Fritz Haber: A Monster Who Fed the World


224 points | by mikecarlton 96 days ago


  • soneca 96 days ago

    "Billions of people would not exist without him. And yet without him, World War I would have ended years earlier"

    The article is very interesting, but there is this Hollywood simplistic approach where one man is responsible for all things. The text even mention the Allies developing a poison gas, why not other German chemic? No one other person would be able to discover how to produce amonia? I don't subscribe to this way of looking into historical figures.

    Nevertheless, a great text.

    • mannykannot 96 days ago

      There is no doubt that if he had not solved the nitrogen-fixing problem, someone else would have, and it is certainly possible that someone else would have pushed the use of poison gas into practice. It is also generally simplistic to claim that any one thing greatly prolonged the war. 'Great men' and 'pivotal event' historiography is a simplistic way of looking at the past, but nevertheless, it is a simple historical fact that he was the person who did these two things, and the case for nitrogen-fixing extending the war is better than most other 'but for...' stories.

      • dclowd9901 96 days ago

        I think people take special people for granted. You can't say, for certain, that anyone would have figured out the nitrogen fixing problem _in a period of time when it would have been effective to have done so_. The entire world could have been blown up before someone came along to figure it out.

        The world has yet to churn out another mind quite like Einstein's, that flips convention on its head, or opens up humankind's collective knowledge by an order of magnitude. Special people, like Einstein, this man, Norman Borlaug or Ada Lovelace, I think, may have just been the right people at the right moment.

        • mannykannot 96 days ago

          You are right; I cannot say for certain that someone else would have solved the nitrogen fixing problem in time to save humanity from global starvation, but for it not to happen, it would have required a lot of chemists to all not perform the sort of experiments that chemists are trained, employed and choose to do.

          Having read somewhat widely, as a kid, about the history of technology, I was struck by how often several people were working independently on the same ideas at the same time, but that is not so surprising once you realize that the timing is often determined by when some prerequisite knowledge became available, or some prerequisite capability was mastered. Einstein stands among the most original thinkers of all time, but even he was standing on the shoulders of people like Heaviside, Fitzgerald and Lorentz (and Maxwell, of course) - yet the first three, at least, are invisible in popular historiography.

          • Balero 96 days ago

            I disagree. I think there are many minds that would be capable of what these people did (not everyone, certainly not myself, but thousands of people alive today).

            It is a case of having the right person in the right place at the right time, Einstein would have not had his theories had he been around 20 years earlier, or if he had not had the opportunities that he did. And if he had not been around then I think it would have been others. It is about the environment, Calculus was developed by two people simultaneously.

            As to why we haven't had someone who has done this, well who's to say that we haven't and they are just overlooked? Or that greater capital expenditure it has to be groups of people (finding DNA, cloning, Graphene, etc). Or that there has simply not been the right environment.

            • XR0CSWV3h3kZWg 96 days ago

              Where do you draw the line? Is John von Neumann in the list? What about Feynman? Do you include Go or chess players that changed the game? What about Castro who successfully kept independence from the superpower next door? Linus Torval has made amazing contributions to modern computing by BDFL. What about Shannon, the father of information theory, or the men behind RSA?

              Draw a line between these and choosing what field of study or what kind of change to the world counts to make a "special person" changes the number of special people dramatically.

          • lr4444lr 96 days ago

            What the article takes pains to point out though was that despite competing gas technology, Haber not only invented but actively persuaded the German army to use it as an instrument of war. He did so in direct contravention not only to the rules of engagement at the time, but even the moral objections of his wife. This laid the groundwork for scientists in Nazi Germany to not only contribute their knowledge to war's death machine without remorse, but to feel compelled to do so as a moral good.

            • nscalf 96 days ago

              To put some of this into context, there were a lot of people saying that the world was going to run out of food soon and we couldn't sustain our growing population. It'd be as if someone today invented a solution to global warming, it was a problem everyone knew about and worried about to some extend.

              • nabla9 96 days ago

                It seems that he was lobbying hard for the use of the gas.

                • notahacker 96 days ago

                  Yep. Prevailing military opinion against using poison gases could have changed over the course of the war, of course, but he brought both the technical knowhow and the outspoken advocacy. The Allies' first alleged use of poison gas turned out to be an unfounded rumour which Haber himself was responsible for disproving.

                  Didn't take the Allies long to muster a response though, and they had their own Nobel Laureate Victor Grignard to build chemical weapons for them.

                • zouhair 96 days ago

                  He did it though. Assuming that anyone else could have done it or would have done is a bit presumptuous.

                  Look at the history of sound recording[0] for example. You can see that the technology that made it possible existed for years and years before anyone attempted such a feat. Now imagine if the first one who decided to record audio never done it would you think that we will be where we are now because "For sure someone would have done it" argument? I highly doubt that.

                  What bugs me though is what are the things that could exist right now but are not because someone still didn't think about them.

                  • felipemnoa 96 days ago

                    >>Now imagine if the first one who decided to record audio never done it would you think that we will be where we are now because "For sure someone would have done it" argument? I highly doubt that.

                    Reminds me of Hero's engine [1]. Had a single person decided to build a working industrial steam engine back then, then it is possible that the industrial revolution could've happened two thousand years ago.

                    I believe the technology to build it was there, nobody had the imagination to see the potential for this though.

                    Humanity missed its opportunity back then, thankfully we had another chance almost 1800 hundred years latter and this time there were people that seized the opportunity [2],[3]

                    [1] [2] [3]

                    • cfmcdonald 96 days ago

                      Considering how fragmented the pre-modern historical record is and how little attention is paid to technology in most of the sources we do have, it's quite possible that someone did build a Newcomen style engine 2000 years ago, it could even have happened many times.

                      However, it was probably only worth using one once labor costs reached a certain threshold. e.g. if you were an ancient roman landlord with abundant slave labor, why would you go to the trouble and expense of building steam engines to remove water from your mines rather than just having some workers work the pumps?

                      Moreover a Newcomen engine was so inefficient that it was really only usable when sited right at a coal mine, and in ancient times there were plenty of surface coal sites that didn't require deep mines (and thus pumps).

                      It's hard to imagine someone leaping straight to a Watt engine, especially given the metallurgy required.

                      • perl4ever 95 days ago

                        I think that people who are engineers or fascinated with engineering frequently dismiss or belittle economic and social context, and the interrelation of any new technology with all the other technology in the world. The idea of a steam engine producing the industrial revolution 2000 years ahead of time strikes me as incredible as the idea of producing a human from some DNA in a petri dish.

                    • aje403 96 days ago

                      This has nothing to do with Hollywood. Looking at it from that perspective is blind to history and human accomplishment. That's (part of) what our species... does. Is it a good or a bad thing? This would be a very different planet - perhaps without computers or centralized governments or much else, if societies did not place considerable blame or praise on individuals or small groups for large events or discoveries.

                      • icebraining 96 days ago

                        That's another simplistic approach. You can place praise or blame without saying that they were literally indispensable for its existence. Making it happen a few months or years sooner is praiseworthy in itself.

                        • aje403 96 days ago

                          I don't think you're following what I'm arguing from your response - let me re-state - I'm not saying that the "truth" is that Fritz Haber is the only one who could've "discovered" his procedure for ammonia, at any point, or even at any point in the 1910's; that is likely not the case in reality.

                          I am making a separate argument - this would not have been invented at all, yet, if humans, throughout history, did not celebrate or recognize specific individuals as being responsible for these monumental discoveries or events.

                          • icebraining 96 days ago

                            I understood what you wrote initially.

                            • aje403 96 days ago

                              Then I will argue your initial response is a non-sequitur to my initial comment - it's not a question of whether of whether or not we "can" or "cannot" diminish one's role in something - we certainly can. But, we're a competitive species. I think it has been an important characteristic in our evolution. In the alternate reality where people don't take overstated credit for success, in whatever form, Haber and all the other scientists who probably grew up reading of the great scientists who came before them that they wanted to emulate may have been tribal village raiders (I'm exaggerating, very slightly). Frankly, any form of desire to see somebody else's limelight revoked likely stems from their own competitivity and insecurity.

                              • icebraining 96 days ago

                                It's not a non-sequitur; you just hadn't claimed that we needed to overstate the credit.

