By James Dawes
The genius of this unsettlingly brilliant book lies in its endless circles of irony, its assertion that harm—or at least potentially harmful paradox—lies in every approach we can take to wartime atrocities. We are morally obliged to reveal inflicted trauma, but we are morally obliged not to re-victimize. To fully detail the wrongs men do, we must assert the human freedom to choose otherwise, even as we reveal ourselves as the products of our circumstances. And most important for Dawes, a literature professor and long-time human-rights activist: To communicate victims’ private grief, a writer needs to establish intimate relationships with them—but also treat them as “material,” as characters to be manipulated and displayed. Everywhere Dawes looks, the spectre of atrocity porn floats before him.
Troubled as he was, Dawes carried on with his study of atrocities as seen through perpetrators’ eyes, because he had a rare chance to speak to an exceptional group of war criminals. The men of the Chukiren were the last of 1,100 Japanese POWs imprisoned by the Soviets in conditions of extreme brutality at the end of the Second World War. They were eventually handed over to Communist Chinese forces, who treated them benignly, as long they went along with thought reform. Many had a quasi-religious conversion, becoming militantly anti-war. Back in Japan after 1957, they openly confessed to their wartime crimes: murder, rape, torture, even vivisection. By the 21st century, the survivors were old, sick, discouraged that official Japan still denied the horrors inflicted in China and ready to talk to an American, someone whose countrymen had just committed the abuses recorded in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. (“There’s always context,” Dawes dryly notes.)
And what did Dawes learn? Some things positive: There are red lines, including a deep reluctance to kill children—“the one thing we’ve all been, children,” says Dawes. And some far more negative: Rape came easy. But what he learned paled beside what he felt, a kind of vertigo, as Dawes experienced sympathy for the old men, and worry over the value and effect of his work. “What will happen,” he directly asks his readers, “when you read this book?”