Any Good From Evil?

Monday, May 13, 2013

James Dawes, professor of English and director of the Program in Human Rights and Humanitarianism at Macalester College in St. Paul, talks about what he learned about evil in a series of interviews with men convicted of war crimes during the Sino-Japanese War and asks whether there's anything of value to find in such studies or only sensationalism.

Excerpt: Evil Men by James Dawes (Harvard University Press, 2013)

Atrocity both requires and resists representation. The argument that we must bear witness to atrocity, that we must tell the stories, is the core of the catechism of the human rights movement. We gather testimony, we investigate and detail war crimes, because we are morally bound to do so. Our obligation is acutely urgent in cases where legal prosecution is a realistic possibility, but it is also powerful long after the call for trials has faded into history--especially when there is a robust practice of denial and historical revision, as there is in Japan. We are creating a collective moral archive of our time for future generations. We are making public history intelligible to survivors who have seen their deepest personal truths denied daily. And sometimes, as the soldiers I spoke to believed, we are using the safe-to-imagine past as a way of making visible what we are doing in the present.

In recent decades, Japanese government officials, scholars, and former military officers of all ranks have denied and downplayed the atrocities committed by Imperial Japan. In 1994, Minister of Justice Shigeto Nagano described the 1937 Nanking Massacre--in which an estimated 300,000 civilians were murdered--as a "fabrication." In the carefully worded apology that followed, he continually referred to the "Nanking Incident." In 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied that Korean women were coerced into becoming military sex slaves. In 2001, the Ministry of Education approved for use a revisionist school history textbook that glossed over war crimes, including the Nanking Massacre, the widespread use of sex slaves, and experimentation with germ warfare on Chinese civilians. In 2005, a book by a Japanese scholar was translated into English (and personally sent to me by the publisher) that lambasted the late author Iris Chang for perpetuating "the myth of a massacre's having been perpetrated in Nanking." The list could go on. If Elie Wiesel is right in saying that to forget is to kill twice, then the Second Sino- Japanese War never ended. It just shifted to the landscape of memory.

So all of us--the photographer, the interpreter, and I--began this project with the same assumption: bearing witness to atrocity, in this case and in general, is a good unto itself. Whether it's telling the story of the crime as it's happening or collecting and sharing the testimony years later as we were doing, the struggle for human rights and the battle of memory requires a single clear moral position: either speak out or be silent, either resist or be complicit.

I am not so sure anymore.


James Dawes

Comments [34]


Any bigger sex uses its size to get what it wants from the other sex. It's the laws of physics. Female hyenas are bigger, have more testosterone and bully males. Sexual dimorphism. Hyenas and humans alike learn on their own how to use their size to their advantage and learn faster when they teach each other. The silver lining is kindness can be taught too. The proof of this is that parenting is taught and not that instinctual. Females not taught by their mothers to parent are poor caregivers.

So it goes both ways for both men and women. Failing to teach kindness and caring to either sex leads to ruin and succeeding leads to kind, caring people.

Jun. 22 2013 02:45 AM
David Reskof,MD

I am a retired Forensic Psychiatrist. I have studied evil and the people who perpetrate evil deeds for many years. I applaud Professor Dawes on his efforts - It is sometimes harrowing to have people describe and confess to the evil deeds that they have committed. It is my belief that evil is not intrinsic to people, that people commit evil deeds because of they way they are affected by their environment. Professor Dawes rightly points out that his subjects were TRAINED to commit evil act. Training is usually carried out with rewards and punishments. The German people responded to Hitler because he gave them hope and boosted their pride after the national humiliation of the loss of World War I. He also justified their anger at being humiliated. Of course his antisemitism was a way of finding some "personal" target to blame. After all it was the white Christians of the Allies who defeated the German Empire which consisted also of White Christians. The Jews, like the Negroes on other places, were seen as different and foreign and therefore could be skapegoated. D.A.Reskof,MD

May. 14 2013 02:00 AM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights


70,000+ dead in Syria.

You must be proud.