                                I'm skeptical. What leads you to conclude that we need to pretend that people did more than what they did, or otherwise we wouldn't have computers and governments? I'd say we have plenty of inventions more important than computers whose authors were never really recognized, at least in their lifetimes. Were the inventors of the toilet really hailed for their accomplishment?

                                • aje403 96 days ago

                                  Choosing the word "overstate" was extremely poor word choice on my part, given my argument. The "statedness" of the success is subjective, regardless.

                                  If we, as a society, did not assign degrees of greatness to accomplishments, there would not really be any. You're free to disagree, but to me, this is an obvious conclusion of human nature and history. Do famous politicians deserve their place in history, given that their accomplishment is the result of thousands to hundreds of millions of people support them? Did Newton deserve his success? By his own word, he was standing on the shoulders of others. However, consider every scientist who followed him desiring to achieve his level of prominence - nearly every human who fervently applies himself to any single pursuit desires that, whether or not they will admit that to themselves or others. If history did not allow the idea of outliers, in favor of the argument that all discoveries were collective achievements or "an eventuality, regardless of who", Newton, and those after, would've had far fewer shoulders to stand on - those minds would've applied themselves elsewhere.

                                  I am not arguing that we, as a society, assign the proper "weight of recognition" to an inventor, discoverer, politician during or after their lifetime - that is a separate question. The chain is regarding "whether or not we should assign large weights of recognition to individuals".

                                  I'll agree to disagree rather than continue writing a thesis - I believe my perspective to be inalienably correct, though.

                                  • soneca 96 days ago

                                    Not sure what "inalienably correct" means, but I guess it means you are not open to change your mind or open to debate, so I will just stand my point of view to justify my initial comment.

                                    I didnt imply causation to Hollywood, I just used it as an adjective. I agree that storytelling with heroes personification is very common in humankind since always (since there is written documents at least). It happens that Hollywood became a thing by replicating this phenomena in fiction, so I think is very fit to use it as a qualifier.

                                    But I disagree that this human characteristic is the cause behind human progress.

                                    Collaboration was a human evolutionary advantage, so I think human are more naturally colaborative that competitive, at least intra tribe size levels.

                                    I also think that humans seek recognition among peers - and a peer has a very broad and flexible definition, not necessarily recognition from history. So I disagree that highly focused scientists motivation is to be like historical figures. They want that recognition in life, from peers, not historians.

                                    Still, I also think recognition from others is not the sole motivation for all human endeavors, not even the biggest factor.

                      • ribs 96 days ago

                        The story isn’t about ammonia; it’s about Haber.

                        • 23443463455 96 days ago

                          You also highlight, maybe without realizing it, an inherent blind assumption that somehow more humans on the planet is better than less humans, when in every regard and all measures would indicate the clear opposite being true. It almost feels like an addiction, a compulsory habit or even a physiological dependency on the notion that more people is a good thing.

                          The sustainably and ecologically balanced and qualitatively positive carrying capacity of the planet is far lower than even today's population, but for some reason even just bringing that notion up is not only ignored, but even countered not with rational argument, but violently aggressive hostility ... just like one would expect someone addicted to react to the confrontation about their addiction.

                          • blablablaber 96 days ago

                            "@but there is this Hollywood simplistic approach where one man is responsible for all things [..] I don't subscribe to this way of looking into historical figures"

                            I applaud you for that, this gives some hope that not all is lost. A real historian can only be someone who loves the truth ( .. more than his personal well-beign)

                          • jzl 96 days ago

                            There is an incredible book about this topic called "The Alchemy of Air"@, which I highly recommend. It's one of the best non-fiction science books I've ever read. Also available on Audible.

                            Fritz Haber's life story is intertwined with Einstein's and the book pairs extremely well with Walter Isaacson's Einstein biography, which is a MUST read (or audiobook listen).

                            @ - Full title: "The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler"

                            • Pulcinella 96 days ago

                              I second this recommendation.

                              It also covers Carl Bosch, who took Haber’s process and industrialized it at BASF. Haber got the process to work in a small bespoke quartz reactor, which obviously wouldn’t scale.

                              • nvahalik 96 days ago

                                Thomas Hager wrote that book along with “The Demon under the Microscope”. Excellent works.

                              • dschuetz 96 days ago

                                I don't think that his involvements in WW I are justified by his achievements in chemistry in favor of world population problems. Someone else would have found a way to bind nitrogen without him and so feed billions of people in the end. Much later perhaps, but eventually still. Yet, most of today's populus have barely enough to eat. So, ultimataly the problem remains unsolved, or it shifted even.

                                Haber was not a solution. He was as tragic and as fanatic as everybody else in Europe at that time. Nazi Germany also have invented A LOT of world changing things. They solved a lot of problems. Yet, they managed to do such unspeakable things that all the good stuff instantly fades.

                                In my humble opinion, it's not difficult to judge a person who commits unspeakable crimes by his good or bad deeds. Good deeds are optional, always. Bad deeds are never an option, regardless of eventual outcomes or consequences.

                                • derstander 96 days ago

                                  "Someone else would have found a way to bind nitrogen without him and so feed billions of people in the end."

                                  The same logic that wipes out his achievement could also absolve him of his sin. Certainly someone else would have also invented chlorine gas.

                                  Based on the little I've read of him I agree that he doesn't sound like a great guy (though I certainly don't know enough to really have an informed opinion). But, more generally, I oppose the notion that summarizing someone is as simple as a toggle switch between good and bad; I think that's too reductionist. Humans are (and the world is) more complicated than that.

                                  • Joe-Z 96 days ago

                                    While I agree with you that humans cannot simply be labeled as good or bad (there‘s also a nice Solschenizyn-quote at the end of the article) your argument has one flaw: He not only invented chlorine gas he actively pushed for its use against the opinion of German generals.

                                    The question stands how many people would‘ve not only disocered this deadly weapon but also were so enthusiastic about its use (see also: some quotes of him in the article)

                                    • neaden 96 days ago

                                      People were already shooting each other, blowing each other up, stabbing each other, wounding each other in the dirt to die of gangrene or other infections, setting each other on fire. On what basis do we condemn chemical weapons while ignoring all these other methods of death and pain?

                                      • hrasyid 96 days ago

                                        This is a good philosophical question, but the answer the governments of major powers came up with is that to limit the atrocity there must be rules even in war. So people came up with mutually agreed conventions. It was agreed that violating these would be worse then killing "by the book". Germany was a party to the rule prohibiting chemical warfare:

                                        • Joe-Z 96 days ago

                                          Well, I guess you have to consult the Hague convention on warfare for an answer to that question. As mentioned in the article this was also the basis on which the generals opposed Haber‘s plans.

                                      • dschuetz 96 days ago

                                        I agree on the reductionist part, it's never that simple. But, in his case it was his conscious decision to use the gas as a chemical weapon, the case of which was unprecedented. Sure anyone else would have come up with the idea sooner or later, but he has set the precedent so that anyone after him now can use it, as the Allies actually did, in all this "but they also did it, now we want too!" sentiment. His bad judgement caused not only good things, but disregarding the possible consequences also cause much much worse things. It's actually simple, imho.

                                      • hh3k0 96 days ago

                                        > Yet, most of today's populus have barely enough to eat. So, ultimataly the problem remains unsolved, or it shifted even.

                                        That is a distribution problem, though. Up to 50% of the food produced around the world never reaches a human stomach.


                                        • dschuetz 96 days ago

                                          Yes I agree. The problem shifted, but it wasn't exactly solved. So, now it's not about how to feed 8 billions of people, but rather who gets how much. So '... and fed the world' in this article is a stretch for an argument.

                                        • 0ld 96 days ago

                                          > such unspeakable things that all the good stuff instantly fades

                                          Well, in 50-100 years noone would really care about atrocities of ww2, just like almost noone cares about ww1 now, and literary noone about the atrocities of the wars before ww1.

                                          But "the world-changing things" will stay, and the people who created these things will be remembered

                                          • dschuetz 96 days ago

                                            I don't agree. The Mongol Empire as an example is still remembered to this day. Nobody cares what exactly they did, but it's common sense that it was pretty bad. British colonial era? Same thing, but half the world still remembers what atrocities they have commited, and it was longer ago as WW I.

