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James Dawes: Why Do People Commit Atrocities? (INTERVIEW)

A Japanese soldier poses with the head of a Chinese prisoner.

The human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our capacity to imagine other people is very small.

--Elizabeth Scarry, For Love of Country?

Most Americans know little of Japanese war crimes perpetrated in China during the Second World War. In the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Japanese troops tortured, raped and murdered Chinese men, women and children, as Japanese scientists conducted horrific medical procedures on living human subjects at facilities such as the notorious Unit 731, a covert research center for biological and chemical experimentation in northeast China.

In his new book Evil Men (Harvard University Press), Dr. James Dawes tells the personal story of his interviews with admitted war criminals in Japan and how the comments of these men sparked his wider contemplation of the human capacity for violence and cruelty. The interviewees were all members of the Chukiren, a group of veterans committed to breaking the silence about Japanese crimes of war. By the time they shared their stories, the men were all old and frail -- and generous hosts of Dr. Dawes.

In the book, Dr. Dawes presents a collage of sorts, interspersing the veterans’ horrific descriptions of their crimes with his own reactions to their often disorienting hospitality and friendliness, to discussions of literature on the making of monsters, and to reflections on the roots of human violence and evil.

Readers have praised Dr. Dawes for his thought provoking and deeply felt book. Harvard Law Professor Noah R. Feldman commented on Evil Men: “This extraordinary book is by turns horrifying, enraging, and disturbing. Dawes both brings us into the thought world of criminals against humanity and simultaneously reminds us of the impossibility of entering anyone’s mind with any kind of confidence. Evil Men grapples with the impossible challenge of making meaning of what it sees; but most important, Dawes’s gaze never wavers.” And John Gray wrote in the Literary Review: “Ranging across philosophy, literature and social science, Evil Men deploys a variety of sources -- Augustine’s account of evil as the privation of good; Thomas Hardy’s poetry on the ‘Vast Imbecility’ that seems to inhere in the nature of things; and sociological studies of police torturers, among others -- to produce a careful and sensitive exploration of some of the many different questions, not all answerable, that are posed by the ‘problem of evil.’”

Dr. Dawes teaches American and comparative literature at Macalester College. His other books include That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity and The Language of War. He is the founder of the Program in Human Rights and Humanitarianism at Macalester College. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard University and his M. Phil. from Cambridge University.

He recently talked by telephone about his book and his research from his office in Minnesota. 

Robin Lindley: How did you come to take up human rights work and how did that lead to your new book Evil Men?

Dr. James Dawes: It started with my personal life. In my professional life, I was a literary critic in training in a postdoctoral fellowship. I was involved with a woman who became my wife who comes from a country that had a difficult and troubled history of human rights violations. We had a number of friends who were doing human rights work there. I can remember one night where the personal and professional seemed to finally come together, and I realized that the work I was doing as a literary scholar -- basically learning about the interior structure of stories -- was relevant to the human rights work they were doing. We were in Turkey, in Ankara, with this group of people who were doing human rights work related to the conflict with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] and we were talking about what they had been through. It was late and hot and they were smoking and everyone was opening up in ways they hadn’t before.

I realized they had these amazing stories that should be told, and also that the work they were doing was storytelling. They were telling stories to get attention, to get into prisons, to persuade political figures to do things.

That moment became my second book -- a big change from the literary theory I'd been writing about before. Once that happened, it all became tightly connected. The world of human rights work is really quite small. The regular world is governed by six degrees of separation, and the world of human rights is governed by one or two degrees of separation.

This book Evil Men came out because of people I met and got to know with the second book. These men in Japan wanted a Western writer to take their confessions and they were in contact with a photographer, Adam Nadel, who contacted me.

Most Americans probably don’t know much about Japanese war crimes other than perhaps the treatment of Allied POWs during World War II. How did you decide to talk with former Japanese veterans of the war with China?

