On The Guns of August

I recently finished reading The Guns of August, the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Classic about the Outbreak of World War I, by Barbara W. Tuchman.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

Wilson, facing this group of “ignorant men,” as he called them, and accompanied by his fellow officer and future chief, Sir John French, “who knows nothing at all about the subject,” pinned up his great map of Belgium on the wall and lectured for two hours. He swept away many illusions when he explained how Germany, counting on Russia’s slow mobilization, would send the bulk of her forces against the French, achieving superiority of numbers over them. He correctly predicated the German plan of attack upon a right-wing envelopment but, schooled in the French theories, estimated the force that would come down west of the Meuse at no more than four divisions. He stated that, if all six British divisions were sent immediately upon the outbreak of war to the extreme left of the French line, the chances of stopping the Germans would be favorable.

Coming from Haldane this conclusion had a profound effect upon Liberal thinking and planning. The first result was a naval pact with France by which the British undertook at threat of war to safeguard the Channel and French coasts from enemy attack, leaving the French fleet free to concentrate in the Mediterranean. As this disposed the French fleet where it would not otherwise be, except by virtue of the agreement, it left a distinct obligation upon Britain…This curious document managed to satisfy everybody: the French because the whole British Cabinet Government had now officially acknowledged the existence of the joint plans, the antiwar group because it said England was not “committed,” and Grey because he had evolved a England was not “committed,” and Grey because he had evolved a formula that both saved the plans and quieted their opponents. To have substituted a definite alliance with France, as he was urged in some quarters, would “break up the Cabinet,” he said.

War pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments Struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no use. Agents at frontiers were reporting every cavalry patrol as a deployment to beat the mobilization gun. General staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables, were pounding the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain an hour’s head start. Appalled upon the brink, the chiefs of state who would be ultimately responsible for their country’s fate attempted to back away but the pull of military schedules dragged them forward.

How far reduced, how distant the end, no one yet knew. No one could realize that for numbers engaged and for rate and number of losses suffered over a comparable period of combat, the greatest battle of the war had already been fought. No one could yet foresee its consequences: how the ultimate occupation of all Belgium and northern France would put the Germans in possession of the industrial power of both countries, of the manufactures of Liege, the coal of the Borinage, the iron ore of Lorraine, the factories of Lille, the rivers and railroads and agriculture, and how this occupation, feeding German ambition and fastening upon France the fixed resolve to fight to the last drop of recovery and reparation, would block all later attempts at compromise peace or “peace without victory” and would prolong the war for four more years.

At the time of the disaster General Marquis de Laguiche, the French military attache came to express his condolences to the Commander • in Chief. ‘We are happy to have made such sacrifices for our Allies,” the Grand Duke replied gallantly. Equanimity in the face of catastrophe was his code, and Russians, in the knowledge of inexhaustible supplies of manpower, are accustomed to accepting gigantic fatalities with comparative calm. The Russian steam roller in which the Western Allies placed such hopes, which after their debacle on the Western Front was awaited even more anxiously, had fallen apart on the road as if it had been put together with pins. In its premature start and early demise it had been. Just as the Grand Duke said, a sacrifice for an ally. Whatever it cost the Russians, the sacrifice accomplished what the French wanted: withdrawal of German strength from the Western Front. The two corps that came too late for Tannenberg were to be absent from the Mame.

But Francois faced battle, whereas Kluck, thinking he faced only pursuit and mopping up, ignored the precaution. He believed the French incapable, after ten days of retreat, of the morale and energy required to turn around at the sound of the bugle and fight again. Nor was he worried about his flank. “The General fears nothing from the direction of Paris,” recorded an officer on September 4. “After we have destroyed the remains of the Franco-British Army he will return to Paris and give the IVth Reserve the honor of leading the entry into the French capital.”

In conclusion:

After the Marne the war grew and spread until it drew in the nations of both hemispheres and entangled them in a pattern of world conflict no peace treaty could dissolve. The Battle of the Mame was one of the decisive battles of the world not because it determined that Germany would ultimately lose or the Allies ultimately win the war but because it determined that the war would go on. There was no looking back, Joffre told the soldiers on the eve. Afterward there was no turning back. The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.

A recommended read in the areas of history and military conflicts.