                                            It's the bad things generations of people remember, the good things not so much. You know, hate sows war, war sows hate. The vicious circle as old as time.

                                            • hh3k0 96 days ago

                                              > The Mongol Empire as an example is still remembered to this day. Nobody cares what exactly they did, but it's common sense that it was pretty bad.

                                              Is it really? I think most people only remember them as successful conquerors.

                                              > British colonial era? Same thing, but half the world still remembers what atrocities they have commited, and it was longer ago as WW I.

                                              Depends! The British Empire lasted until the 1960s -- arguably 1997. That's much fresher than WW1 or WW2.

                                              Besides, who remembers the British concentration camps?

                                              • Tech-Noir 96 days ago

                                                > Besides, who remembers the British concentration camps?

                                                Everyone, because it's the answer to the question "who invented the concentration camp".

                                                Unfortunately it's the incorrect answer, because nobody remembers the American, Spanish, French and Paraguayan (the possibly correct answer) concentration camps that came earlier.

                                                It's quite strange/interesting that atrocities in the "wars before WWI" got turned into atrocities in the "British colonial era" though; maybe people remember what they want to remember.

                                                • nsnick 96 days ago

                                                  South Africans remember the British concentration camps.

                                                  • eastWestMath 96 days ago

                                                    Lots of people remember the Irish and Indian famines.

                                                    • hh3k0 96 days ago

                                                      Good point! That's true -- just didn't come to mind when I was posting my earlier comment.

                                              • JackFr 96 days ago

                                                > Yet, most of today's populus have barely enough to eat.

                                                That's simply not true.

                                                Global levels of hunger are at their lowest point in human history.

                                                • dschuetz 96 days ago

                                                  Yes, that's right, hence 'barely enough'. They do not hunger, yet they don't live as lavishly as the richest 10% of the world either. It's just/barely enough to satisfy hunger, but does it solve the problem? No.

                                                • XR0CSWV3h3kZWg 96 days ago

                                                  As of 2016 ~10% of the world's population is undernourished.


                                                  If you believe that "most of today's populus have barely enough to eat" there is a good chance you have a much more dismal view of the world than actually exists.

                                                  I'd recommend checking out

                                                  • dschuetz 96 days ago

                                                    Yes, I do believe that in raw numbers most people have just enough food and water available so that they don't hunger. So the lowest 10% go even below that and face starvation now and then. I doubt that they enjoy the quality of the food they have as much as you enjoy yours.

                                                    Thanks for the link to though. It's nice to see that per definition we solved the hunger and poverty problem! I had no idea! Yet I wonder what people think of the accessibility and variety of food. They pretty much don't give a flying fart about raw numbers and definitions we set up for arguments.

                                                    The problem how to generate enough for everybody shifted to how to provide that overwhelming amount of food to those who have the least? Clearly, discussing about how many actually starve and how many barely not hunger misses the whole point. Haber didn't solve the problem, he generated a ton of different other problems.

                                                    • XR0CSWV3h3kZWg 96 days ago

                                                      To quote world hunger:

                                                      "The world produces enough food to feed everyone. [...] A principal problem is that many people in the world still do not have sufficient income to purchase (or land to grow) enough food or access to nutritious food."

                                                      It's amazing that we produce enough food to feed everyone. The question is how to ensure that everyone has enough access to income to feed themselves. There are two major factors here, the price of food and the income of the person. Both of these can be adjusted to ensure that everyone can eat.

                                                      Advances like nitrogen fixing, rust resistant wheat and proper irrigation can push the price of food down. Some of these have the amazing property of being able to be solved essentially once and have the whole world benefit, the green revolution had absolutely amazing ROI, the work of just a handful of people produced wheat that can be raise yields dramatically almost everywhere. It'd be great to see the same thing done with cassava, rice and other staples.

                                                      Raising incomes is fairly tricky and even more contentious, but thankfully that is happening as well.

                                                  • lopmotr 96 days ago

                                                    Those soldiers he killed were only there to kill Germans. Of course they were going to fight back. What difference does it make what weapon they use?

                                                    • __bjoernd 96 days ago

                                                      I think from his perspective he was just trying his best to help his country win the war. As did many of the US scientists involved in the Manhattan project. For both cases one can argue that their deeds brought great suffering to people. And in both cases you can make the point that a faster way to end a war might have saved thousands of others from the same fate.

                                                      • workthrowaway27 96 days ago

                                                        I think you underestimate your capacity to commit a bad deed if you're in a situation to do so.

                                                        • dschuetz 96 days ago

                                                          But you got it figured out to share with everyone?

                                                        • T2_t2 96 days ago

                                                          > Yet, most of today's populus have barely enough to eat

                                                          That is simply untrue. Not even close to to true. The world has grown from ~1 billion to ~7.5 billion, and we have reduced - in raw numbers - those in extreme poverty. A large part of that is down to Haber.

                                                          • flexie 96 days ago

                                                            It’s by no way given that they would during WWI and maybe the war would have been a few years shorter without his explosives and gas.

                                                            And maybe a shorter war would havve led to less humiliation of Germany afterwards so that WWII wouldn’t have happened.

                                                            • kansface 96 days ago

                                                              > Yet, most of today's populus have barely enough to eat.

                                                              But today, this is a political problem, not a scientific one. After all, the world produces more than enough food for everyone.

                                                            • loorinm 96 days ago

                                                              What an insane and fascinating read. Two things occured to me:

                                                              I don’t really understand how and why war happens. Like, it starts out as two parties both wanting the same resource, and then somebody says “over my dead body” or something and then a million other people decide to also join in this fight? I do not get it.

                                                              The other thing is : The “inherent harm of technology”. Every single advancement will 100% hurt someone. In this case it hurt a lot of people. But it’s impossible to stop progress, even if you keep a discovery secret for a while, it won’t last. Humanity will advance, and somewhat destroy itself in the process.

                                                              • groby_b 96 days ago

                                                                Well, good thing is we're all getting an object lesson right now. Watch North Korea and the U.S. interact.

                                                                That is how war happens. Leaders who for various reasons taunt and provoke each other, implementing what to either populace seems a reasonable policy. (NK would like to be able to defend against the US, so they get nukes. The US would like to not be nuked, so they agitate strongly against them). Alas, these policies are in conflict, so tensions rise.

                                                                At some point, a small event - a misunderstanding, a border skirmish, etc - happens. In the context of already ratcheted up tensions, it spirals out of control because everybody feels the need to react quickly, before the other side escalates.

                                                                Nobody says "over my dead body". Everybody takes the next step, a step that's entirely reasonable from their perspective, but opens up "reasonable" steps for the other side. The core problem is that neither side considers the needs of the other side.

                                                                Peace requires active communication to constantly de-escalate and compromise, from both sides. An interest in a common good. War is what happens when you lose that and move to self-interest.

                                                                • jessaustin 96 days ago

                                                                  USA has constantly pressured DPRK over the course of decades, mostly for domestic political purposes. At many points we could have chosen less confrontation, but usually we chose more. Recently we offered Qaddafi the same deal we have continually offered the Kims, and then after he accepted it we "changed our minds" and shoved a bayonet up his ass. Even now we continue the pressure (somewhat erratically, because Trump), when doing so has no conceivable "self-interest" on a national level. Of course more war is very much in the interest of armaments manufacturers and their sockpuppets in politics and the media. If war were ever in the overall national interest, we'd occasionally win a war or even just accomplish some vague goal by fighting one. That has never happened in my lifetime or that of my parents.

                                                                  Of course I have to stipulate now that the Kim Dynasty are very bad no-good people whom we should all detest, otherwise trolls might pretend to misunderstand me.

                                                                  • bzbarsky 96 days ago

                                                                    > That has never happened in my lifetime or that of my parents.

                                                                    Unless your parents are really young, is an obvious counterexample. There was a reasonably clear goal and the goal was accomplished.

                                                                    I will grant that this is the only example I can think of right now, though.

                                                                    • jessaustin 96 days ago

                                                                      I was in high school then, and unlike others I actually remember the bullshit I hear on the news. We were told that it wasn't like Korea, because the troops would come home immediately. To the contrary, the continued presence (to the present day!) of USA military in Kuwait, Iraq, and especially Saudi destabilized the Middle East and was the primary motivator for the author of 9/11. If evicting Iraqis from Kuwait was "the goal", why was that other crap necessary?