I hesitate to say it was because of my friendships, but that’s how it came to me. Adam was involved in doing work that put him in touch with the Chukiren, a group of confessed Japanese war criminals, and they were eager to find an American writer. They had spent decades in Japan trying to get the story out, and I think they felt relatively unsuccessful. There was resistance to hearing their story. They thought that getting to a Western writer would make a difference.

What were some of the crimes these men admitted? I don’t think most Americans are familiar with the medical experiments the Japanese performed on human subjects in Unit 731.

The first thing to say is that they were sweet men. They are now grandfathers, husbands and fathers, and they were lovely to be around, and they were before the war too, it appears. One was a philosophy professor who studied, of all things, ethics.

These were not pathological monsters. They were decent men. They were turned into monsters.

There are two kinds of monstrosity when we think of war. One kind is the common barbarism of combat conditions that, through stress and long-term brutalization, cause people to do things like murder and sometimes torture civilians. A number of them had those stories, and they’re haunting and terrifying, especially the ones about children. I suppose for anyone who raises children it’s hard to [read] in the book about the shooting and killing of children.

The other kind [of monstrosity] is diabolical, careful, cunning, calm barbarism. Unit 731 is maybe the most notorious example of that. There were others. There were people who were vivisectionists who were not at Unit 731.

Basically, [Unit 731] was a whole industry of people working over the years to create biological weapons, to use kidnapped civilians as human guinea pigs to find out what would happen if you were subjected to different air pressures, or if you were suffocated, or if your arm was frozen and shattered, or if horse urine was injected into your kidneys, or what your body looks like at various stages if infected with syphilis. They’d infect people with syphilis and vivisect them at different stages to see what the organs looked like.

You name it. It was a horror show and these men did that. One of the men I met was not at Unit 731, but he was a vivisectionist who basically had strapped captured living Chinese people to tables and then, without anesthesia -- because they didn’t want to waste anesthesia on Chinese people -- he’d amputate limbs, resect bowels, all sorts of things, as a matter of medical training and practice. All of these people died in pain. And he did it with pride as a doctor, with a skill that would contribute to what he saw as the greater good.

And this man, while we interviewed him, was a doctor to us when a person traveling with us became sick. In Japan we didn’t have a way into the medical system, so we went to this former vivisectionist and got him to provide medical care. There was this astonishing gulf between what he is now and what he was then. It was hard to make sense of.

How did the U.S. authorities react to the atrocities at Unit 731? Didn’t the U.S. authorities find the physicians and scientists at the unit immune from any prosecution because they had performed valuable experiments?

They made deals because the information was considered useful. I suppose it was one of those deals with the devil that happen in wartime. They believed that the information you could get from those appalling experiments could be useful. For the worse if the Russians got hold of it, for the better if we got hold of it.

So the US didn’t prosecute these scientists of Unit 731?

The U.S. granted immunity in exchange for information. In Japan many went on to eminent careers in business and health. It’s one of those great shames that doesn’t get discussed.

The men you interviewed weren’t psychopaths. You indicate that they committed evil acts because of their situation and they later regretted those acts. According to Hannah Arendt, Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi mastermind of mass murder, lacked any sense of remorse.

These men are a contrast to Eichmann in the sense that they were capable of remorse. In some ways -- they are old now, and many have died since we were there -- the only reason some kept getting up in the morning was because they wanted to live out their remorse and tell of what they’d done. They weren’t like Eichmann who said he would go laughing to his grave because of what he’d done. I think these men -- unlike prominent Nazi doctors, for instance -- have sincerely attempted to face what they've done and to bear what portion of the shame and sorrow of it that they can.

There was recently a video that went viral on the web [showing] a Syrian rebel who cut out the heart of a soldier and bit into it while others chanted around him. People look at that, and the easiest response is that this is somebody outside the pale of being human, to say to yourself: that’s somebody I could never be like. But I'm not sure that's true. The scary truth is that it doesn’t take a monster. The great majority of even the most appalling crimes have been committed by people like me and you who were taken at a young age and processed through a system that creates monsters.