On The Demon Under The Microscope

I recently finished reading The Demon Under The Microscope by Thomas Hager. As the author summarizes this book: “Once a bacterial disease took hold in the body, humans in 1931 were as much the prey of the invisible killers as they had been since the beginning of history. All that was about to change…Sulfa happened. It started in the mid-1930s, with a series of findings made in Germany and France, discoveries that were at the time hailed as “the miracle of miracles” in modern medicine, advances that secured humans their first effective way to stop bacterial infections once they started. The work then spread to Great Britain and the United States, where tests of the still-experimental drug on humans. including the son of the president of the United States, confirmed its power.”

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found to be particularly insightful:

Nothing like it had been seen before. IG Farben was on the day of its birth the largest corporation in Germany, the largest business in Europe, the largest and most powerful chemical company in the world. It was also the world s third-largest business of any sort measured by numbers of employees, bested in the mid-1920s only by U.S. Steel and General Motors. As Duisberg hoped, the IG Farben structure led to coordinated research and rationalized production; member firms began complementing one another’s efforts rather than duplicating them; resources were freed to invest in the next big products to generate the next big profits. At Bayer those products would include a number of new medicines.

Childbed fever was rampant in the wards attended by students. Something appeared to be passing the infection from the dead women to the students and physicians, then from them to women in the delivery room. Semmelweis thought it likely, given the pattern, that the student physicians were carrying something, some bits of infectious material, perhaps scraps of tissue from the autopsies, from the autopsy area to the wards. These were the days before Lister and before Pasteur had shown that bacteria could cause disease. Hand washing was minimal, if it was done at all. The students and medical staff wore no gloves. All the doctors, young and old, generally wore the same clothes for days. Semmelweis came to believe that the infectious material was likely carried on the hands. To test the idea, he instructed all of his students to start washing their hands thoroughly in chloride of lime after any autopsy and before touching any patient. Then he tracked the results. As he had hoped, deaths among women treated by his students fell dramatically. Semmelweis excitedly told everyone about his findings, and soon his hand-washing practices were adopted throughout the Vienna Lying-in Hospital. Within a few years, the death rate in Division 1 fell to match that in Division 2. The pregnant women of Vienna stopped begging to be given a midwife.

But, amn7inolv the second molecule, Kl-821—sulfanilamide linked not to an azo frame but instead to a relatively simple carbon-and-nitrogen string—worked, and worked extremely well. It stopped Strep infections in both mice and rabbits. When the first test results came in in mid-April, Domagk immediately ordered retests in strep-infected rabbits and got even better results.

The grand dream of an effective antibacterial chemical—history’s first—was about to be realized. Despite all the worries, skepticism, and disbelief, it appeared that Prontosil really cured human disease. A nontoxic internal disinfectant exquisitely targeted to bacteria, Ehrlich’s long-sought Zauherkugeln, had finally been found. Panacea, after thousands of years of failed attempts, had finally awakened.

By 1938, it was estimated that sulfa was saving the lives of ten thousand new mothers each year in Britain and the United States alone.

Science still seemed to offer reason for optimism. By the time Sir Henry accepted his Nobel medal in Stockholm, however. Hitler had marched troops into the demilitarized Rhineland, Japan and Italy had allied with Germany—and the French, just four years after the discovery of Prontosil, were about to make the new German miracle drug worthless.

Most important, however, was the discovery that the world’s most effective antibacterial medicine was also among the simplest ever found. Everyone had been searching through all these complicated dyes, tinkering around the edges, while the real power was in a colorless add-on. As Bovet later put it, the Germans’ complicated red car had a simple white engine.

Like all great discoveries, sulfa engendered a host of unexpected benefits. During the postwar period, Prontosil and its chemical oirspring gave birth not just to antibiotics but to other new approaches to disease. Domagk’s work, as noted, led to the semithiocarbazones for treating tuberculosis. That was just the beginning. When one doctor observed that patients taking sulfa urinated more often than others, subsequent research led to trying sulfa variants as a diuretic, a medicine used to increase urination and thus to alter the fluid balance in the body Eventually it led to the thiazide drugs, an important early family of diuretics used to treat hypertension. Understanding sulfas mode of action—its ability to act as an “antimetabolite” that substituted for a needed foodstuff, starving the target microorganism to death—led to research into other antimetabolites; the most important result was a family of new anticancer drugs. Another line of inquiry that started with sulfa led to antileprosy medications, another to a treatment for diabetes, another to a new line of antimalarials. In all these cases, the starting point was sulfa, but the end point was new kinds of medicine.

In closing:

Every great drug discovery (and every modem technological advance) carries with it, like the blood of the Gorgon mentioned in the epigraph that begins this b0ok, two opposing qualities: one positive, healing, and helpful; one negative, often unintended, sometimes deadly The ancient Greeks understood that. We must remember it, too.

