Evil Men by James Dawes

Joanna Bourke reflects on torturers, murderers and the paradoxes of portraying suffering and trauma

May 30, 2013

“I didn’t want to kill any kids. [silence] When I shot kids, I would shoot them blindly. I would close my eyes and do it. I thought it would be bad luck if I stabbed them…I was using a machine gun, so it was just rata-tat-tat-tat.”

As readers, what are we to do when we read such testimony? Can torture narratives teach us anything? Isn’t the endless circling around stories of atrocities a form of obscenity itself? When does the fight for justice and truth end and human rights pornography begin? Evil Men is painful to read. Horror and terror are etched into every page. Atrocities are reflected upon - sometimes calmly; other times with cold fury. The book’s author, James Dawes, forces us to think carefully about the ethics of telling stories - true ones - about acts of staggering cruelty. Disturbingly, it is a book about friendship, too. When we are brought face to face with men who raped, tortured and murdered men, women and children, where should we look? Straight into their eyes, he advises.

Dawes is director of the Program of Human Rights and Humanitarianism at Macalester College in Minnesota. A few years ago, he interviewed a group of war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War. They were all members of Chukiren, an association of veterans who seek to break the silence about Japanese war crimes. By the time Dawes interviewed them, they were elderly, frail men who realised that talking to this American academic might be their last opportunity to bear witness to the atrocities they committed while serving in the Imperial Japanese Army. They were desperate to warn the world about the horrors of all wars.

Dawes is also a professor of English literature. He has a nuanced understanding of narrative techniques. All writing is a form of manipulation, he insists. He deliberately cuts up his interviews. He purposely and often unpredictably moves between first-person narrative voices and philosophical abstractions. He zooms backwards and forwards. One moment we are plunged into the heart of horror; the next, we find ourselves sitting precariously in a philosopher’s seat, musing on 18th- century theories of sensibilities. When he embeds brutal testimony in the middle of descriptions of sharing food, exchanging gifts and meeting the families of perpetrators, he warns us that he is deliberately attempting to disorientate us. It works.

But Evil Men is about much more than the need to “bear witness” to atrocities. Indeed, most of the book contains reflections about the paradoxes of representing suffering and trauma. Might it be voyeuristic? Isn’t there a risk that talking about cruelty ends up inflicting it? The victims have been silenced: why should we give a platform to their persecutors? What is “lost in translation” - not only in translating from Japanese to English but also translating across the passage of time and geographical space? Were these men monsters? Or truly human?

Dawes is profoundly sensitive to the militarist politics of his own culture as well. No one is absolved of responsibility. After all, in the aftermath of the war, the US government granted immunity from prosecution to 3,600 members of the notorious Unit 731. In this “research facility”, Japanese researchers and technicians had conducted a vast programme dedicated to developing biological weapons, including bubonic plague, anthrax, cholera, smallpox, gangrene, typhus and typhoid. More than 10,000 prisoners were experimented on. Prisoners of war and Chinese victims were frozen, placed inside pressure chambers to see how long it took before their eyeballs popped from their sockets, and tied to stakes and bombarded with test weapons. Children as young as three years of age served as “experimental subjects”. Some prisoners underwent vivisection without anaesthetic in order to test the effects of poisonous microbes on their bodies.

After the war, the US military argued that the results of these experiments were scientifically useful. They even paid the Japanese scientists for their “data”. As one American researcher said in an attempt to justify this decision, “such information could not be obtained in our laboratories because of the scruples attached to human experimentation. These data were secured with a total outlay of ¥250,000 ($695 today), a mere pittance by comparison with the actual cost of the studies.” The suffering of the victims was priceless.

Carefully, but with an underlying fury, Dawes explores the excuses and explanations for atrocious behaviour. Not only, it turns out, was cruelty facilitated by the use of language, but shifts in language constituted an integral part of the barbarisation process itself. In the face of mass killing, words were perverted. It was important to encourage the fiction that the people being killed were not really human. They were “pigs” or “cockroaches”, for example. Killing was reconceptualised as “action”, “severe measures”, “reprisal action”, “rendering harmless”, “evacuating” or “giving special treatment”. Rape was “forced love” or “involuntary prostitution”. Connections between people suddenly dissolved as languages that used to connect them broke down. Listening to perpetrators explaining their actions, it is impossible not to conclude that exceptional cruelty must be inevitable: there are so many explanations for atrocities that it often seems difficult to imagine a world without them.

