Few ideas hurtle toward us with the velocity of evil. Perhaps only the apprehension of death looms as a greater affront to our understanding. How we make sense of mankind’s capacity for atrocity and sadism says a great deal about our worldview. Consider then: Is “evil” just another adjective? Another signifier, if you will? Or is it a noun, a material phenomenon — an impairment of the psyche or a physiological derangement? Moreover, is evil situational or determinative? That’s to say, can ghoulish behavior be explained away — via the “I was only following orders” argument, for example — or are there really irremediably execrable people, monsters through and through?

James Dawes’s commendable new book, “Evil Men,” reflects, carefully and nervously, on the subject of human cruelty. Peering into the legacy of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Dawes — an English professor and the director of the Program in Human Rights and Humanitarianism at Macalester College — organizes his book around interviews he conducted with Japanese veterans who killed and inflicted incalculable pain on civilians. According to Dawes, some of the veterans described their younger selves as “demons and devils.”

The elderly men with whom Dawes spoke were some of the last remaining members of the Chukiren. Founded in 1957 and disbanded in 2002, the Chukiren was an association of antiwar veterans (with about 1,100 members at its peak) dedicated to focusing public attention on Imperial Japan’s war crimes. Marginalized in their homeland, the Chukiren were reviled by many of their countrymen, who questioned their motives. This was an inevitable reaction, one assumes, given that the organization was composed of former POWs who, after the war, were detained in the Soviet Union for years, then extradited to China, where they underwent “thought reform.”

Whether or not the returned soldiers were brainwashed or whether they experienced a form of moral regeneration remains an open question. Still, it’s difficult to fully credit the suspicions that fell upon the Chukiren’s activities since much of Japanese society has appeared only too eager to be done with the past. Indeed, events like the Nanking Massacre and the testing of chemical and biological weapons on the Chinese are, to this day, largely glossed over within the Japanese educational system.

Speaking of pedagogy, the testimony of the men leads the author to ruminate on the extent to which war criminals are groomed. As a number of the interviewees pointed out, “It takes time to take men who tremble at the thought of killing and turn them into people who are eager for it.” In the case of the Imperial Japanese army, there were mechanisms in place that helped turn men into feral predators. Hazing practices that forced green recruits to kill unarmed civilians, religious leaders who condemned China for its spiritual immaturity, the widespread circulation of xenophobic ideas — factors such as these stacked the odds in favor of dehumanizing the enemy, thus providing the go-ahead to visit unbridled harshness upon them.

’Evil Men’ by James Dawes (Harvard/Harvard)

Stepping back, Dawes draws attention to the common socio-cultural forces that run through instances of mass brutality the world over: “Today most scholars trace genocidal behavior to organizational identity, social context, and national ideologies, rather than to individual personalities,” he writes. “In other words, you’re not so much who you are as where you are.” To illustrate how easy it can be to get humans to commit to immoral behavior, he cites a few famous psychological studies, such as Stanley Milgram’s controversial experiment demonstrating that people are more likely to carry out harmful acts if they’re sanctioned by an authority figure. As it happens, the veterans with whom Dawes met “emphasized the importance of the regime’s willingness to take responsibility for their actions.”

Dawes is keenly aware that people have a hand in shaping their own destiny. He notes that “making monsters isn’t only a matter of conditioning; it’s also a matter of narrative. Commonly among unrepentant war criminals, you will see a grandiose self-pity that helps them to preserve a sense of self: I bore the burden of having to do these things.” In a daring leap, he questions the purity of his own intentions in soliciting the Chukiren’s confessions. Among other things, he wonders if he is implicitly absolving them of their crimes. He also frets over the presentation of his material, hoping that readers will find in it something deeper than mere sensationalism.

To ensure this, he shifts the conversation repeatedly away from acts committed by foreigners a long time ago. He calls attention to the U.S. government’s purchase, after World War II, of biomedical weapons research that was collected by the clandestine branch of the Japanese military known as Unit 731. And he notes our government’s use of euphemisms and propaganda to enlist public support for its dubious incursions into the Middle East. He writes, “In the United States, when we evaluate the cost of our wars afterward — the appalling expense of blood and treasure paid by some, and the astonishing profit gained by others — we are always surprised.”

His point here is not to draw a neat equivalence between the war crimes committed by the Japanese army and the more troubling aspects of our recent military campaigns, but to remind us that moral culpability inevitably accrues to any nation that chooses the quick path to war over the more tiresome byroads of diplomacy.

At its heart, “Evil Men” is structured around several unresolved paradoxes: Evil is banal yet alien to our everyday sensibilities; the up-close representation of atrocity encourages prurient voyeurism, though ignoring the gory details skates dangerously close to apathy; there are socio-cultural climates that promote evil behavior, but we should not lose sight of individual human agency; it is easy to recognize the evil actions perpetrated by another country but hard to see those perpetrated by one’s own. For anyone interred in the bloody horizons of the human condition, it makes for essential reading.

Christopher Byrd ’s reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Believer and other publications.


By James Dawes

Harvard Univ. 263 pp. $25.95