Your approach to the subject of evil is humble and you’re very self-effacing. It must have been awkward to be an American in Japan when the U.S. was accused of atrocities in wars in the Middle East.

One of the things that happened to me is that often there would be a check -- they would ask a question to figure out whether we were pro-war at the height of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, or whether we had the capacity to look critically upon our own practices. These Japanese men are now evangelical pacifists and they did not have much patience or time for people who could not see beyond their own nationalism.

It’s fascinating that these men were willing to share their knowledge of war crimes in a nation that prefers to forget this history and certainly doesn’t welcome their words.

It’s better than it was. There’s now argument and discussion. But even at the highest level, truly distressing things are said and done. Just think of the mayor of Osaka’s recent comments about comfort women. But it's true that there is more discussion than there used to be. What’s striking, though, at least at the level I saw, is how often it’s just not thought about or discussed by your average kid in Japan.

I had a Japanese translator for the transcriptions, and she had all of these tapes. She was astonished and she began suffering symptoms of depression. And her parents found the tapes and listened to them and became upset. Not at what had been done, but at the fact that she was involved in this project. So there’s an ease in living with history absent.

In A Cruel Radiance, Prof. Susie Linfield in effect wrote that it’s important to share photographs of political violence to raise awareness and concern that leads to human rights successes. Do you feel that way in writing about and exposing atrocities and human rights violations?

I can only speak for myself, but I’m not at all confident in the possibility of making any difference. When I started doing this work, I spoke with Philip Gourevich who, in Rwanda, did incredible work that did in fact change U.S. policy. I was quite young. I asked if he did the work because he wanted to change the world, and he said, more or less, “That’s the wrong way to think about it. You have no idea what will happen with what you write. What difference it will make. How people will use it. What emotions they will bring to it. I was bothered by something, so I wrote about it. But I didn't try to control what people were going to do with it.”

I thought that was striking. That has stayed with me.

With this book, I had a great deal of anxiety because so much of it was truly awful and so much of it was about the private traumas of people who don’t get a chance to say no, you can’t tell that story. I felt and still feel kind of awful about making this story so public. But part of me is also completely persuaded by the claim that exposure is a countermeasure to atrocity. I feel like we have no other option than to try, and documentation is the most basic tool.

I feel caught on the cusp of whether there is good in it or not. I struggle with that. However, when you talk about documentation at the level of tribunals and truth and reconciliation commissions, I'm very persuaded by Kathryn Sikkink, who argues in The Justice Cascade that we're seeing improvements in human rights and democracy because of these things.

What hope do you derive from your work and how it may lead to justice and healing?

There’s a couple of answers.

Looking at these sorts of crimes and meeting these sort of men and reading story after story of the appalling things that regular people do rather quickly when subjected to pressures can be quite depressing, and it can seem that we are a species doomed to self eradicate. But if you turn the perspective ever so slightly, it can become hopeful because what became clear to me was that it took a lot of work [to create monsters]. It didn’t happen overnight. It took a nation, a culture, an educational system, and a war machine, and it took years of combined efforts and ideology and pressures.

It’s not that you release men to war and, as Freud said, “Man is a wolf to man.” It’s not that we have this natural monster that’s waiting to be released. Atrocity has to be cultivated carefully and slowly, and nations are good at cultivating carefully and slowly. It looks like we’re naturally monsters because we descend to it so quickly, in those last stages, but I think it actually takes quite a bit of preparation and work.

And this is another answer I sometimes rely upon. I was talking to Noam Chomsky, asking him the same question because he’s involved in so many causes and so many hopeless causes in particular. It never stops. I asked what keeps him going, how he has any hope. He said something like:

“You can choose to do nothing and give up and guarantee that the worst will happen. Or you can believe that maybe there’s a small fractional chance that some small fractional amount of good will come from the effort you make. If you choose to do that, maybe that will prevent the very worst from happening.”

And that motivated his lifetime work. It seemed a somewhat barren, stark hope, but maybe barren and stark is the most durable.