World War II is over

December 8, 2013: This post has been updated in line, with a link to my thoughts on F. A. Hayek. The essay in question—I’m stopping short of calling it a book review, because I have only read most of the book, not all of it—had not been written at the time this post was originally published.

I was born in 1959, about 14 years after the end of World War II. I grew up during the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, in San Francisco’s Richmond District, I wasn’t very far from the Summer of Love as it played out in the Haight-Ashbury and in Golden Gate Park. World War II was an event of my grandparents’ generation; my father would have been ten years old when it ended, my mother five. So that particular war doesn’t carry much immediacy for me. It’s a bit like the Great Depression of the 1930s. I am much more concerned with the current wars and the current economic upheaval.

I have been troubled over the years as I have heard about old Nazi concentration guards being captured in other countries and sent back for trial. These men, at least as I remember their stories, had lived peaceful years for decades after committing heinous crimes, under orders, but heinous nonetheless. It all seems rather pointless to me, even as efforts continue to locate and try 90-year old men.[1] At some point, I think, you have to let go.

It isn’t that simple, of course. Albert Memmi writes both of the tragic history, the curse of being a Jew, and the solidarity it inspires, the blessing.[2] The Jews faced pogrom after pogrom in Europe; now some of them replicate their own repression in persecuting Palestinians.[3] Victimization leads to victimization; the chain of brutality is often not so much a pointless cycle of revenge as it is a succession of killing, spread across generations.

And my recent studies point to just how traumatic the experience of World War II must have been. Social movement theory was obsessed with trying to understand the rise of Nazis in Germany, so much so that scholars in the field overlooked the rise of conservatism that was happening right under their noses,[4] and continued to regard the protest cycle of the 1960s, “a ‘long decade’ stretching almost twenty years from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s,”[5] as a form of deviance. Resource mobilization theory, by which elites might insinuate that they should keep people as desperately poor as possible so as to limit uprisings, was the theory of that particular moment, casting protesters at universities as having too much time on their hands, too much money, and not enough appreciation for the education system that had been built for their benefit. It wasn’t until the late 1970s, with political process theory, that social movement scholars even began to consider social movements as possibly being the result of legitimate grievances.[6]

Now, as I focus on my dissertation topic, and the essays that will qualify me for candidacy, I am reading F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Here again is the trauma of World War II and the Nazi era in Germany. For Hayek, the range of political possibility begins with strict hierarchy (such as in a feudal system or as in Nazism) and ends with economic “freedom.” Hayek complains, with some justification, that he has been misunderstood, that many who cite him, detractors and admirers alike, have obviously not read his book.[7] I know the feeling,[8] and I’m sure to have more to say about Hayek later (Update, December 8, 2013: see here), probably in my research journal as I read more (at the least, I expect to include him in the qualifying essay I’m now working on).

For now, I’m thinking about the war. It, of course, is a war that some attribute, at least in part, to the hardships and the humiliation imposed on the German people by the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I.[9] But when we look at World War I, we look at an utterly pointless war that had no cause other than the machinations of elites. It was a war that ended two empires: the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian. It most directly, except for the creation of Israel itself, laid the seeds for the disaster that is the Middle East as we know it today.[10] World War I exemplifies my argument that a principle preoccupation of elites is an often violent contest over which among them will control which territories, the people on those territories, and the resources within those territories.[11]

But while even 60 years after the fact of their crimes, we pursue old concentration camp guards, elites now seem immune, at least as long as they are protected by sufficiently powerful nations, as most recently illustrated with Obama’s refusal to prosecute the Bush administration for its war crimes.[12] Indeed, judging by Obama’s own conduct and the conduct of his administration, the prerogative to engage in criminal acts must be preserved at all costs.[13] That is to say, the prerogative to kill on a vast scale for power, to add ever more links to a chain of mass violence, is essential to the identity of the political elite.

  1. [1]Ian Johnston and Andy Eckardt, “Never too late: Nazi hunters tirelessly pursue 50 elderly Auschwitz war criminals,” NBC News, May 12, 2013,
  2. [2]Albert Memmi, Portrait of a Jew, trans. Elisabeth Abbott (1962; repr., New York: Viking, 1971).
  3. [3]Avigail Abarbanel, “A change needs to come,” Electronic Intifada, May 25, 2008,
  4. [4]George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
  5. [5]Steven M. Buechler, Understanding Social Movements: Theories from the Classical Era to the Present (Boulder: Paradigm, 2011), 109.
  6. [6]Buechler, Understanding Social Movements
  7. [7]F. A. Hayek, The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, ed. Bruce Caldwell, vol. 2, The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents; The Definitive Edition (1944; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007).
  8. [8]David Benfell, “Diverging paths,” Not Housebroken, November 11, 2013,
  9. [9]Paul S. Boyer, Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, Neal Salisbury, Harvard Sitkoff, and Nancy Woloch, The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People, Dolphin ed., vol. 2 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).
  10. [10]David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace (New York: Henry Holt, 1989); Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage, 1989).
  11. [11]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works’,” March 15, 2012,
  12. [12]Glenn Greenwald, “Obama’s justice department grants final immunity to Bush’s CIA torturers,” Guardian, August 31, 2012,; Elizabeth Holtzman, “Statutes of Limitations Are Expiring on Some Bush Crimes,” Nation, March 20, 2013,; Stephanie Nebehay, “U.N. investigator urges U.S. to pursue Bush-era abuses,” Reuters, February 25, 2013,
  13. [13]Nasser al-Awlaki, “The Drone That Killed My Grandson,” New York Times, July 17, 2013,; Amnesty International, “‘Will I be Next?’ US Drone Strikes in Pakistan,” October 22, 2013,; David Benfell, “N.S.A. scandal timeline,” November 7, 2013,; Jon Boone, “US drone strikes could be classed as war crimes, says Amnesty International,” Guardian, October 21, 2013,; Owen Bowcott, “UN to examine UK and US drone strikes,” Guardian, January 23, 2013,; Rosa Brooks, “Can Obama finally make the legal case for his war on terror?” Foreign Policy, May 23, 2013,; Steve Coll, “Kill or Capture: Obama’s Troubling Targeted-Killing Policy,” New Yorker, August 2, 2012,; Glenn Greenwald, “Repulsive Progressive Hypocrisy,” Salon, February 8, 2012,; Human Rights Watch, “‘Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda’: The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen,” October 2013,; Chase Madar, “How Dystopian Secrecy Contributes to Clueless Wars: Bradley Manning Has Done More for U.S. Security than SEAL Team 6,” TomDispatch, June 11, 2013,; Eugene Robinson, “President Obama’s immoral drone war,” Washington Post, December 2, 2013,; Mark Schone, “White House admits killing civilians with drone strikes, denies breaking law,” NBC News, October 22, 2013,; Declan Walsh and Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud, “Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes Cited in Report,” New York Times, October 22, 2013,

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