                                                                      • bzbarsky 96 days ago

                                                                        I think listening to the news to figure out what goals anyone has is a pretty lost cause. The news anchors will say things that have no bearing on reality. People they interview will say things that have only slightly more bearing on reality, maybe.

                                                                        I agree that keeping troops in place after the war was a bit questionable. Though one does need to answer the "OK, we kick Iraq out, what keeps them from coming back?" question. Which was answered in a ham-handed way, if at all. Keeping troops in Kuwait maybe made sense. Keeping troops in Saudi... one of the ostensible goals was in fact to prevent an Iraqi invasion of Saudi, not just to kick Iraq out of Kuwait. I do think in retrospect this was a bad idea. It's harder to tell how it looked at the time, and in particular what the Saudi government was telling the US government.

                                                                        • jessaustin 96 days ago

                                                                          Kuwait's position, of a rich weak nation with no military alliances bordering a hungry strong one, was somewhat untenable. It is folly to fight a war for a short-term benefit. If spanking Saddam and then leaving would so obviously result in his invading Kuwait again, then the decision to deploy was effectively a decision to deploy indefinitely [0]. That was also folly. One can forgive impermanent mistakes, however. In retrospect, withdrawing troops soon after they repelled Iraq and then encouraging fracking in USA would have been a better decision. It was certainly discussed at the time, and Korea was certainly mentioned in those discussions. The reason we didn't "choose" to do that, is that military-industrial complex would have made much less money in that case. That's always true, however. An ineffective military that is always fighting is an eternal fountain of money for them.

                                                                          [0] One supposes that another option would have been to disrupt the governance of Iraq such that it would stop invading Kuwait, but later experience suggests that could also have had its drawbacks...

                                                                        • sampo 96 days ago

                                                                          > destabilized the Middle East

                                                                          I don't think pre-1990 Middle East, where Iraq had just invaded and occupied a neighboring state (Kuwait) was exactly a stable place, either. Remember also the 1980–1988 Iran–Iraq War.

                                                                      • wnscooke 96 days ago

                                                                        Communist ideology as embraced by nations typically involves spreading that ideology as far and wide as possible (including in the non-purified forms of communism). Your opening sounds like the USA had no reason to pressure the DPRK. I can't speak to specific incidents you may have in mind, but communism would have spread globally, bringing with it suffering, had it not been opposed and pressured.

                                                                        • nsnick 96 days ago

                                                                          At some point you have to stand up to despots in the name of human rights.

                                                                          • vkou 96 days ago

                                                                            This has never been a goal of the Department of State - only the excuse.

                                                                        • 96 days ago
                                                                          • oh_sigh 96 days ago

                                                                            Except this isn't really how wars happen, because the US and NK have been trading barbs since ... the 1950s, even though we are technically still at war with them, there is nothing akin to a hot war, or anything radically different from the status quo, anywhere on the horizon

                                                                          • NamTaf 96 days ago

                                                                            If you ever get to go to to the south-west of Belgium and visit Ypres, there is an absolutely fantastic exhibit on the Great War in the Cloth Hall. The first part of it describes the late 1800s extreme nationalism and build-up to the war with very harrowing finality and a sense that the ball that caused the war had started rolling decades before its outbreak and was unstoppable by the turn of the century. I had a genuine sense of helplessness in the face of that as I finished that stage of the exhibit and went into the part regarding the period of the war itself.

                                                                            It is probably one of the most memorable (in the literal sense of the term) exhibits regarding the War that I've seen. I absolutely recommend it.

                                                                            • JCSato 96 days ago

                                                                              Highly recommend you check out The Great War series on Youtube. Even if you just watch the prologue to the war videos, very informative on how WW1 got kicked off.

                                                                              Short answer: nationalism and a lot of treaties and grudges from past wars.

                                                                              • smackay 96 days ago

                                                                                I saw a history documentary on the BBC many, many years ago where the historian was describing that the reason WWI started was because of railway timetables - basically moving all those troops and material was a logistical nightmare. Once the armies were assembled it was going to be impossibly difficult to move them all back so they got put into action instead. Most likely the historian was AJP Taylor:

                                                                                • michaelt 96 days ago

                                                                                    Once the armies were assembled it was going to be
                                                                                    impossibly difficult to move them all back so they got
                                                                                    put into action instead.
                                                                                  I read a more subtle theory in the book "Arms and Influence" by Thomas C. Schelling [1].

                                                                                  In short, at the start of WW1, the Russians had two plans available: A plan to mobilise against the Austro-Hungarians only, and a plan to mobilise against them and the Germans at the same time.

                                                                                  But if they went for the Austria-Hungary-only plan, they'd be extra-vulnerable to German attack. After all, the troops and trains are all in the wrong place!

                                                                                  So although they were _mostly_ worried about Austria-Hungary, they were moderately worried about Germany, so they went with the mobilise-against-both plan. And as soon as Russia started massing troops at the German border, what could Germany do except respond in kind? Hence there was an escalation to war despite the fact neither side would benefit from it.

                                                                                  In other words: The logistics played a part, but it wasn't _just_ using the troops because they're here now - the logistics forced the Russians to choose between two bad options, forcing them into a choice that would inevitably trigger the escalation to war.


                                                                                  • notahacker 96 days ago

                                                                                    The accompanying theory is that Germany had long planned for the eventuality of fighting a Franco-Russian alliance, and their agreed military strategy for dealing with this potential situation was to attack France first, in the hope that they could knock France out the war before Russia was fully mobilised. The need for speed in executing this plan necessitated an attack via neutral Belgium to avoid France's border forts and easily defensible territory (which was what brought Belgian ally Britain into the war)

                                                                                  • jcranmer 96 days ago

                                                                                    The argument doesn't hold up terribly well to the evidence. The Austrian ultimatum was timed to be delivered just after the French prime minister left Russia and was effectively unable to participate in emergency conferences for three days, and by all accounts Austria was committed to war by the time the ultimatum was sent. When Russia mobilized, the tsar ordered a partial mobilization effort that wasn't even in the military's plans, and it took well over 24 hours for the military to change his mind.

                                                                                    A good military commander needs to be able to adjust plans on the fly to circumstances anyways, and while the logistical hurdles would have been substantial. Mobilization itself takes the form of several stages, and it's possible to hold at certain stages for lengthy (in comparison to the crisis) periods of times. Military commanders would certainly have objected strenuously, but politicians could have overridden them if necessary.

                                                                                    The real truth is that, by the July Crisis, most of the politicians weren't trying to avoid war anymore. Certainly not in Germany, which is the only case where the timetable argument comes close to applying.

                                                                                    • ghaff 96 days ago

                                                                                      Dan Carlin's Countdown to Armageddon also gets into these aspects in detail. The basic argument is that a number of factors, including technology at a macro level and logistics at a more micro level set various policies and machinery in motion that was difficult to stand down once it got moving.

                                                                                      • usrusr 96 days ago

                                                                                        Automatisms quite unlike like the various doomsday machines dreamt up during the cold war, just running on diplomatic and logistic commitments rather than on transistors and logic programming. I think that much of the institutionalized sabre rattling was seen by some contemporary experts as a guarantee for peace, in a proto-mutually-assured-destruction kind of way.

                                                                                        • vkou 96 days ago

                                                                                          > I think that much of the institutionalized sabre rattling was seen by some contemporary experts as a guarantee for peace, in a proto-mutually-assured-destruction kind of way

                                                                                          Contemporary experts also claimed that "the economic cost of war was so great that no one could possibly hope to gain by starting a war the consequences of which would be so disastrous."

                                                                                          This is one reason I find the modern argument for MAD to be insane. Conflict escalates, despite it being a negative-sum game.

                                                                                          • usrusr 95 days ago

                                                                                            Still they were right on both points, their failure was in the implicit assumption that all wars are started to gain something.

                                                                                  • mhneu 96 days ago

                                                                                    > how war happens

                                                                                    Orwell captured one way total war can happen: a powerful small group of people gains control of a propaganda apparatus, and uses control of messaging to divide a country, or turn a country against a demonized minority group or external rival.

