By Eric Acre ’17, Contributing Writer
James Dawes, director of the Human Rights and Humanitarianism program and English professor at Macalester College, took to the stage on Thursday to give a Common Hour speech entitled, “Making Monsters: War Crimes and Ordinary Men.”
Dawes graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, received his Ph. D in English literature from Harvard University, his M.Phil. from Cambridge University, and is the author of three books: That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity, The Language of War, and Evil Men.
He was a Junior Fellow at the Harvard University Society of Fellows from 1998-2001, as well as an ACLS Faculty Fellow from 2004-2005, and a member of the Editorial Board of American Literature from 2007-2009.
Dawes began his speech with a caveat and explained that he would be reading various excerpts from Evil Men.
“I am reading some testimonies from perpetrators that are difficult and upsetting,” Dawes explained.
He then began to retell the process of how his book came to be. The process of writing the book began when Dawes traveled to Japan to interview a group of convicted war criminals who were Japanese veterans from the second Sino-Japanese war.
“In short, they are the worst people in history—the worst perpetrators you can imagine,” Dawes said. “[Their actions were not] a one-off berserk moment…but were planned cunningly and craftily, and it was part of what they were proud of.”
These were people who murdered, tortured, raped, and performed medical experiments on kidnapped civilians and infants. When they were first convicted, these criminals were sent to Siberian prison camps where they faced horrible conditions. Many froze to death and some were beaten or starved to death. Those who survived the Siberian prison camps were sent to a prison camp in China where they were brainwashed into becoming supporters of China and Communist philosophy through brutal psychological coercion.
After some time, they were freed from the Chinese prison camp and sent back to Japan, where they lived as social outcasts because they admitted to and talked about their crimes.
While this may seem strange to most Westerners, the Japanese prisoners viewed their time in prison as a form of figurative reincarnation.
“The prisoners saw this as spiritual redemption,” Dawes said. “They entered the prisons monsters, and left redeemed. They entered murderers and torturers and serial rapists, and left forgiven.”
The testimonials from the convicted war criminals were undeniably grotesque, as Dawes recounted scenes of a child left in a dead mother’s arms in a field, invasive waterboarding with alcohol instead of water, and practicing painful medical procedures on captured civilians while they were still conscious.
In a more philosophical analysis of the war crimes, Dawes went on to explain how the study of humanity is a paradoxical dispute regarding how traumatic events like these should be handled. Dawes defined trauma as material that is too awful for people to assimilate and process. When put into words and normalized, trauma can harm humanity as a whole. Dawes argued that making something, that is meant to be intangible, tangible downplays the significance of the event to the victim, which can have serious psychological repercussions for him or her.
Dawes then warned of the dangers of forgiving perpetrators who have admitted regret for their actions because this is often a method of manipulation used by criminals. If a criminal admits remorse for his actions and society at large accepts the criminal’s regret, society may then put intense pressure on the victim to accept the apology as well. According to Dawes, this can be detrimental to the victim.
“Hatred is a good thing [when it is properly allocated],” Dawes said.
Hatred is proof that society is adhering to a set of morals and principles that guide the beliefs and actions of most members of society. However, Dawes warned that is it dangerous to dehumanize criminals, because criminals often strive to achieve mythical status to which dehumanization can contribute. If criminals see their mythical status rise as a result of a few crimes they have committed, they may be motivated to commit more crimes to further grow their status.
As society continually works to untangle the complex net of social implications surrounding traumatic events, research like Dawes’ provides a frame through which to consider ways of understanding actions of their perpetrators.