Book review: Evil Men, by James Dawes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 4:10pm

Evil Men

by James Dawes

Harvard University Press

This is a hard book to read, and once you have finished, you will probably not want to read it again. This is in spite of the fact that it is well written, fascinating, original and moving.

The title itself presents a challenge. Evil men? "Evil" has an old-fashioned, melodramatic, even theological resonance. We are used to seeking out all sorts of social, educational and ideological causes for wrongdoing, to help us to understand and try to remedy it. There is a stark frankness in the statement that some men are simply evil - and if they were evil, what was author James Dawes doing listening to their stories?

The evil men of the title are Japanese war criminals, interviewed by Dawes in their old age. Some of the atrocities they perpetrated, mostly on Chinese and Korean prisoners and civilians, are recollected in this book, and are tough even to read about.

These old men were members of the Chukiren, an association of former soldiers who had been imprisoned by the Soviet Union in brutal conditions after the second world war, and later extradited to Fushun prison in China. There they were subjected to thought reform, and eventually repudiated the values of their pasts. When they returned to Japan they were committed to lives of almost evangelical pacifism, and to reminding their fellow Japanese of what had been done in their name.

It is in this spirit that they gave the testimony Dawes records here.

Some had been members of the notorious Unit 731, conducting research in biological and chemical warfare on human captives in northeast China. Others were ordinary soldiers. Whether some war atrocities are more atrocious than others, and how you might measure this, is one of the disturbing questions raised here.

This book has three levels of investigation. The memories of these veterans are recorded in their own words. Interleaved with these transcriptions are essay-like discussions of some of the psychological, political and ethical issues they raise. And finally, Dawes does not shrink from putting difficult questions about what it means for the soldiers to tell their stories, for him to write this book and for us to read it.

What are the conditions that produce or permit cruelty? The answers, in the abstract, are banal enough. Structures of authority allow perpetrators to abdicate responsibility - they were "only obeying orders". Politics can inculcate the belief that certain groups are less human than others. Racism, military training, the commitment to total obedience, the stress of combat: these are all contributing factors. Furthermore, our species was formed by a competitive and violent past: perhaps these men's actions were not inhuman, but simply human. Perhaps the surprising thing is not that these things happen, but that they don't happen more.

And how should we react to atrocity? Is anyone entirely blameless in this matter? May it not be corrupting even to contemplate it? Even in a spirit of pity, we seem to be strangely drawn to images of pain and suffering. We can enjoy horror films or Shakespearean tragedy or Goya's Disasters of War series of etchings; perhaps reading these atrocity stories satisfies the same troubling appetite.

Dawes writes of "human rights pornography". Would it be better to keep silent about the unspeakable? Does pity for its victims, however sincere, make us feel good about ourselves? Even if it were possible, would we have the right to try to forgive the perpetrators?

We probably won't solve the problem of evil by thinking about it. But we certainly won't solve it by not thinking about it - and that is a good reason to read this remarkable book.