                                                                                    That happened with Mao, with Hitler, with Stalin, with Mussolini. Today’s challenge is ensuring that the propaganda arms created by Murdoch and Mercer and Koch don’t do that to America.

                                                                                    • 96 days ago
                                                                                      • convivialdingo 96 days ago

                                                                                        Who's the most demonized group of people in America today?

                                                                                    • js8 96 days ago

                                                                                      "I don’t really understand how and why war happens."

                                                                                      I think we don't really know. We know that greed plays a role, but it is not always the case of someone stronger attacking someone weaker.

                                                                                      In Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature, this is shortly discussed. IIRC he says that no reason put forward as an explanation for war can be conclusively proven from the available data (he mentions some war databases containing over 20k conflicts of more than 100 people each).

                                                                                      So, I think, unfortunately, conflict is like rain. You know that condensation is the cause, yet you can't really predict when and with what intensity it will happen. But you know it will.

                                                                                      • jgrowl 96 days ago

                                                                                        I saw a chaos theory documentary recently that touched on this same thing. It compared the Three-body problem in physics with Franz Ferdinand getting shot. It's truly terrifying to think that a single man making the decision to pull a trigger would send the world to the brink of destruction. Granted the conditions had to be just right to have such a spiraling effect, but it just shows you that the system is so complex that one little thing can tip it over the edge.

                                                                                        • heavenlyblue 96 days ago

                                                                                          The concept might frighten you, but as the chaos theory also predicts: you probably do know the direction where it is going, and the only thing you can't predict is the sole high-frequency feature of _the_ event that will cause the sudden change.

                                                                                          So it has nothing to do with a "single event", but rather the "pre-conditions" which allow for that single event to evolve into such consequences. Don't blame an idiot who broke a brittle system.

                                                                                          • jgrowl 96 days ago

                                                                                            I agree that a single event that causes the tipping point doesn't really matter and knowing the general direction things are going is helpful. This does not mean necessarily though that you'll have any ability to change it. Even if you had the power to change anything, it assumes you actually know the correct actions to take.

                                                                                          • JoeAltmaier 96 days ago

                                                                                            Historically that's been held up as an interesting pivotal moment. But I don't think it bears scrutiny. Germany was itching to go to war (as a natural outgrowth of their manifest destiny). That shot was an excuse. They would have found another - the world was in turmoil.

                                                                                            • bzbarsky 96 days ago

                                                                                              Importantly, _Serbia_ wanted to cause a war that would pit Austria against Russia. One of the parts of that struck me was the offhand mention that Serbia was the one country involved that accomplished all of its foreign policy goals as a result of WWI.

                                                                                              I suspect that even if the assassination had failed they would have kept trying other provocations at least until they provoked an Austria-Russia war.

                                                                                              • jgrowl 96 days ago

                                                                                                I think that's exactly the point though. That event was the catalyst, but it just as easily could have been any number of other things and it is unpredictable when it will boil over.

                                                                                            • milankovic 96 days ago

                                                                                              I can't agree more. This is an excellent observation. Also, that last sentence. Bravo. I think this is the best allegory for conflict (or war) that I have ever seen.

                                                                                              • arca_vorago 96 days ago

                                                                                                Some of us know but would be shunned if we told you. As a combat vet I have spent years since I got out trying to understand the big picture... and all I can tell you is the truth is nastier, and stranger, than fiction. I started out with just Iraq, but by the end of it had learned the GWOT was only the latest iteration of a long game that has been played over centuries.

                                                                                                • jessaustin 96 days ago

                                                                                                  You're using an anonymous account, and I for one promise to upvote whatever "nastier, stranger" truth you post. Lay it on us, man!

                                                                                                  • arca_vorago 96 days ago

                                                                                                    Well, without going to deep down the rabbit hole, I think I'll put it like this:

                                                                                                    At best, wars are primarily a tool of the bankers and the international elite in a path towards control of all countries economic and physical resources. They finance and play both sides, and no matter the victor, they win. This is essentially the John Perkins position.

                                                                                                    Even John Perkins claims there is no "grand conspiracy" though... and I would simply claim otherwise. Of course I've heard all the common retorts. "It could never be kept secret." "It's all incompetence, not malice." (hanlons fallacy) "It's just self-interest manifesting nastily." and so on.

                                                                                                    Look, after the war I realized I had been lied to about so much, I sat down and decided to do what I call my "Descartes reset". Essentially, it consists of two parts. One, if I were to start fresh as if I knew nothing, and then evaluate the inductive and deductive evidence, if my past conclusions were correct I should arrive at them again. (they were't, and I didn't). Two, you must decide what you desire the most. The truth, no matter how ugly? Or a beautiful lie? I chose truth.

                                                                                                    I won't get into the details right now, but suffice it to say I walked away believing there is indeed a "grand conspiracy". Of course that doesn't mean the other points of view aren't true at the same time, because they aren't mutually exclusive. If anything, the self-interested and the incompetent creates a nice cover for the abuse of the compartmentalization of black operations. There are often competing factions within as well, that sometimes align in purpose and sometimes don't. I still update and check my information and model as well. It's a continuous process mostly gained by gleaming bits and peaces of information from just straight up voraciously reading the best books related to the subject I could get my hands on.

                                                                                                    That said, there are three primary sources that have a hefty academic background I used to pivot to other things. Carroll Quigley, Peter Dale Scott, and Antony C. Sutton. A third that was less academic and more experience based was Fletcher Prouty.

                                                                                                    There are many other sources that have interesting things to say, but aren't as unimpeachable as the others. For this, a mainstream board, if you are really interested, I will just leave it at those four as a good start to pry open the very obsfuscated subject just a bit.


                                                                                                    • jessaustin 96 days ago

                                                                                                      Thanks for the pointers. Haha "Hanlon's Fallacy" I love it! I'll definitely be repeating that one.

                                                                                                      I agree that the first step is taking stock of all the lies. There are some obvious untruths that most Americans physically can't even consider, let alone disagree with, because they've been lied to from childhood. My current favorite is, "USA military is powerful and effective". Historians to come will puzzle over how anyone could have believed that, based on its unblemished record of ignominious defeat from Korea to Iraq and back again. When I talk about it today, however, I can see people's brains locking up.

                                                                                                      I think it's possible there is no grand conspiracy, or perhaps we should say that myriad small conspiracies are reinforced by a larger unconscious equilibrium of interests. I'm not sure whether it would be better to react to the conspiracies or try to destroy the equilibrium...

                                                                                                      • logfromblammo 96 days ago

                                                                                                        The US military is powerful and effective, just not in the way you might think.

                                                                                                        First, discard any notions you may have regarding "winning" wars or "mission accomplished". The military hasn't been at war in a de jure legal sense since 1945. But it has been involved nearly continuously in de facto wars ever since then.

                                                                                                        Is the world really such a dangerous place? Or is there another hypothesis that might explain it?

                                                                                                        Here's one: the US military is an instrument for moving public funds from the Treasury into private hands with little or no public oversight, designed to work equally well when popular opinions swing in favor of the military or against it. To this end, media channels and public relations outlets are controlled through the use of financial incentives and proactively crafted narratives.

                                                                                                        Milo Minderbinder is in charge. The US military spends $600 billion every year. Powerful means of moving money. Only $150 billion goes to personnel. Effective? Depends on what you think the intent may be.

                                                                                                        • jessaustin 96 days ago

                                                                                                 might think.

                                                                                                          In future I would suggest a less personal idiom such as, " might think". My HN posting history makes obvious that I completely agree with everything you've written here.

                                                                                                      • icebraining 96 days ago
                                                                                                        • arca_vorago 96 days ago

                                                                                                          As a Marine he was always my favorite Marine. (Even over Chesty) He straight up confronted an attempted facist coup! (The business plot for anyone interested)

                                                                                                    • moh_maya 96 days ago

                                                                                                      What is your conclusion? Can you share? (At the risk of being shunned..,?)

                                                                                                      • icebraining 96 days ago

                                                                                                        So are you posting this to taunt or to grandstand?

                                                                                                    • rocqua 96 days ago

                                                                                                      I think generally, long wars are a mistake.