May. 14 2013 12:33 AM

This is a COURAGEOUS piece of work.

Thank you, James Dawes!

May. 13 2013 06:26 PM

This is the byproduct EVERY single time Amerika™ sends it's young people to kill and be killed.

Besides the decimated bodies, we also inherit the generations of shattered souls.

The perversion and suffering we produce and inflict does not end with the affected individual but, is passed from father to son.

War is comprehensive devastation. It does NOT end when the last troop comes home! The damage is persistent and insidious.

In ways unknown.

May. 13 2013 06:23 PM
Keira from Manhattan

War is itself an atrocity and no matter how much we very successfully dress it up with marching bands, pretty ribbons, and solemn rituals to make it palatable, appealing and respectable will change the fact that war is about the systematic slaughter of other human beings. Introducing women into the ranks of combat will sadly not "humanize war"--that's is an oxymoron--but will only dehumanize the women. We in the US (and of course we are not alone in this) fetishize our military and its members while at the same time offloading the burden of it onto the lower classes with the oh so respectable "thank you for your service" as we export the misery it causes all over the globe.

May. 13 2013 04:40 PM
Paul from NY

Thank you James, thank you Brian. This represents a part of the way forward, eyes open and never averted, fully present, bearing witness thoroughly and with compassion, as in the best Buddhist sense.

May. 13 2013 02:17 PM
kevin from ULS

j-buz from queens- there can be some truth to what you say,but at the end of the day we are all accountable for our actions,right? we can all ascribe blame, justified or not,to our mothers and fathers. "mom's twinkies for breakfast everyday,made me blow up the school district" doesn't quite cut it for me.

May. 13 2013 12:05 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

To kevin

Men have been prodded by women for centuries, to do the things they do. In fact, Hitler had MANY stalwart women admirers and supporters, and he was good to dogs and children. The fact is, we are all brainwashed, mostly by mothers, but also by society to values that which society upholds. It has nothing to do with "good" or "evil" or men being more violent, but only how and what you've been brainwashed to believe. If you've been raised to believe in God, Good and Evil, you'll probably act one way. If you are raised that Might makes Right, and in victory at all costs, you'll do something else.

May. 13 2013 11:52 AM
Amy from Manhattan

I like Prof. Dawes' idea of incremental altruism, although I wouldn't put it in terms of sacrificing oneself.

May. 13 2013 11:47 AM
kevin from ULS

if we're honest, we have to look at history and see what MOSLTY men have done. that does not mean that ALL women are celestial beings. but, we have to look at facts. the reasons for all of this are complex;however, there is a baselne realty that is well documented,of male violence. if we men can't see that,then we also disempower the men who are not evil. a sad part of this, is that this is often nothing other than a gender pissing match;in which both men and women share some degree of blame.

May. 13 2013 11:46 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

To ph

There have always been more men than women in the military. I say, train and send women and let's see how nicely they fare. That's all. That's the only true test.

May. 13 2013 11:45 AM
Ed from Larchmont

But it's not the binary black/white that is the problem, it's believing the wrong black/white, believing a lie.

May. 13 2013 11:45 AM
Amy from Manhattan

You did see the photos from Abu Ghraib, right, Brian? Yes, women can do these things too.

May. 13 2013 11:44 AM
Andrew from NYC

Mr. Dawes conceded that his subjects were "brainwashed" in China after being captured and doesn't seem to consider that the accuracy of their recollections may be unreliable, or even fabricated. China has long used Japan's wartime conduct to distract from the brutal crimes of its own regime. If these main were brainwashed, why does he take their personal accounts at face value?

May. 13 2013 11:44 AM

@jgarbuz "He's already classed half of humanity as being more intrinsically "evil" than the other." He didn't say all men are evil! He didn't say most men are evil! He said most of these evil people are men and that there is probably a genetic reason for it. And that may very well be true since men are generally more aggressive due to having more testosterone.

May. 13 2013 11:44 AM
Maria from Brooklyn

What does he mean by "a broken GENETIC destiny"?!

