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James Dawes describes the complexity of war criminals in ‘Evil Men’

For “Evil Men,” the author spent hours in the company of convicted war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War.

James Dawes, a professor of English and the director of the program of Human Rights and Humanitarianism at Macalester College, has immersed himself in a study of genocide, war and atrocity, and has written three books on the topic.
Courtesy of Macalester

We are a society obsessed with evil. Real-life horrors are continuously delivered to us via the news, and because that’s somehow not enough, we consume crime novels, or violent movies and games — just for fun.

“If we are fortunate enough to live lives of banality, where we are safe, and there’s no high stakes, we seek the experience of high stakes through voyeurism,” says writer and Macalester professor James Dawes. “But on the other hand, you might say that all of our lives are difficult and complicated, and we seek emblematic tales of suffering because they help us understand our own suffering, and coming to grips with one’s grief can be quite powerful.”

That schism, between telling stories about evil not for the pleasure they might provide but for the solace they might give, is a strange undercurrent that almost prevented Dawes from writing “Evil Men” (Harvard University Press), a book that explores the deep complexity that exists in people who commit acts that would be defined as evil.

Dawes, a professor of English and the director of the program of Human Rights and Humanitarianism at Macalester College, has immersed himself in a study of genocide, war and atrocity, and has written three books on the topic. For “Evil Men,” he spent hours in the company of convicted war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War, listening to them recount their role in horror scenes of rape, torture, murder and vivisection. It is not a book for the faint of heart.

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“I’m not interested in shock as an emotion. It’s disempowering and unethical to use people’s experiences to shock others. The victims and the survivors deserve more than our fleeting shock. There is a sort of pornography of evil, which exists for the pleasure some people take in shocking stories, and I very much did not want to contribute to that,” he said in an interview.

evil men

Dawes has a heightened awareness about the ethical issues involved in talking about atrocity, borne of years of experience with human rights workers, and from his marriage to a woman who comes from a country that has experienced recent turmoil and human rights abuses.

“One day I was with her, listening to a group of human rights workers talk, and the literary critic part of me suddenly realized that it was a form of storytelling,” he said. “The primary work of human rights workers is to get the story out, let it be effective, and understand the interior structure behind the situation. That was a turning point for me, I realized that I needed to let these amazing people tell their amazing stories.”

Sought to write accessible account

Dawes said most books about atrocity have been written by scholars, and he wanted to write something more accessible.

“If this book could be something that helps us all understand genocide and atrocity, what causes these things, maybe that could help us all prevent these things from happening,” he said. The result is an almost conversational treatment of the topic, in which Dawes intersperses a series of casual interviews with Japanese soldiers with a narrative about his own very complicated reactions to the stories he hears. On one hand, he develops near-friendships with the interviewees, whom he views as “sweet old men.” But he must reconcile that present reality with the deeds they committed in the past.

“I’ve done a lot of work with human rights workers and survivors of various sorts, and I thought that this wouldn’t be different or difficult. But the difference, once I was face to face with these men, was the difference between knowing with my heart and knowing with my stomach. It changed me, it confused me. It was almost a sense of vertigo, moving evil from a cognitive concept to an emotionally lived experience.”

As a parent, Dawes had particular difficulty hearing stories that involved children. “Everyone has their own special nightmares, but the ones that involved children really affected me — I have small children. It affected them too. They were able to talk about terrible violence against women casually, but they had some difficultly confessing the things they did to children.”

They’re grandfathers now

Perhaps the most shocking thing in the book is the ordinariness of these men. They are grandfathers now, and Dawes visits them in their homes, meets their families, and understands that they did not set out to be evil — they were pulled into an extreme situation and responded to it with evil acts. In other words, they could be any of us. And anyone could do the things they did. Evil is just one step away from ordinary, and sometimes it is an impulsive, or casual, or simply immature act. It occurs in home and communities, in situations of war, or situations of perceived war, and it always captures our attention, as we strive to understand it.

“I have quite a lot of friends in Boston, and I was somewhat surprised at how quickly so many people moved to a position of sympathy for the younger brother [in the Boston Marathon bombings]. Which is not to say you have to be forgiving or that you can’t have sympathy without an understanding of evil. But it’s a really complicated thing to draw a difference between good and evil, pure and unpure, that which should be preserved and that which should be destroyed.”

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This book began as a letter to his wife, says Dawes [and she said that his next book should perhaps be about puppies]. In the end, Dawes said absorbing the stories of evil men should make it difficult to carry on with full, naïve hope, but instead motivated him to write a book that might help us understand, and change.

“There are certain moments when it seems clear that we are a species doomed to self-eradicate,” he said. “But as a parent, you know there are moments we have every day that show our capacity for care and empathy that transcends our own self-interest. And this is so deep and felt so intensely, every moment, that there’s got to be something we can do.” And so he finished the book.