true. At my best I neither manufacture nor throw grenades, and by the top of last December I would not say I was at my best.
I know how much of this is internal. I am recognizing, however, how much of it is internet.
I think of the internet as ocean.
Dotted with islands, larger than one can fully imagine, teeming with both life and uniquely evolved nightmares within its deepest, darkest regions. Each of us surfing our own perpetually cresting waves from one shoreline to another and deciding whether or not we wish to hack our way closer to the heart of the howling, cawing jungle we see ahead of us or to head back out to the breakers and see where the wind might take us instead. There is color to awaken your senses and white noise to lull you to sleep, and the way it has become such a grand and pervasive part of our lives can belie how much it actually obscures.
I do not know that humanity was fully ready for the array of powers the internet bestowed upon it, but I also believe that one of the internet’s powers is the capacity to help nurture that readiness. We have so much of our collective knowledge at our fingertips now, and an instantaneous access to expertise. We have the means to foster understanding and empathy for cultures and people beyond our locality even if we are never afforded the opportunity to visit them. That which used to be errant puzzle piece can be placed in context and revealed as pattern. These are wonders, these are gifts. These are to be held in high regard. They cannot, however, be isolated from the more toxic elements that came chained alongside them. The erosion of accountability that anonymity provided, the ways that objectivity was consumed by subjectivity, the malice of those who saw opportunities for sowing division and maximizing profit.
While I believe in the strength of social media to organize activist communities and amplify calls for change, the forum has also gradually turned into a place where both my ability to speak and to listen feels flattened and muffled by the inadequacies of language. What I had convinced myself was crystal clarity of signal was instead the broad tones of sonar, and my responses — to news, to opinion, to humor — were being shaped by my misunderstanding and my biases instead of my curiosity, generosity, empathy, and restraint. I could not tell when the depth charges were an attempt at discovery nor when the launch notifications were misinterpreted by machinery. I was walking into interactions I had with total strangers assuming negative intent, which was beginning to creep into interactions I would have with people I knew well, which would over time have led me to a place where I could no longer see myself enjoying any interaction with people at all.
I do know the size differentials of the paradigms I am comparing. I do know that there is a wide canyon between the fraught and taxing problems generated by how we live our lives on social media and the possibility of a manmade, extinction-level event. I’ve spun these thoughts out in this way, through history and allegory, because it was the best way to articulate what I could feel was happening to me.
To repeat: Curiosity, generosity, empathy, and restraint.
I need to value these as much as I value anger, as much as I value action and outrage. I need to value these because I know how, when they were present in the right people, in the right proportions, at the right moment, these were qualities that saved the world.