Ill-at-ease author meanders in exploration of evil

01032014p19phb.jpgEVIL MEN
By James Dawes
Published by Harvard University Press, $25.95

Why do humans do unspeakable harm to others? This question lies at the heart of Evil Men, James Dawes' study of Unit 731, a Japanese military outfit in World War II that savaged the Chinese population with rapes, wanton executions, human medical experiments and other atrocities -- including, it seems, cannibalization. Dawes has devoted much of his professional life to taking testimony from a group of these soldiers who now regret and abhor their actions. They have since dedicated their lives to exposing their human rights violations and working to keep them from happening again. This is no easy endeavor in a Japanese society committed to obscuring that history and evading responsibility for it.

These Japanese veterans underwent significant retribution for their actions. Many of them spent the first five years after World War II in Siberian prisoner of war camps laboring under inhumane conditions. The Soviet Union extradited those who survived to Chinese re-education camps, where the prisoners reported living comfortably under generous Chinese treatment. The Japanese prisoners there learned the Chinese perspective on the Japanese imperial invasion, and came to understand the great suffering that they had caused. When the Chinese gathered the prisoners together in a civic square one day, they feared that they faced mass execution. Instead the Chinese freed them all, feted them with a goodbye feast, and sent them home to their families. Once home, many of these Japanese veterans established the "Chukiren" group to work for a more cooperative, humane and peaceful world.

This study allows, perhaps compels, Dawes to reflect on the nature of good and evil. If modern philosophy questions whether "objective evil" even exists, Dawes' title suggests that he believes it does. Evil Men hints at no equivocation, after all. And yet the book is nothing but equivocation. Dawes is profoundly ill at ease with his work, and devotes much of his book grappling with the moral implications of interviewing people who have done such horrible deeds. Does it honor them? Mitigate the opprobrium they justly deserve? Offer the wisdom necessary to prevent future atrocities? Constitute "atrocity pornography"? That Dawes devotes his life's work to the study suggests that he has reached an answer, but he conveys an almost paralyzing struggle with the issue. The result is an expansive discourse that dips into but mostly skirts around the interviews that he has done with the Chukiren.

The narrative effect is less one of a directed journey than of a series of meanderings, first in one direction, then another. Dawes confesses that audiences have reacted with frustration to his presentation style at talks and, consistent with his approach, he shares his confusion and angst over why he made this choice. The book is a tough read, and not only because of its very difficult subject matter. Dawes purposefully presents his story through small vignettes and reflections on matters related to his interviews, but provides no standard order. He offers no chronology, survey of atrocities, or exploration of the perpetrators' histories. It offers no clear organizational structure, no sections or chapters. Readers must create comprehensible understanding from the text -- perhaps, as Dawes shares at one point, to better immerse us in the dizzying experience of exploring the evil with which he grapples in his work.

Dawes rewards those who make it through his work with insightful reflections on the nature of evil as Westerners have understood it through time, and the dilemmas that studying that evil generate among some who generate or elicit atrocity narratives. In the end, he never reaches a satisfying answer to the question most readers will bring to the book, as he tempers his intermittent optimism about the human capacity for altruism with an almost despairing cynicism about human selfishness. Are humans evil? Perhaps, Dawes seems to suggest, but focuses this book much more on whether it is acceptable to seek answers through perpetrators' stories.

[Timothy Kelly is department chair and professor of history at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here