May. 13 2013 11:43 AM
Christine from Westchester

Is it really that men are more evil (however you define that) or is it that women have typically not have the power to do as much damage. There are many points in history where women (just like men) given power have abused it and done alot of evil in the name of keeping their power or just for the sake of doing whatever they want. Yes, most of the evil noted has been perpetrated by men but isn't it just becuase they've had more opportunity?

May. 13 2013 11:43 AM
Ed from Larchmont

This happens in abortion clinics every day.

Remember penitence, repentence, forgiveness. They don't have access to Confession, probably.

Not all trained soldiers are trained to do evil, but they were part of the military of a regime that aimed at evil things.

May. 13 2013 11:43 AM
John A

"The Straight Story" by David Lynch. A nice gentle experience of examination of post-warriors along these lines.

May. 13 2013 11:43 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Was there also a pattern of internal increments--"I'll do a, but I won't do b," & then b but not c, etc.? And was there an ongoing effort to justify each step?

May. 13 2013 11:41 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I have an idea.Why don't we just send women to war next time, and let the men stay home and worry about them! Let's see how all-women units fare and what they do.

May. 13 2013 11:41 AM
carol from Princeton, NJ

I would like to hear someone discuss the morality of drones in the context of the alternative described by your guest today. All the discussions I hear are about drones and the damage they do in the abstract and in contrast with doing nothing. But mankind won't do nothing...we will go to war of some kind or another, and the atrocities your guest is describing should be what drone warfare is compared to, not to peace.

May. 13 2013 11:41 AM
Fishmael from NYC

How does your guest feels that this engagement with how people do evil things relates to the US's embrace of using torture, now that the US's use of that seems to be beyond question? Are those people "evil" also? What about us, as a society, getting de-sensitized to this level of brutality?

May. 13 2013 11:41 AM
John A

Sounds like the author misses the entire over class of evil organizations - the people who may never kill but who direct those activities.

May. 13 2013 11:38 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Evil because what else would one call it?

May. 13 2013 11:38 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Does anyone do anything that they think is evil? Probably not, people are deluded, tricked.

May. 13 2013 11:37 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Women should enslave men, because we now know that woman are more "good" than men.

May. 13 2013 11:36 AM
kevin from ULS

as a man,i'm disgusted and revolted by the overt evil that mostly men do. [women are quite capable of understated evil,that doesn't usually make the headlnes]. yet,it also forces me to fight a battle on at least two fronts;since i'm often put in the same category as degenerates and pond scum,for no other reason than my birth given gender.

May. 13 2013 11:36 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Your guest just disqualified himself by labelling "boys" as being more susceptible to doing "evil" than girls. He's already classed half of humanity as being more intrinsically "evil" than the other. That to me is already evil.

May. 13 2013 11:32 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Hitler did not believe in good versus evil, but only that life is only pure struggle (Kampf) and that only the fittest have the right to rule and dominate and enslave the weak, and destroy the unfit "not worthy of life."

The question is, is such an idea in and of itself evil?

And while we're at it, how about abortion?

May. 13 2013 11:04 AM
John A

By all means - have the author relate to the US's all war all the time mentality.

May. 13 2013 10:32 AM
Commet from nyc

In Kaballah there is a belief that good can come out of anything - however awful, evil, tragic...negative.
These ancient mystics believed the world was created with the potential for good in everything, we just need to unearth it from its hidden state.
If God can be found in anything and everything, then good can be found in everything and anything - so goes the theory.

May. 13 2013 10:31 AM
Ed from Larchmont

I think it's valuable to reflect on these acts of tremendous moral evil. For one, it shocks us into a realization of the drama of living: we are capable of choosing to participate in evil. 'Work out your salvation in fear and trembling' St. Paul tells us.

Also it forces us to ask 'Is there a force of evil in the world?' And if so, how are we delivered from it? What did these people do to serve this force? How are we right now participating in serving this force?

Remembering can also lead to repentence, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

May. 13 2013 08:00 AM

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