How some men are turned into monsters

First aired on The Current (26/08/13)

When people commit horrible crimes we tend to label them as evil and regard them as somehow innately flawed. But author James Dawes believes that monsters are made, not born. In his new book Evil Men, Dawes reveals the humanity that can lie at the heart of darkness, and shows how in times of war, men are transformed into monsters through a routine process that could work on anyone.

Evil Men new.jpgWhen Dawes set out to explore evil he decided to put his questions to the perpetrators, not the victims. He interviewed convicted Japanese war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), in which Japanese men committed horrific acts against Chinese civilians. But when Dawes was face to face with these men, he was struck by how normal they were. "They were in their 80s and 90s and they were frail," he told The Current host Anna Maria Tremonti in a recent interview. "Sometimes it was hard to remember [while] sitting in front of these men, so close to death, how monstrously powerful they had been."

Dawes was even struck by the charm of some of the men. He described one man as having a boyish enthusiasm and energy. "He had this really goofy, Mary Poppins-style bicycle that he rode. Every time I was around him I just kept smiling." And yet this man told Dawes stories about killing children and their mothers.

How is it possible that these grandfatherly men had been vicious killers at one point? Each man had a strikingly similar narrative: they had been taken in by the Japanese army at a young age and trained through an extensive step-by-step process of indoctrination.

First, the young men were isolated from their families, churches and schools, and thus removed from their usual moral reference points. Next, they were trained to think in "us versus them" terms. They were also made to believe that the world's problems have simple solutions that involve violence. Then the men were broken down spiritually and physically, making them feel so helpless that they seek control in other ways. This control comes in the form of domination over other helpless people. "It's incremental and it's step by step," Dawes explained. "Everyone started slow and small. The first time you have to beat a villager it will feel shocking...the second time not so much, the third time, [it's] easy."

Dawes admits the knowledge that any man can be turned into a monster is disturbing. He draws parallels from these men to all men in all wars, including the rebels in Syria today. However, he sees a glimmer of hope: if men can be transformed into monsters through an indoctrination process, they can also be transformed back to normal.

After imprisonment in Siberia, the men were sent to a Chinese Communist camp where they were taught compassion for humans. The men came to see what they did was terrible -- but they also understood the process that led them to their actions. "The men I met see themselves almost as missionaries, who in their last days, the reason they wake up in the morning, the reason they don't just quit and die is because they want to tell the truth about what happened."

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