In part, the book exemplifies the poet John Keats’ notion of “negative capability” or the “capacity to experience uncertainty, mystery, and doubt, and to remain open to them, to resist the impulse to reduce everything to familiar terms and categories that we can control”. This does make for a complex, albeit totally absorbing and brilliant book. Dawes writes with the knowledge of uncertainty. He also writes with intimacy. He addresses his readers individually and directly. He wants us to respond. But he knows that he cannot offer any clear solutions.

As a consequence, this is the glummest book I have read in many years. Dawes clearly struggles to present a positive message. Is there no hope for humanity? Dawes wants to answer “yes”. He insists that “for every powerful and structural force driving us towards inhuman treatment of others, there are equally powerful and structural forces available to us to promote prosocial behavior”. The problem lies in two of those words: there are powerful forces “driving” people to cruelty while altruistic forces are simply “available” to us.

Dawes does profess to believe that storytelling can provide a way of imagining other (and better) worlds. This is not because people innately want to be good. It may not even be the case that people instinctively feel sympathy when seeing others suffer. After all, suffering is routinely turned into exquisite spectacle. Sympathetic witness to cruelty actually requires the suffering body. As the philosopher Edmund Burke observed as long ago as 1757, people “have a degree of delight…in the real misfortunes and pains of others”. Terror could be “a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close”, he mused.

But Dawes urges us (and himself) not to be too cynical. “There is a deep satisfaction, a sorrowful joy,” he writes, “that comes from the experience of solidarity in suffering, from sharing one’s grief and feeling the weight of another’s.” I really hope he is right.

The author

James Dawes, professor of US and comparative literature at Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota, was born in and raised Virginia. “Is that like coming from Norfolk?” he asks slyly.

He now lives in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St Paul with his wife Zehra and sons Mikey and Topher. “I would like to have a fun pastime or hobby. But I have small children instead.”

“I love the Twin Cities,” Dawes enthuses, “because only people from the Twin Cities know how great it is. Which feels like being in a secret club. I’ve always wanted to be in a secret club.”

“If I could pick anywhere in the world to live other than the Twin Cities, it would be Cambridge in England. To live there is to experience grandeur even when doing things as humdrum as picking up the mail. I met my wife there. Don’t tell her this, but I think part of the reason I fell in love with her was just because every setting I saw her in was so beautiful. Come to think of it, that’s probably why she found me attractive. Hmm…”

Dawes was not a studious child. “But I admired my older brother terribly, and he was studious. So at some point I started trying to copy him by being studious. That’s when I discovered reading for pleasure - and then I was doomed. It was like an addiction. Fortunately, it is a socially acceptable addiction.”

For the interviews he carried out in Japan for Evil Men, Dawes used the services of interpreters. He says: “Relying upon an interpreter was a drawback that became a benefit. The question of evil itself is a question of interpretation: how do you understand atrocities like that? How do you explain them? Writing the book, I found myself asking those questions while simultaneously asking the very same questions about the process of writing the book itself - that is, how did we literally interpret each other? It raised incredibly interesting, complicated, messy questions.

The fact that Dawes was an American interviewing Japanese veterans “made things more complicated and therefore more interesting. Here I was, asking these men about war crimes they had committed, including the widespread use of torture, at precisely the time my own nation was occupying Iraq and trying to come to grips with its own widespread use of torture.”

The men he interviewed for this book “have struggled for decades to find a way to live with themselves, to justify the fact that they are still living. I am merely a witness. They did make one request of me and I’ve tried to honour it. They wanted me to write a book that would put people up close, nose-against-the-glass close, to the truth of what war is. So some of the stories are shocking. But I’m not interested in shock. Shock is a fleeting, disempowering emotion, and it’s unethical to use somebody’s trauma for shock value. I did not want to write up a pornography of evil.”

“One of the things that haunts them still is how they used to talk,” Dawes observes. “They’re very aware that part of what made them into monsters was the language they used: from the casual racist and misogynistic epithets to the euphemisms we all use to make the language of war taste less bitter in our mouths. It frightens them when they see other countries doing this. They know that such clichéd language is a way of preparing us for violence.”

Karen Shook

Evil Men

By James Dawes
Harvard University Press, 280pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780674072657 and 73975 (e-book)
Published 30 May 2013

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