Evil Men

  • James Dawes
  • Harvard University
  • 280 pp.
  • Reviewed by Robert Swan
  • July 5, 2013

An attempt to understand the roots of human depravity and make sense of horrendous human cruelty.

James Dawes undertakes many things in a small space. Evil Men is an amalgam of interviews with Japanese war criminals; an analysis of the complexities and moral ambiguities entailed by eliciting testimony from both victims and perpetrators of human rights abuses; an examination of the meaning of evil, and why people do evil things; and a “metanarrative” with frequent authorial interpolations about the emotional and psychological reactions of Dawes himself to the writing of Evil Men.

The reader may have surmised by this remarkable catalogue of intended outcomes that no author could possibly succeed in doing full justice to all of these complex aims in fewer than 300 pages; Dawes does, however, pack an enormous amount of research and reflection into a small package and has produced a work of substance that anyone interested in human rights issues should read with care.

Dawes (Professor of English and Director of the Program in Human Rights and Humanitarianism at Macalester College) does not present a sustained philosophical analysis of evil, which would require a much larger work. He does reflect on the meaning and nature of evil, however, presenting a variety of perspectives including that of Hannah Arendt. Arendt attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, an SS lieutenant colonel responsible for engineering the transport of millions of Jews to death camps in Eastern Europe during World War II. Arendt was struck by how ordinary Eichmann was, seemingly no different from millions of other career-oriented bureaucrats who want to get ahead by doing a superb job for their superiors.

Arendt’s famous, now discredited thesis — the so-called “banality of evil” — expresses one of the key complexities with which Dawes grapples in his book: how can seemingly ordinary people, well-educated and immensely cultured, many of whom come from privileged family backgrounds, commit heinous acts?

Dawes employs a series of interviews with Japanese war criminals to ground his exploration of evil. These men, to whom Dawes spoke through interpreters, are now old and frail, some recently hospitalized, all basically contrite about the horrors they committed. Dawes captures the ambivalence any person presented with the elderly face of evil must feel; these men committed their crimes when they were very young — around 18 — and while most did long stretches of prison time in China after the war, they eventually returned to Japan and re-assimilated themselves into civilian life, marrying and raising families. The men to whom Dawes spoke were in general polite, sincere, and possessed of a gentle demeanor totally at variance with their ferocious and lethal younger selves. In this sense the book explores the problem of human identity as much as it does the nature of evil and its prevalence. Several of the interviewees noted that after World War II the Chinese recognized that Japanese soldiers had been brainwashed by their own government and in this sense did not commit their crimes on the basis of natural depravity. The age-old conundrum of the relationship between nature, nurture and human culpability is explored by Dawes in a nuanced and sensitive way.

In addition to the nature of identity and its relationship to issues of human depravity, Dawes explores, through a survey of scholarly opinion, a number of other seemingly intractable problems and paradoxes related to human rights activism. These include the role of gender in extreme acts of violence; the ambiguity of altruism which serves the interests of the committed human-rights volunteer (the narcissism sometimes involved in acts of humanitarian intervention in which people use their activism as a mechanism to feel good about who they are); and the problem of evil as it relates to the conception of a morally perfect, omnipotent and omniscient god. 

There are several concerns a reader of Evil Men should consider. First, to discuss evil intelligibly really does require a thorough exploration of the definition of the term, which Dawes, lacking space, simply cannot undertake here. The lack of a clear definition leads to suggestions of moral equivalence that some may find disturbing, such as the idea that Eichmann was the “shadow” behind Lynddie England, a U.S. soldier who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. It requires only a moment’s thought to recognize that these two cases are so dissimilar that only the most facile connection between them can be made. Is the evil perpetrated by those who personally torment, pull triggers, murder and rape individuals or small groups equivalent to those who order or facilitate slaughter on a massive scale but never themselves get close to those whose lives they contribute to taking? Perhaps, but we need an extended and intricate argument to explore the nuances of a concept as complex as evil.

Regarding methodology, oral histories are notoriously suspect; given the spotty nature of human memory I wonder how much accurate historical knowledge can be derived from asking, for example, an 88-year-old man how it felt to rape a woman when he was 18. In addition, Dawes’ reflections on his own emotional reactions when writing the book should have been truncated or excised, in light of the many important things he has to say and the limited number of pages in which he says them. Dawes rightly points out that an author punctuating his book with periodic confessional interludes risks his analysis devolving into narcissism (however, I get the impression Dawes is sensitive enough to the ambiguities of his own position and the perils involved in human rights activism to avoid this charge himself).

Despite these concerns Evil Men may be read with profit by any reader interested in human rights issues and the difficult process of making sense of horrendous human cruelty.


Robert Swan teaches history and philosophy in the International Baccalaureate program at a local area high school.

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