Evil Men, by James Dawes

A study based on interviews with Japanese war criminals is also a larger meditation on the nature of atrocities

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 12:31


Book Title:
Evil Men


James Dawes

Harvard University Press

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Several years ago – we’re not told exactly when – James Dawes, a professor of English at Macalester College, in Minnesota, travelled to Japan to interview a number of elderly men. They were former doctors and farmers, factory workers and teachers; Japanese men who married, raised families and, in their retirement years, read books, played with their grandchildren and generally did the things we expect of pleasant old folk. Dawes had arrived in Japan, however, not to research Tokyo’s geriatric care or the workings of Kyoto’s nursing homes. He had come to interview these men because, in their youth and as members of the Japanese imperial army, they had perpetrated horrific war crimes.

Compared to the vast literature on Nazi atrocities, Japanese war crimes have barely registered on the cultural landscape. There have been notable exceptions. Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking , John Dower’s Embracing Defeat and Ian Buruma’s The Wages of Guilt stand out as excellent treatments of the history and legacy of Japan’s wartime atrocities. Still, while books on the Holocaust and related Nazi acts could stock a library, barely a shelf would be needed to accommodate the modest literature on Japanese wartime crimes.

Such neglect goes beyond mere oversight. The casual visitor to Germany cannot help but be impressed with Germany’s attempts aggressively and forthrightly to engage in the process called Vergangenheitsbewältigung , or confronting the past.

Japan’s record, by contrast, could charitably be described as woeful. Not long ago I spoke in Kyoto about the Nuremberg trial to an audience of Japanese legal scholars and university students, typically a group characterised by progressive and informed thinking. When my remarks briefly turned from Nazi to Japanese crimes, my hosts patiently waited to correct my mistakes. The rape of Nanking? Admittedly regrettable, but grossly misreported in foreign accounts. The casualty figures that I’d cited? Terrible exaggerations. Chinese civilian deaths? Yes, of course, but civilians often suffer in attacks against legitimate military targets.

On first blush Dawes’s Evil Men presents itself as a welcome corrective to the silence and denial that to this day surround Japanese war crimes. Dawes’s interviewees describe with remarkable candour how they would strap Chinese men to trees to use them for bayonet practice, and terrorise Chinese women who had smeared their faces and bodies with excrement in a desperate attempt to fend off mass rapes. Yet their candour is not entirely surprising, for, as Dawes reminds us, this is no ordinary group of aging perpetrators. These are all former members of the Chukiren, a well-known and not uncontroversial association of Japanese anti-war veterans.

In the immediate postwar period, 1,100 suspected Japanese war criminals were interned in Siberia before their transfer to a prison in China. In China the detainees awaited their execution; to their astonishment they received good food, comfortable quarters and generally humane treatment. Also, they were subjected to an elaborate programme of “thought reform”, which for many led to a religious-like conversion and a repudiation of their past values and selves. Once repatriated to Japan, the Chukiren (an abbreviation for the Association of Returnees from China) devoted themselves to documenting the crimes of imperial Japan and to fostering friendship with China. They became professional witnesses to their own acts of atrocity.

The perpetrator narratives make for a disturbing read, particularly as Evil Men leaves them without mooring or context. We learn little about the Chukiren’s later reception in Japan and virtually nothing about the members’ backgrounds or postrepatriation lives. We encounter them only as names and through their testimonials.

Instead Dawes enlists these stories in a larger meditation on the nature of evil and atrocity. What causes men to engage in evil acts? Can there be apology and forgiveness in the wake of such crimes? What specifically do we learn from perpetrators’ stories? Do they enable understanding and facilitate prevention or do they simply satisfy voyeuristic desires?

A great deal has been written about these questions, and rather than hazard definitive answers Dawes reflects on the meaning and adequacy of the explanations that philosophers, psychologists and historians have offered. Inserting himself in his narrative, he skilfully summarises a broad, complex literature, offering a particularly clear and concise discussion of theodicy, the attempt to reconcile the existence of evil with God’s benevolence and omnipotence.

Things begin to go awry, however, with Dawes’s comparison of evil and humane behaviour. While resisting the temptation to reduce altruism to simply another, more refined form of self-interest, Dawes nonetheless notes the “astonishing symmetry” of the processes that lead men to behave atrociously and ethically. If atrocity is often the product of “escalating commitments” – by which small bad acts pave the way to much bolder gestures – so, too, he insists, is altruism, as our willingness to engage in risky self-sacrifice is prepared by earlier, more modest displays. Whatever else we might think about this claim, it seems needlessly forced: Dawes’s observation that rescuers and perpetrators routinely “characterise their behaviour in the language of duress” unhelpfully conflates the perceived coercion to obey or conform that perpetrators recount and the feelings of internal obligation that rescuers describe.

Still, the claim raises a deeper question: what do we hope to gain by attending to the alleged symmetries between behaving depravedly and ethically? Dawes could assert that a possible pay-off is pedagogic; in his words, we might learn to “think strategically about the ways to morally optimise human behaviour”. But Dawes remains sceptical about such a project and openly worries that such normative modelling reduces us to “abstract persons, depersonalised expressions of a behavioural principle”.

This spirit of scepticism and worry percolates out, infecting Dawes’s book in its entirety. Early on, he describes a talk on his project that he gave in South Korea: “A friend . . . teased me afterward, saying I spent most of my time apologising for what I was doing, apologising for trying to understand perpetrators . . . for presuming to put atrocity and trauma into words . . . And then, in what approached neurotic comedy, I spent time apologising for apologising.”

What might have succeeded as neurotic comedy in a lecture hall ultimately makes for frustrating reading, as Dawes clutters his narrative with a metanarrative, a fulsome, handwringing display of worry about the ethics and efficacy of his project. Given the smug tone of objectivity that most academic titles project, Dawes’s spirit of ambivalence is not altogether unwelcome. But in a book that inventories the confessions and apologies of war criminals, Dawes’s acutely self-conscious acts of confession and apology – his airing of all his doubts about the book we hold before us – begin to sound self-indulgent and gimmicky. In smaller doses such displays of misgiving and ambivalence might have refined and enriched his discussion. As it is they become an annoying distraction, in the end turning a thoughtful meditation on the nature and meaning of atrocity into a postured mea culpa on the presumed futility of writing on a crucial, if fraught, topic.

Lawrence Douglas is the James J Grosfeld professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College in the US. His most recent book, The Vices , was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in 2011. His other books include The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust .