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James Dawes: The Guts of Atrocity

July 30, 2013

Legacy Russell talks with the author of Evil Men about conversing with war criminals and the paradoxes of naming "evil deeds."

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Photo courtesy of the author.

“This book is about atrocity: what it looks like, what it feels like, what causes it, and how we might stop it.”

So begins James Dawes’s latest book, Evil Men, a collection of dialogues with war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Many of the interviews with these once-young military officers and doctors read somewhat like last rites, final confessions. Each conversation presents the paradox of human beings faced with the choice of exacting trauma on another human being, a recognizable face, a body that could very well be one’s own. Each sentence is pregnant with the aftermath of a wounding, an inscription onto the page that is as potent and pointed as if it were cut into our own skin. Every word is a reminder of the responsibility we take on as readers in bearing witness alongside Dawes, taking cuts into these histories, making and unmaking them. In reading this text, in experiencing these stories, in reveling in these histories as we work our way into the center of them and then attempt to find our way back, our own hands are bloodied too.

Dawes does not allow himself, nor his reader, to look at these narratives on a flat plane. Instead he requires a “pr[ying] open [of] the seams of the everyday.” His discussion about trauma, the body and gender politic, and the damages of history is one that lives and breathes, that takes on a persona, that must be addressed, named, and stared at in the face. In Evil Men Dawes shares facts with brutal bravery, both about himself as author, narrator, father, academic, man, and about the war criminals he interviews. Readers come to understand that the shifting between many hats worn throughout the course of a lifetime is often the exact thing that allows us to conveniently remember and forget aspects of who we are. “[I] began this project with the… assumption… [that] bearing witness to atrocity… is a good unto itself,” the author offers with conviction. Yet later Dawes doubts, saying simply, “I am not so sure anymore.” It is the presence and candid acknowledgement of such doubt that makes Evil Men a crisp and precise take on the quandaries of human rights violations as profoundly complex cultural lacerations, global constructions of top-down humanitarianism, and the conflicting role of the witness as being both part of the solution and, potentially, part of the problem. During one of his stories about his personal experiences while on the road, Dawes asks, “How do you go back, after that, to what’s normal?” This question hangs over the body of this text, the bodies within it, and the bodies reading it, placing at the forefront the reality that “go[ing] back” is one thing that cannot be done, that these words, stories, and actions cannot be unmade. Those lost, though remembered, cannot ever be fully resurrected, as they no longer have the ability to speak for themselves.

Professor James Dawes, founder of the Program in Human Rights and Humanitarianism at Macalester College, discusses the journey that brought his words to the page, and to the world beyond.

—Legacy Russell for Guernica

Guernica: Let’s talk about your own background a bit. Where are your beginnings in the study of literature, language, trauma, humanitarianism, and human rights seated?

We imagine evil is other than human, beyond understanding, almost mystical. This lets us off the hook.

James Dawes: All of those things came together for me on a single night. I was sitting with some friends in an apartment in Ankara, Turkey, talking late into the night. It was sweltering hot, there was a feral cat they had recently adopted that kept jumping at me and biting, and everybody was drinking and chain-smoking. It was one of those nights where people let down their guards and say things they wouldn’t normally say, tell stories they normally wouldn’t. Everybody there was in one way or another involved in the human rights community. Mostly I asked questions and listened, and suddenly I had this realization that as a literary critic I was not distant to them. As a literary critic, as somebody who spends his life thinking about the interior structure of stories, I was deeply connected to them and the work they were doing. And not just because they were people who had suffered and were trying to make sense of their lives through stories. It was because as human rights workers, I realized, the work they did was primarily the work of storytelling. Telling stories to make people act, to make people care, to make people stop doing things or to start doing things.

Guernica: So you began your career as an author with your Language of War: Literature and Culture in the U.S. from the Civil War through World War II in 2005, which addressed constructs of language as tangled up within American literature, and the role literature plays in interpreting—but also holding a mirror up to—violence within culture. Then, in 2007, came That The World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity, which looks at the machinations of “witness” and its relationship to testimony and, further, how these things mobilize constructions of morality. Now—Evil Men—what a title! What can we expect from this next book?

James Dawes: The book is about a group of convicted war criminals I met with a friend of mine, the photographer Adam Nadel. In the book I’m trying to explore the guts of atrocity—what it looks like, what it feels like, and how we can prevent it. It’s also in part a memoir, about what it’s like to become close enough to these men to see the world through their eyes, to become intimate with evil. It’s about cross-cultural issues, ethical quagmires, and the jarring realization of tentative friendship.

The stories in this book are shocking: murder, torture, rape, medical experiments on unsedated captured civilians. Some are like nightmares. The ones about children—as the father of two young boys, they haunt me still. But I’m not interested in shock as an emotion. I think it is exploitative, and disempowering. It shuts us down, and it is a disrespect to those who died. To some degree, shock cannot be avoided. But I’m hoping that’s just the first layer of emotions in the book.

Guernica: Evil Men and Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others follow similar threads—trying to understand the visuality, and, in turn, the narrative media of what you call “evil deeds.” Would you unpack the notion of “evil deeds,” as you understand them?

James Dawes: Talking about evil is hard. It involves at least two paradoxes. Here’s the first. On the one hand, to denounce evil is an ethical act. It is to affirm our deepest values and to commit ourselves to preventing acts that dehumanize others. On the other hand, to denounce evil can be an unethical act. It is a way of demonizing; it is, precisely, to dehumanize another. Here’s the second paradox: On the one hand, we need to the concept of evil to philosophically and ethically distinguish acts that shock our consciences, acts that are not adequately encompassed by words like bad, wicked, or wrong. The concept of evil clarifies. On the other hand, the concept of evil confuses, prevents thinking. We imagine evil is other than human, beyond understanding, almost mystical. This lets us off the hook, lets us deny our own capacity for evil, and stops us from analyzing the very human, very common causes of it.

If you were watching us on a television screen with the mute button on, you’d imagine we were visitors talking about their grandchildren. But instead we were talking about how they murdered other people’s grandchildren.

Guernica: In the interviews you conducted with war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War, were you confronted at all with any ethical or moral dilemmas?

James Dawes: It was vertigo. We would visit these men, these sweet, old, frail man. We would meet their children, their grandchildren, share gifts, make jokes together as we warmed up for the interviews. And if you were watching us on a television screen with the mute button on, you’d imagine we were visitors talking about their grandchildren. But instead we were talking about how they murdered other people’s grandchildren.

I’ve heard stories like these before. All of us have heard stories like these. But it’s different when you are hearing it from the perpetrator. When you’re getting to know the perpetrator as a person. When you’re hearing it from him when his age, sorrow, and remorse inspire compassion. It was vertigo. The book tries to share that experience of vertigo with the reader.

Guernica: Tell me about one or two stories in particular that stood out for you.

James Dawes: Some of the stories were straight out of a horror film. One of the men we met, a doctor who we ended up needing to get medical help from for somebody we were traveling with, was a vivisectionist in the war. That’s exactly what it sounds like. He would cut apart kidnapped civilians or captured soldiers in medical experiments, without anesthesia. That’s what he did, as a doctor. Strapping terrified people to tables and with his hands opening them up, amputating… And then, that same doctor, he helped us. Somebody we were traveling with became sick, and we got treatment from him.

But really the stories that haunt me the most are the ones about children. I have two small boys. Hearing about what they did to the kids, that was hard.

You’re supposed to get desensitized, right? The opposite is happening.

Guernica: Can you speak to the experience of hearing these stories about children? In what way did it shape the approach you took, if at all?

James Dawes: The stories about children were difficult to get. It was painful for them to talk about it. Sometimes we had to drag it out of them. In that way, stories about children sharply contrasted stories about women. Talking about violence toward women came easily, by comparison. Now, that hadn’t always been the case. For a long time, former Japanese soldiers tried to deny what they had done to the comfort women, for instance. But once it was culturally permissible to talk about wartime rape, telling those stories came relatively easily.

One of the men I met explained that he emphasized his crimes against women for what you might call teaching purposes. One of the things people don’t know about war, he believed, is that the primary violence falls upon women. If people knew that, he felt, it might change the attitudes civilians take when choosing whether or not to support a war. So he talked about women freely. But I also think the stories about violence toward women were easy to tell because of the casual, quotidian misogyny that saturates most cultures. Populations are trained in all kinds of ways from an early age to imagine hurting women. Those stories just weren’t as hard for them to tell.

Guernica: I imagine that to work with these sorts of narratives and to come into contact with these “evil men” would require a specific sort of compartmentalization—some way to distance oneself, or numb oneself—to the experience overall, so as to not be overthrown by the stories emotionally. How did you find yourself bridging this gap? Were there particular moments that catalyzed certain feelings or reactions for you?

James Dawes: For fieldworkers, like the photographer I was with, it’s second nature. Nothing rattles them. But for the rest of us… I think most of us come equipped with an automatic shutoff valve, for when things get to be too much. You compartmentalize, and then you pay for it afterwards. I can remember one very strange experience I had after coming home. I was driving in my car listening to the radio. A local story came on about a child who had been burned. The newscaster started by saying that the child had been covered in lighter fluid while playing with other children, and for a moment I thought he was going to say that the other kids had set the child on fire on purpose. For some reason I couldn’t tolerate the idea of hearing that story. I actually had to pull over to the side of the road. It wasn’t sorrow or anger or any of the emotions you would think appropriate to the story. It was just this crazy fear of hearing the story.

It turned out that it was a terrible accident. Nobody hurt the child on purpose. That helped a little bit. But it was so strange. I had expected I would become less sensitive over the years. I’ve been doing this sort of work, interviewing people and writing stories about human rights violations, for a long time now. You’re supposed to get desensitized, right? The opposite is happening. I think it’s about having children. Some of my friends who do human rights work say that, once you have kids, your capacity to tolerate the idea of another person’s pain diminishes radically.

Guernica: In what way does your interview process reflect or problematize the same structures your work looks to examine? How does language limit or fail? Is language enough?

The idea of the greater good terrifies me. It is in that concept—in our deepest commitments, our most intimate attachments, our purest ambitions, our love—that we birth our greatest and most blind evils.

James Dawes: This is one of the basic paradoxes of trauma: we must tell the stories and we must not tell the stories. The reasons for giving voice to trauma are basic. We need to create an accurate record for history. We need to tell the stories so that survivors are not forced to undergo the additional trauma of living in a world that denies what they’ve been through. Silence is morally unacceptable. But, at the very same time, putting such trauma into words is morally unacceptable. Trauma defies language. When you take something as awful and senseless as experiences like these, and you try to put them into the common words we use everyday—you lose something. You have literally translated it. And in that translation, it’s not just that you are losing something, it’s that you’re taking something, taking something away from the victims and survivors.

Guernica: Are you a storyteller? A witness? A translator? An author? A historian? Is there a difference between these categories that you believe to be significant to your approach as you build out these texts?

James Dawes: Maybe the best answer is this: what is most important is not the difference among these categories but the commonality. In the time I spent with each man, what I tried to focus upon was the process of being present to somebody—entirely present to them, in the fullness of their identity, without judgment or ego interfering. This meant, obviously, suppressing negative emotions elicited by their horrific personal stories. But it also meant suppressing a certain kind of empathy—that is, the empathy that makes you want to literally feel for another person, in place of that person, substituting your own emotional reaction for simply being present to their own.

Guernica: Eyal Weizman talks about the notion of “the least of all possible evils,” or, rather, the selection of a mode of a lesser “evil” in lieu of of a greater one. Peering at this notion through the lens of your own work, what do you see?

James Dawes: The concept of the lesser evil is very difficult. On the one hand, it has helped people negotiate no-win situations with the least damaging outcomes. On the other hand, it has been used to justify a great many appalling things. Many historical monsters have committed atrocities because they believed their murders or tortures would prevent greater evils from happening. With the men I met, however, I think it was a little different. I think the most relevant concept for them was not the essentially negative drive to the “lesser evil” but the affirmative drive to the “greater good.” The idea of the greater good terrifies me. It is in that concept—in our deepest commitments, our most intimate attachments, our purest ambitions, our love—that we birth our greatest and most blind evils.

Guernica: What do you imagine is up next for you? Another project in the works?

James Dawes: For this book, some readings, trips, public radio. I love that part, when you finally get to share after years of thinking in isolation. For the next book, I am at a fork in the road, and need to make a choice. There is this great quotation from Rony Brauman, former president of Doctors Without Borders: “When one speaks of a failure, one implies that there could be success. I have a hard time imagining what humanitarian success would be in situations where violence is itself the sign of failure. As humanitarians we inscribe ourselves in failure.” My colleagues and I in human rights and humanitarian work spend a lot of time thinking about how nations go off the rails, how ordinary men get turned into monsters. We spend a lot of time thinking about how our attempts to advance human rights can backfire, how good intentions can go awry, how stories or media campaigns meant to promote human dignity can lead to unintended pernicious consequences. What I would very much like to do now is to reverse course, to study how things work rather than how they fall apart. What makes somebody into the kind of person who will be a rescuer? Who will jeopardize his own well-being, for instance, by refusing illegal orders to kill villagers? When a group like Human Rights Watch puts together reports or policy recommendations or a messaging campaign, how can we measure their impact? In what ways are they successful, and why? Critique is important, and understanding failure is important, and as a scholar that is second nature to me. We are trained to look for holes in the argument. What will be harder for me, but what I really want to try, is to figure out the interior structure of success. I’d like to do that next.

Legacy Russell is a writer, artist, and curator. She has worked at and produced programs for The Bruce High Quality Foundation, Creative Time, the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney, and the Met. Her work explores mourning, remembrance, iconography, and idolatry within the public realm. She was interviewed about her performance project in New York City’s East Village and Lower East Side, Open Ceremony, for Guernica’s studio visit series, and her work has been featured in Guernica’s art section.

James Dawes is Professor of English and Director of the Program in Human Rights and Humanitarianism at Macalester College.

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