                                                                                                      My hypothesis. Party A wants Thing from party B. Moreover, party A things they could take it by force. Even if party B things they couldn't defend Thing, they can't just give it, because that sets a wrong precedent. Party B relies on being able to exact a very high toll should party A try to get thing.

                                                                                                      Rationally, you don't declare a war you don't expect to win. So, in the above scenario, when part A declares war, they expect that party B cannot exact a high enough toll for Thing. When they do, it was a mistake.

                                                                                                      The alternative are wars for 'moral' reasons, which are mostly about retribution or saving face. This is essentially how the murder of a prince lead escalated to a war that became WW1.

                                                                                                      • Hattes 96 days ago

                                                                                                        You may very well declare a war that you don't expect to win if you have even worse expectations for a future war. This was pretty much the situation of Germany in WW1, from my understanding.

                                                                                                        • Tech-Noir 96 days ago

                                                                                                          Or if you believe the superior power will not respond militarily, as in the Falklands in 1982.

                                                                                                          Unfortunately for the junta, they weren't the only unpopular right-wing government who saw warfare and jingoism as a handy distraction from internal economic and social problems.

                                                                                                          • nsnick 96 days ago

                                                                                                            Britain was hardly a super power in 1982. It took every refueling plane Britain had to send one bomber to the Falklands. Refueling planes had to fuel refueling planes.


                                                                                                            • arethuza 96 days ago

                                                                                                              To be fair to Thatcher, I don't think her goal in fighting was to reap electoral success based on "warfare and jingoism" but I agree that it certainly was the result.

                                                                                                            • nickik 96 days ago

                                                                                                              That was maybe what a couple of people thought. However it is totally wrong, Germany was not in that situation.

                                                                                                              Those are the kinds of things you say that already imply 100s of other theories and assumption and then you are like 'We have no choice'.

                                                                                                              Germany was in a fantastic geopolitical situation after Bismark but then just fucked it all up because they had all these wrong (and sometimes crazy) assumptions.

                                                                                                              • arethuza 96 days ago

                                                                                                                And the Soviets in '83 - who were terrified that the US and its allies were going to attack so they considered a first strike even though they knew this would be disastrous.

                                                                                                            • nickik 96 days ago

                                                                                                              > I don’t really understand how and why war happens.

                                                                                                              The error you are making is that you are thinking in terms of groups or states.

                                                                                                              Think of these people as individuals. Quite simply, some individual people wanted war to fulfill their political/personal ambitions and think war can make them happen. They really don't care much about the people who die. Its quite as simple as that.

                                                                                                              So the army marches because from their perspective a legit government said, because it is in the interest of the country, plus they get payed.

                                                                                                              The defenders are just defending their home country because they don't want to see it destroyed.

                                                                                                              WW1 is really that simple.

                                                                                                              • soundwave106 96 days ago

                                                                                                                I think it is okay to think somewhat in groups, that is, when it comes to examining some of the psychology behind warfare. Ultimately, a lot of that side of human warfare has a lot to do IMHO with human's inherit tribalistic nature.

                                                                                                                The part about getting people to not care about the people who die is, I think, very important as far as understanding how warfare can happen on the scale it does. Most wars are characterized by strong propaganda denigrating the opposing side in negative stereotypical terms. In many cases, I think that the leaders who push for war actually share similar beliefs as a nationalism-driven populace -- it's more than mere exploitative.

                                                                                                                Such explains why how, say, conflict over scarce resources can turn into something like violent conflict, which often (ironically) has a negative impact on the scarce resources itself.

                                                                                                                Nationalism (and some things which are tangentially related like imperialism) was by many historical accounts one of the major forces that led to WWI. (As well as many other wars, I might add.)

                                                                                                                • nickik 91 days ago

                                                                                                                  > inherit tribalistic nature

                                                                                                                  I don't think its as simple as inherent in tribal nature. Leaders are selected and they need to consider the opinion of the electorate (this concept applies to non-democratic states as well).

                                                                                                                  In Political Science this is called electorate theory.

                                                                                                                  > I think that the leaders who push for war actually share similar beliefs as a nationalism-driven populace -- it's more than mere exploitative


                                                                                                                  > Nationalism (and some things which are tangentially related like imperialism) was by many historical accounts one of the major forces that led to WWI. (As well as many other wars, I might add.)

                                                                                                                  Nationalism I would agree but in the end the choice was with some leaders, and many of those were not really nationalist but rather classical conservatives.

                                                                                                                  Your point about resources is correct, they wanted to control those resources, not relay on markets and cooperation. After that the Nazis doubled down on those terrible zero sum ideas.

                                                                                                              • okket 96 days ago

                                                                                                                Not only humanity itself. Feeding the world and letting humans grow from ~1 billion to ~8 billion certainly endangered/made many species go extinct. There is no such thing as a free meal, really.

                                                                                                                • carlmr 96 days ago

                                                                                                                  This also reminded me of the first such revolution, the agricultural revolution. In A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harrari he says that it wasn't humans that domesticated wheat, but wheat that domesticated humans. The reasoning being that since we started to use wheat we've grown to too large numbers to go back to the previous lifestyle. We've been essentially trapped to continue using wheat, which was not even as good for our health.

                                                                                                                  A similar argument could be made about the Haber-Bosch process. There's no way back from too much growth. And there are serious side effects.

                                                                                                                • loorinm 96 days ago

                                                                                                                  OP here. Wow thanks for all the replies and views on why war happens.

                                                                                                                  I guess you could always explain any war by listing all the events that came righ before, but I don’t think that answers another question, which is this:

                                                                                                                  Why is it “ok” for governments to hire huge groups of people to murder other people, when murder is not ok in other settings? This is an obvious legal and moral contradiction right?

                                                                                                                  • hutzlibu 96 days ago

                                                                                                                    "This is an obvious legal and moral contradiction right?"

                                                                                                                    No it is not. Legally it is only for members of the own society.

                                                                                                                    But in war this society acts as a group against another group. Legally totally different. (morally different story) But still complicated especially today with asymmetrical warfare. (france for example has no death penalty, but don't want their (IS) djihadists to come back and create legal problems (proving guilt is hard and putting them in jail creates also problems) ... so apparently it is easier for the French government to (secretly) order their special troops to make sure that not much of the french jihadists ended up as prisoners in syria or elsewhere and then demanded being brought back to french .. because killing in war is legal .. but since they have doubts on their own, it is of course not officially practiced)

                                                                                                                    Oh and in theory of course, nobody is starting a war anymore, since this is somewhat outlawed. Everyone is only "defending".

                                                                                                                    Which does make sense, also morally - so yeah I believe in general it is OK to have a group of people trained to kill in case bad killers invade. Having a army to defend. Simple isolationist?

                                                                                                                    But what if there are friends of yours under attack somewhere else in the planet? You go and help them, morally right, I believe.

                                                                                                                    But then things get complicated ... as "friends", people, cultures and states are not homogeneous things. So those friends of yours might be part of a legally justified dictatorship.

                                                                                                                    So you invade that dictatorship? And teach them democracy?

                                                                                                                    Well, that failed quite spectacular all the last times, but maybe that was also because of different reasons, as there were usually not so much "friends" who needed help, but rather a lot of hypocrisy to disguise plain old power politic where war is just a tool for politics in the bigger cultural struggle.

                                                                                                                  • bsder 96 days ago

                                                                                                                    In the case of World War I, Otto von Bismarck put together an interlocking set of alliances to forge the German Empire. Unfortunately, Wilhelm II was not as capable (I'm being nice--Wilhelm II was an idiot), and didn't know how to manage this properly.

                                                                                                                    It is, of course, possible that even Bismarck could not have continued to manage them given the strains of nationalism that he set in motion. However, Bismarck was very motivated to maintain the peace rather than motivated to engage in war and that served Germany very well for a remarkably long time.

                                                                                                                    Even worse, Bismarck understood about not letting things get out of hand. He was quoted in 1898--"One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans"

                                                                                                                    • oblio 96 days ago

                                                                                                                      > "One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans"

                                                                                                                      I absolutely despise these statements, that are perpetuated to the present day. I'm from near the Balkans, from Romania.

