James Dawes: Understanding Why People Commit War Crimes

tags: World War II, war crimes, atrocities, Japan, James Dawes, Chronicle of Higher Education




James Dawes is a professor of English at Macalester College and director of its Program in Human Rights and Humanitarianism. He is the author, most recently, of Evil Men, just published by Harvard University Press.

The man sitting in front of me is a mass murderer. He is a serial rapist and a torturer. We are chatting about the weather, his family, his childhood. We are sharing drinks and exchanging gifts. The man is in his 80s now, frail and harmless, even charming. Instinctively I like him. It is hard for me to connect him to the monster he was so many decades ago. I think it must be hard for him, too.

I am visiting with him now because I have spent too many years interviewing survivors of war crimes and human-rights workers and wondering: What kind of person could have committed those heinous acts? I want to know. So I am internally preparing myself, during the smiling pleasantries of our introduction, to ask.

When we start talking about his war crimes, we might as well be talking about a figure from a history textbook, for all the emotion we show. If we were on a television program and you were watching us with the mute button pressed, you would imagine I was asking about his grandchildren. Instead I am asking about how he murdered other people's grandchildren.

I want to know because it is important to understand why and how these things happen. It is important to get the historical record right. But when he begins to open up, telling me the details of his crimes, they are so upsetting, so disgusting, that I realize I will never be able to share them with anybody. I do not want to write a pornography of evil. I suddenly do not see the point of another literary forced march through the carnage of history. I begin to wonder why I am here....



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