A highly recommended read in the area of medicine.

On Boomerang

I recently read Michael’s Lewis Boomerang – Travels In The New Third World.

Below are key excerpts form the book, that I found particularly insightful:

1- “The subprime mortgage crisis was more symptom than cause. The deeper social and economic problems that gave rise to it remained. The moment that investors woke up to this reality, they would cease to think of big Western governments as essentially risk-free and demand higher interest to lend to them. When the interest rates on their borrowing rose, these governments would plunge further into debt, leading to further rises in the interest rates they were charged to borrow. In a few especially alarming cases – Greece, Ireland, Japan – it wouldn’t take much of a rise in interest rates for budgets to be consumed entirely by interest payments on debt…The moment the financial markets realized this, investor sentiment would shift. The moment investor sentiment shifted, these governments would default. And then what? The financial crisis of 2008 was suspended only because investors believed that governments could borrow whatever they needed to rescue their banks. What happened when the governments themselves ceased to be credible. There was another, bigger, financial crisis waiting to happen – the only question in Kyle Bass’s mind was when.”

2- “When you borrow a lot of money to create a false prosperity, you import the future into the present. It isn’t the actual future so much as some grotesque silicone version of it. Leverage buys a glimpse of a prosperity you haven’t really earned. The striking thing about the future the Icelandic male briefly imported was how much it resembled the past that he celebrates. I’m betting now they’ve seen their false future the Icelandic female will have a great deal more o say about the actual one.”

3- “The costs of running the Greek government are only half the failed equation: there’s also the matter of government revenues.”

4- “The structure of the Greek economy is collectivist, but the country, in spirit, is the opposite of a collective. Its real structure is every man for himself. Into this system investors had poured hundreds of billions of dollars. And the credit boom had pushed the country over the edge, into total moral collapse.”

5- “The Irish real estate bubble was different from the American version in may ways. It wasn’t disguised, for a start. It didn’t require a lot of complicated financial engineering beyond the understanding of mere mortals. It also wasn’t as cynical. There aren’t a lot Irish financiers, or real estate people, who have emerged with a future. In America the banks went down but the big shots in them still got rich; in Ireland the big shots went down with the banks.”

6- “The Greeks not only have massive debts but are still running big deficits. Trapped by an artificially strong currency, they cannot turn deficits into surpluses, even if they do everything outsiders want them to do. Their exports, priced in euros, remain expensive. The German government wants the Greeks to slash the size of their government, but that will also slow economic growth and reduce tax revenues. And so one of two things must happen. Either the Germans must agree to integrate Europe fiscally, so that Germany and Greece bear the same relationship to each other as, say, Indiana and Mississippi – the tax dollars of ordinary Germans would go into the coffer and be used to pay for the lifestyle of ordinary Greeks – or the Greeks (and probably, eventually, every non-German) must introduce “structural reform,” a euphemism for magically and radically transforming themselves into a people as efficient and productive as the Germans. The first solution is pleasant for Greeks but painful for Germans. The second solution is pleasant for the Germans but painful, possibly even suicidal, for Greeks.”

7- “The curious thing about the eruption of cheap and indiscriminate lending of money between 2002 and 2008 was the different effects it had from country to country. Every developed country was subjected to more or less the same temptation, but no two countries responded in precisely the same way. Much of Europe had borrowed money cheaply to buy stuff it couldn’t honestly afford. In effect, lots of non-Germans had used Germany’s credit rating to indulge their material desires. The Germans were the exception. Given the chance to take something for nothing the German people simply ignored the offer. “There was no credit boom in Germany,” says Asmussen. “Real estate prices were completely flat. There was no borrowing for consumption. Because this behavior is totally unacceptable in Germany. This is what the German people are. This is deeply in German genes. It is perhaps a leftover of the collective memory of the Great Depression and the hyperinflation of the 1920s.” The German government was equally prudent because, he went on, “there is a consensus among the different parties about this: if you’re not adhering to fiscal responsibility you have no chance in elections, because the people are that way.”

8- “When people pile up debts they will find difficult and perhaps even impossible to repay, they are saying several things at once. They are obviously saying that they want more than they can immediately afford. They are saying, less obviously, that their present wants are so important that, to satisfy them, it is worth some future difficulty. But in making that bargain they are implying that when the future difficulty arrives, they’ll figure it out. They don’t always do that. But you can never rule out the possibility that they will. As idiotic as optimism can sometimes seem, it has a weird habit of paying off.”


Omar Halabieh