                                                                                                                      They depict the Balkan region as being some sort of backwards warmongers, which is not the case (yes, the region is not very developed but it's far from the poorest regions on this planet; also, yes, I know about the Yugoslav Wars, but that's a rather extreme scenario and even people in the region were appalled at what the Serbs did, especially).

                                                                                                                      Anyway, the reason I don't like it: it was foreign empires vying in the region that made the mess. Turks, Austrians, Russians, Brits, Italians, Germans, French, they're the ones that started the wars. There was no way the local conflicts would have ever become global conflicts. The locals just didn't have the desire or resources to escalate such a conflict. Instead these empires just used them as battering rams against the other empires.

                                                                                                                      • matthiasv 96 days ago

                                                                                                                        > I absolutely despise these statements.

                                                                                                                        The statement is true and you give yourself a very good description of it. He did not say "it will come of some damned fools" but "some damned foolish thing in the Balkans", i.e. the power play between Russia and Austria-Hungary.

                                                                                                                        • myrandomcomment 96 days ago

                                                                                                                          You say this but just as soon as the yoke of Tito (and the follow on) was removed from the region everyone starting killing each other again. Historically it has been a very violent region filled with ethnic strife. The great powers just exploted that to help control, but it's existence is on the population.

                                                                                                                          • foobarian 96 days ago

                                                                                                                            I think the great powers had more to do with it than that. The Yugoslav region was right at the line between the Ottoman and Byzantine empires, and the Catholic world of the west. The great powers spent centuries turning that region into an elite military culture dedicated to defending against the other side. They stopped the Mongols (or at least the Mongols mysteriously turned around there and went home), they stopped the Turks and they stopped the Russians. And then when Tito was gone, their natural state was to go back to war due to centuries of tradition.

                                                                                                                            • oblio 96 days ago

                                                                                                                              Ethnic strife? Just like the one between Denmark and Sweden for centuries? Or between France and Germany (kind providers of WW1 and WW2)?

                                                                                                                              In my eyes the main difference between those and the Balkans was that the former were mostly allowed to blow themselves up. Peace only came when they got tired of it. In the Balkans they got tired of it in 1999. They couldn't do it earlier because of... empires :)

                                                                                                                              • jessaustin 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                Are you predicting no further horrible violence in the Balkans? In what, the next decade? Any longer than that would be a bold prediction...

                                                                                                                                • oblio 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                  Where would the violence come from? Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Greece are in the EU. Albania and Montenegro have no territorial claims they are pursuing. Macedonia and Kosovo are limping along in a depressing manner but there's no violence there that I know of. Serbia is getting over the Kosovo affair. Bosnia is the only wildcard but I don't think even it can blow up again.

                                                                                                                                  Of course, there are no guarantees in life, but if I were a betting man I'd say that for each extra peaceful year of peace in the Balkans you can add 1 year of peace in the future.

                                                                                                                                  So my forecast is for at least 19 years of peace :)

                                                                                                                          • nickik 96 days ago

                                                                                                                            I disagree. The alliances are fine even if you don't manage it usually they just stop, however that is not the same as war.

                                                                                                                            The reality is simpler, there was a group of people in Austria who wanted war with Serbia, and a group of people in Germany who wanted war with Franz and Russia. Unfortunately for world history those people happen to be in particular places at that time, and so they started the war.

                                                                                                                            It is really that simple, a number of people wanted war, so they started it.

                                                                                                                          • dschuetz 96 days ago

                                                                                                                            A war is always the ultimate escalation of conflict of interests. "Over my dead body" is literally the line, as you said.

                                                                                                                            As for technology, the purpose of a machine or a construct is primarily a solution to problems which made people's lifes difficult. The solutions of technology make people's lifes easier, more secure, but it also bears risks and unsforseen consequences. That's not always that case, as the special case of war clearly show it. War machinery makes people's lifes worse, but it's not the fault of machinery or technologies, it the fault of people waging wars.

                                                                                                                            • dschuetz 96 days ago

                                                                                                                              This discussion on Haber today inspired me to write a short article on whether it's even debatable how to judge his doing in WW I. Especially so the "Over my dead body" and why do wars thoughts, so kudos to you @nickik!

                                                                                                                            • lxmorj 96 days ago

                                                                                                                              The assumption that all things discovered will be discovered elsewhere is reasonable, but still an assumption. I wonder though... how many dangerous ideas have been hidden by their progenitors, never to be rediscovered?

                                                                                                                              • emp_ 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                Adding to an extensive reply list, violence seems to sprout when conversation ends, usually when people will protect ideas from being challenged is a big tell.

                                                                                                                                • nabla9 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                  Is this "I don't get it" just rhetorical question or are you really not getting it and want to understand it?

                                                                                                                                  Rudyard Kipling's writings (before and during WWII) are probably the best source if you want to learn the sentiment that leads to the war.

                                                                                                                                  >million other people decide to also join in this fight

                                                                                                                                  Most people don't get to decide. Most of them are conscripted.

                                                                                                                                  • dsego 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                    I think it's a generational thing. Young people born in time of peace romanticizing great battles, national pride etc. Peace is boring and hard, there are economical struggles, politics, many problems without someone to blame. In war time everything is much clearer, esp. for young boys, they just have to kill the bad guys (the other side) and receive accolades. Of course, the stage is usually already set up by propaganda, schools, one-sided history teaching and so on.

                                                                                                                                    • Quarrelsome 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                      ^^ nobody wants to born into a settled and ordered world. Each generation wants to reshape the previous generations "order".

                                                                                                                                    • verylittlemeat 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                      The United States doesn't conscript soldiers and yet can find hundreds of thousands of infantry soldiers to wage war.

                                                                                                                                      I don't think it's controversial to say that there's way more going on behind the effort to staff an army than threat of punishment from the government. Historically there are many examples of citizens eager to line up and fight for their country (whether for pragmatic or idealistic reasons). This isn't just patriotic rhetoric, it's a very powerful social force once set in motion.

                                                                                                                                      If our species has any enduring trait then violent conflict through war must be pretty close to the top of the list.

                                                                                                                                      • loorinm 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                        Yeah this is kind of my point. I guess I probably don’t get it because I didn’t grow up in a military family. I guess people will do whatever they have to do for money. Because they are poor.

                                                                                                                                        I’m pretty poor too but I feel like I have other options than to put my life in danger.

                                                                                                                                    • zeveb 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                      > I don’t really understand how and why war happens. Like, it starts out as two parties both wanting the same resource, and then somebody says “over my dead body” or something and then a million other people decide to also join in this fight? I do not get it.

                                                                                                                                      Different wars start for different reasons.

                                                                                                                                      The Great War started because the Serbian government financed a small group of separatists in Austria-Hungary, who assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The Austro-Hungarian government naturally objected, and presented the Serbians with an ultimatum essentially demanding the ability to investigate & prosecute anyone involved. Serbia refused, supported by its ally Russia, who mobilised & threatened to invade Austria-Hungary & Germany if either did anything to Serbia.

                                                                                                                                      Due to the military realities of the time, if one country mobilised and another didn't, the former country would be able to take great swathes of territory from the latter before the latter could do anything. So of course with Russia mobilised Germany had to mobilise. And of course with Germany mobilised France had to mobilise too. France, meanwhile, really wanted to take back a piece of territory that Germany had won in 1873 (and France had previously won in 1648 …), so planned to invade Germany as soon as Germany & France's ally Russia were fighting.

                                                                                                                                      The Russian army was large but poor, while France's was smaller but deadly. Faced with a two-front war, the German plan was to hold Russia at bay while defeating France first, then swing to the east and defeat Russia second. However, a fight across the heavily-fortified Franco-German border would have been far too slow to defeat France in a timely fashion, so the Germans planned to go around the French border fortresses by marching through Belgium, never mind that Belgium had not agreed to this plan.

                                                                                                                                      So, Germany invades Belgium, invades France, almost makes it to Paris, gets pushed back, the Brits join the fight, the Western Front solidifies into a four-year stalemate in which roughly 3 million men die and 8 million are wounded; Austria-Hungary invades Serbia but does remarkably poorly; Russia invades Germany & Austria-Hungary; Turkey joins the fray, hoping to reconquer some of the Balkan countries which had won their independence.

