I’ve just closed the back cover on possibly the most important book I’ve ever read. I’m tempted to go buy a carton of copies to give out. It easily and immediately takes a place in my top five favorite books. Although, “favorite” doesn’t quite fit. It’s a hard book.
In the interest of full disclosure, James Dawes, the author of EVIL MEN, was the valedictorian of my high school class. But make no mistake, this isn’t a pal hawking a cohort’s book. Jim and I aren’t friends. Not to say that we’re enemies. We just don’t really know each other. I saw notice of the book on our school’s alumni Facebook page and, being curious, thought I’d have a look.
Jim Dawes and I didn’t have overlapping social circles in school. I do remember him, but I imagine that most of the class of 1987 remembers him. He was like that. Brilliant, kind, and athletic, he rather had all of his ducks in a row back then, which is remarkable for any kid that age. But there was more gravity to Jim than there was to other socially and academically successful teenagers. He was prominent in an unusual way, even if that way is still difficult to articulate all these years later. It left an impression that has lasted decades and definitely had something to do with being able to relate comfortably to a gaggle of peers while thinking quite a bit beyond us.
Apparently that has carried over into a life of valuable research and singular eloquence.
And that’s probably all I’ll say about James Dawes, the person, because a) I still don’t know him personally and b) this isn’t really about James Dawes, it’s about the book, EVIL MEN, just out from Harvard University Press.
EVIL MEN is a dissection of atrocity and conceptual evil, inspired by a series of interviews with Japanese war criminals. These very old men recounted, through a translator, the horrors they had meted out in uniform during the Sino-Japanese wars. It broadens from there into a display of theory, ethics, scientific study, history, philosophy, and human rights advocacy, all tethered in a coherence that I would have to be incoherent to adequately express my admiration of. Let’s just say that you will be quite a bit smarter by ‘The End’ than you were on page one, but you’ll need to pay for the education in careful reading. This is by no means a one sit read. It demands (and rewards) deliberation.
There is no making sense of the things we do to each other, especially under the banner of military duty, but the value in this book is discovering that maybe there is a way to make sense of it not making sense. And if that sounds like a bit of intellectual tail-chasing, it isn’t. This is not an entertaining book. But having just written that, I have to say that, one step removed, it is vastly entertaining to unfold the map of our collective conscience and see the red dot proclaiming that YOU ARE HERE.
The most remarkable feat of EVIL MEN is in its balance. The moral paradoxes of relating these traumas are thoroughly addressed. Doing justice to the victims with mere words while evoking the necessary vividness to adequately represent the crimes is no easy task. Then avoiding catapulting the whole works into gratuitous carnival takes the utmost heartfelt precision, which he exhibits without faltering. James Dawes is exacting of himself as a researcher, as a writer, and as a moral human being. Following his lead through the nautilus of self-examination is effortless and, somehow, not terrifying. It’s not safe to go there, for certain, but it’s not safe not go there either, as he explains on the page.
Most importantly, for me, EVIL MEN left me with a notion. If the model of morality is in any way analogous to the model of physics, then this book inspires the hope that perhaps it all works in the same way quantum mechanics plays under the screen of our observable, Newtonian world. Maybe in the act of just examining our malleability and by measuring our own frailty, perhaps we change it.
Go get this challenging, wonderful book. Read it and discover what evil is (or isn’t) made of.