Evil Men

Evil Men

by James Dawes
Evil Men

Evil Men

by James Dawes

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Overview

Presented with accounts of genocide and torture, we ask how people could bring themselves to commit such horrendous acts. A searching meditation on our all-too-human capacity for inhumanity, Evil Men confronts atrocity head-on—how it looks and feels, what motivates it, how it can be stopped.

Drawing on firsthand interviews with convicted war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), James Dawes leads us into the frightening territory where soldiers perpetrated some of the worst crimes imaginable: murder, torture, rape, medical experimentation on living subjects. Transcending conventional reporting and commentary, Dawes’s narrative weaves together unforgettable segments from the interviews with consideration of the troubling issues they raise. Telling the personal story of his journey to Japan, Dawes also lays bare the cultural misunderstandings and ethical compromises that at times called the legitimacy of his entire project into question. For this book is not just about the things war criminals do. It is about what it is like, and what it means, to befriend them.

Do our stories of evil deeds make a difference? Can we depict atrocity without sensational curiosity? Anguished and unflinchingly honest, as eloquent as it is raw and painful, Evil Men asks hard questions about the most disturbing capabilities human beings possess, and acknowledges that these questions may have no comforting answers.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674416796
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Publication date: 11/24/2014
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

James Dawes is DeWitt Wallace Professor of English at Macalester College.

Read an Excerpt

From the book


One way of responding to these and other concerns about the terrible difficulties of representing trauma is to call for silence. The call to silence after catastrophe can be a way of respecting, even hallowing. To treat the disaster as unspeakable is to treat it as beyond, as transcendent; the lexicon of such accounts often shadows the divine. For children of Holocaust survivors, Hoffman writes, the rhetoric of the unfathomable and the unspeakable “echoes a childhood sense of an incomprehensible cosmos, of sacred or demonic forces.” It is, finally, a “rhetoric of awe,” an “unintentional sacralrization.” Maurice Blanchot, who lived in France during the Nazi occupation, writes of the disaster: “But the danger (here) of words in their rhetorical insignificance is perhaps that they claim to evoke the annihilation where all sinks always, without hearing the ‘be silent’ addressed to those who have known only partially, or from a distance the interruption of history.”

For some, however, this rhetoric of mystery is not only, or not always, a way of hallowing. It can also be a way of ignoring. Yehuda Bauer critiques this approach to the Holocaust as an “elegant form of escapism.” Dominick LaCapra warns that the impulse toward “sacralization” is also an impulse toward “silent awe” ; and Alvin Rosenfeld declares: “If it is a blasphemy, then, to attempt to write about the Holocaust, and an injustice against the victims, how much greater the injustice and more terrible the blasphemy to remain silent.” Discussing Rwanda, Philip Gourevitch explains: “The language that’s used most frequently in the popular response to something like Rwanda are words like unspeakable, unthinkable, unimaginable. And [in the case of Rwanda] those all struck me as words that ultimately were telling you not to speak, think, or understand, that they basically are words that get you off the hook and then in a sense give you license for both kinds of ignorance—literal ignorance, not knowing, and ignoring.”

Those who favor the idea of trauma’s unspeakability despite such critiques often do so because they have an implicit ethical commitment to the idea that the survivor’s experience is unutterably unique. If the trauma is literally untranslatable, then it can belong only to the individual. It is irreducibly personal; it cannot be reduced to a version of the common. To adopt such a stance is to adopt a stance of care toward the survivor. But as many critics have pointed out, in the more extreme versions of such theoretical models, unspeakability and untranslatability can begin to function like undifferentiated and impersonal universals. Trauma increasingly seems less like a singular event in an individual life than a concept of event that transcends individual life. Trauma becomes a common pathological structure of experience. It is what it is independently of political context, cultural history, family background, life experiences, and individual psychic makeup and therapeutic labor. Trauma is external to the individual, impenetrable by the individual. It therefore belongs to no one, and can be transmitted across individuals and even generations. As one concerned critic writes: this way of thinking about trauma presents as a value “the unknowable particularity of the traumatic experience” but in the end “makes particularity meaningless and makes trauma available to anyone, not just without recourse to painful experience but without recourse to experience as such.” For some, this is to diminish rather than to preserve.

Table of Contents

Contents
Preface
Evil Men
Notes
Acknowledgments
Index
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