                                                                                                                                      Ultimately the victorious Allies assign guilt for the war to Germany, imposing reparations which set the stage for the much nastier Second World War; the monarchs of Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia & Turkey lose their thrones and/or lives; Russia falls to Bolshevik Communism (which sets the stage for the much nastier Second World War); Eastern Europe is broken into a patchwork of states with an unstable ethnic mixture (which sets the stage for the much nastier Second World War); millions die; and the Belle Époque, the highest point of western civilisation, gives way to the horror & madness of the twentieth century, the single bloodiest hundred years mankind's ever seen.

                                                                                                                                      As for the assassin who started it all? Too young to be executed, he wastes away & dies in prison of tuberculosis.

                                                                                                                                      • anvandare 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                        War is the essence of life. Limited resources means any growing system inevitably hits this (carrying) limit. Sooner or later, there are no more unclaimed resources available and you have to start competing with others for access to the resources. Mutation and evolution follows. The only alternative is to open up more resources (like the Haber–Bosch process did) but that's just postponing the inevitable. The amount of (useful) matter and energy in the universe is both finite and decreasing.

                                                                                                                                        • shaki-dora 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                          Population growth has seized in industrialized countries, and is plateauing in others.

                                                                                                                                          Humanity’s foremost achievement is overcoming its biological roots, and any view of the world based on supposedly unchangeable evolutionary mechanisms is deeply flawed.

                                                                                                                                          • gnode 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                            > Humanity’s foremost achievement is overcoming its biological roots

                                                                                                                                            I think we're very far from that. I would say our biological roots are responsible for our individualism, which often doesn't manifest as boundless reproduction, but rather as greed.

                                                                                                                                            • anvandare 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                              The population might plateau, but our resource consumption is still rising. I'd be very surprised if we manage to avert calamity, though I'm quite certain we'll survive it.

                                                                                                                                            • tyfon 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                              Hopefully, we will attain enough collective intelligence eventually that we will be able stop population growth and stop having irrational hatred for other humans.

                                                                                                                                              I am however pessimistic.

                                                                                                                                          • nscalf 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                            If you're interested in this, RadioLab did a great episode on good and evil and really took note of Fritz Haber. It's called The Bad Show. Fritz Haber was a really conflicting character, he seemed extremely patriotic and made a lot of personal sacrifices for his country.

                                                                                                                                            Every time I see someone who is described like that, I have to wonder how much of the disdain we have for him is because that wasn't our country? If we had a brilliant man who invented a solution to the worldwide fear of an impending food shortage, but they also made a disturbing wartime weapon, would we feel the same way?

                                                                                                                                            • aalleavitch 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                              Isn't that basically the case for all the famous men on the Manhattan project?

                                                                                                                                              • wbl 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                They made sacrifices for someone else's country. A lot of them were not US citizens.

                                                                                                                                                • mieseratte 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                  Sure, a whole lot of 'em might have been of foreign origin but that doesn't preclude one from being or becoming an American.

                                                                                                                                              • mieseratte 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                > Every time I see someone who is described like that, I have to wonder how much of the disdain we have for him is because that wasn't our country? If we had a brilliant man who invented a solution to the worldwide fear of an impending food shortage, but they also made a disturbing wartime weapon, would we feel the same way?

                                                                                                                                                He might be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch!

                                                                                                                                              • sampo 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                > The amount of crops one can grow is directly tied to how much nitrogen can be provided.

                                                                                                                                                This is only half true. You also needed to breed new crop varieties that were able to put all that abundance of nitrogen to good use. Older crops varieties, adapted to grow well in the less nitrogen-rich soils, would not simply double their output even when given double nitrogen.

                                                                                                                                                So there is another man, plant breeder Norman Borlaug, who is equally responsible for feeding most of our 8 billion people today.


                                                                                                                                                • zeveb 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                  Wow, the article is full of just enough half-truths that I wonder what its real intent was. You get the impression from it that Germany was the first to use chemical weapons in the Great War — but it wasn't: France started, with the use of tear gas.

                                                                                                                                                  Use of gas projectors did not violate the 1899 Hague Declaration against use of gas-filled projectiles. Use of irritants like chlorine arguably didn't violate the 1904 Hague Convention on use of poison or poisoned weapons (is an irritant a poison? does dosage matter?).

                                                                                                                                                  The first German use of chemical weapons (tear gas, again) was on the Eastern Front, near Warsaw, not at Ypres. I don't know if the use of chlorine at Ypres was intended as an irritant or a poison — it's been too long since I studied the history.

                                                                                                                                                  > As Germany’s population grew along with their economy, the newly formed country became ambitious. The decision was made to further their status in the world by attacking France through Belgium.

                                                                                                                                                  That's a description of the beginning of the Great War so short that it's a lie. It's not as though the Germans woke up one morning and thought, 'hey, let's invade France!' The reason Germany attacked France was that Russia had mobilised on her eastern borders, while France was mobilising to her west (and the belief was that France was the far deadlier foe). This was in an era in which a mobilised army was believed to mean almost certain victory. And the reason that Germany invaded Belgium was that the French frontier was too heavily fortified. As it turned out, that was a good operational decision but an extraordinarily poor strategic one: while the German Army almost got to Paris, violation of Belgian neutrality led to Britain's entry into the war.

                                                                                                                                                  • Symmetry 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                    The Germans argued at the time that their use of poison gas didn't violate the Hague Convention because they released it from dispensers on the ground rather than from gas-filled projectiles. But that was seen as a technicality by the Allies and the whole convention quickly went out the window.

                                                                                                                                                    • jessaustin 96 days ago


                                                                                                                                                      Has anyone other than you argued that chlorine gas is not poisonous?

                                                                                                                                                    • perfmode 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                      > Billions of people would not exist without him

                                                                                                                                                      As if this is a gift. A big assumption to make. More and more, I am taking to the anti-natalist viewpoint.

                                                                                                                                                    • jumbopapa 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                      Oh yeah, I heard about this guy on the Joe Rogan Experience!

                                                                                                                                                    • xefer 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                      The great Vaclav Smil wrote about the Haber process and its relationship to world population in a Scientific American article in 1997:


                                                                                                                                                      It sort of blew my mind when I read it back then

                                                                                                                                                      • baybal2 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                        Haber was a true giant.

                                                                                                                                                        Nobody out people there would've lived without him inventing a process that lead to first generation chemical fertilizers.

                                                                                                                                                        An invention I rank second to invention of fire in history of our species.

                                                                                                                                                        (third being the metallurgy)

                                                                                                                                                        Yet, the man is unknown to non-chemist, and some anthropologists

                                                                                                                                                        • PeterMikhailov 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                          Did Erling Johnson's work build on this?


                                                                                                                                                          • mmirate 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                            Quite obviously the billions of people outweigh the millions of soldiers.

                                                                                                                                                            • turc1656 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                              "Great and good are seldom the same man."

                                                                                                                                                              • abainbridge 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                > Fritz Haber set that future by on a different course by solving one of the greatest problems humanity ever faced: How to feed the world.

                                                                                                                                                                He didn't solve it. He just delayed the problem for a while. Solving it requires stopping the exponential growth of the human population.

                                                                                                                                                                • cdoxsey 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                  A lot of people don't know this but birth rates have fallen dramatically:


                                                                                                                                                                  We will soon have the opposite problem in many countries - an aging population with no base of support.

                                                                                                                                                                  • nabla9 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                    Human population is not growing exponentially anymore. Human population growth rate peaked 1962 at 2.1%, and it has been slowing down since.

                                                                                                                                                                    Even remaining population growth is a big problem, but using he word 'exponentially' to describe growth that is slowing down and is most likely sublinear is not accurate.

                                                                                                                                                                    • abainbridge 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                      Yes, sorry, you are right. I still think we might have a nicer planet if Fritz had invented a (humane) way to prevent the exponential population growth we had in the 20th century, instead of a way to support it.

                                                                                                                                                                  • stevespang 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                    Thanks for posting this, I was not aware of this CRIME.

                                                                                                                                                                    • 23443463455 96 days ago

                                                                                                                                                                      It's interesting what a white wash of the monster this piece is. Get the bad out of the way so the "good" can clear the conscience. When do we start applying this technique to the Nazis?