Early Warnings

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On two occasions more than 40 years ago, the whole world almost had a very bad day.

At mid-morning on November 9, 1979, watch officers at the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) inside Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, were shocked to see their early warning screens glowing with the unmistakable images of 1,400 Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles streaking toward the United States. 

The same data simultaneously appeared on warning consoles at the Pentagon and the Strategic Air Command.  Officials had mere minutes to wrestle with a history-making (and possibly history-ending) decision.  Should America launch a retaliatory attack? 

Fortunately, someone realized that a nuclear war simulation tape had been accidentally inserted into one of the NORAD computers.  Technicians were essentially watching a video game.

In one of the foreign policy understatements of all time, Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev wrote to President Jimmy Carter concerning the false alarm: “I think you will agree with me that there should be no errors in such matters.” 

Less than seven months later, however, it was déjà vu all over again.

Just after midnight on June 3, 1980, America’s early warning system came alive with images of incoming Soviet nukes.  This time there were 200 submarine-launched ballistic missiles and 2,020 land-based ICBMs. 

Once again, the clock was ticking.  Civilization-ending issues were at stake.  Was a nuclear attack underway?  Air Force One and multiple bomber squadrons were scrambled.  At least one White House official urged a full counterstrike on the Soviet Union.

In the midst of the chaos, however, those watching the screens reminded themselves that US-Soviet relations had been fairly calm.  No one suspected that something big was about to happen.  After taking a collective breath, America’s leaders decided to do…nothing.

Good call.

Later analysis revealed that a single computer chip, worth a whopping 46 cents, had malfunctioned.  Because it intermittently replaced zeroes with the number two, what should have registered as “000” Soviet missiles became “200” and “2,020.” 

If you’re at least 41 years old, you can know that you slept through the night that the world narrowly dodged a 46-cent Armageddon.

When it comes to managing relationships with nations on the other side of the world, it’s crucial to have the best possible understanding of reality.  No matter how sophisticated our systems might be (and America spends almost $100 million per day just to sustain nuclear readiness) there can still be mechanical mishaps and errors of interpretation.

Everyday relationships are no different.  It’s all too easy to misunderstand family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

We can experience conflicts that seem to come out of left field.  Little disagreements escalate into war.  When our relational early warning systems malfunction, we fail to “read” the intentions of people we think we know quite well. 

Spouses and partners may hold grudges for weeks and even years – and may not even be able to remember where the hurt feelings came from in the first place. 

What can we do?  Here are three ideas:

First, be humble.  You may think you have your friends and neighbors completely figured out.  But we rarely know the whole story.  That’s why it’s wise, as the apostle Paul advises, to always lead with love and humility:

“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” (Philippians 2:1-4, “The Message”)

Second, be exceedingly cautious with social media.  A tweet is a terrible way to offer an apology.  A text is one of the worst possible means to let someone know you feel hurt or angry.

Deep human feelings can’t be conveyed in 140 characters or less.  We’re not required, like NORAD officials, to make snap judgments in a matter of minutes.  Take the time to understand the hopes and fears of the other people in your world – and if at all possible, as the pandemic winds down, choose to do so face to face.

Third, listen, listen, listen.  After the Iron Curtain came down, both sides in the Cold War began to declassify sensitive documents.  Historians promptly made two discoveries:  There had been numerous close calls that might have plunged anxious opponents into war.  And leaders in both the East and West seriously misunderstood each other.

Both sides were afraid.  Acting out of fear, both sides misinterpreted the actions of their counterparts.

When it finally became possible to listen, it was clear soon enough that the world didn’t have to end in a mushroom cloud. 

You may think you’re stuck in a series of Doomsday relationships.  All you can do is watch for incoming missiles.

But God is the God of hope.

Ask him for a miracle – that your own relational Cold Wars might begin to thaw, and that you yourself might welcome the renewed possibility of warm hearts.