Dawes speaks on war and storytelling

Bridget Donnelly

James Dawes, Associate
Professor of Literature and
Founder and Director of the
Program in Human Rights and
Humanitarianism at Macalester
College in St. Paul, Minn., delivered
a lecture titled “War Crimes and
Representation” Monday, Feb. 8.
Dawes, who has authored two
books on narrative representations
of the torture and trauma associated
with war, centered his talk on
the deathbed confessions of non-
American former war criminals.
In attendance were students of
professors Faith Barrett and Lena
Khor, who have incorporated a
consideration of Dawes’s work into
their respective classes on Civil
War literature and human rights.
In his introduction, Dawes
admitted, “I’m uncomfortable giving
this talk.”
He explained that the testimonies,
which he recorded first-hand,
were difficult for him to present
for a number of reasons.
Outlining the problems in relation
to the events themselves and
to the audience, Dawes delineated
an issue he refers to as “the pornography
of evil.” Occasionally
making the executive decision not
to read a direct passage aloud,
Dawes chose to leave out what
he perceived to be unnecessary
graphic details.
However, studding the lecture
with personal narratives provided
Dawes with a backdrop upon
which he could assess both the
fashioning of such narratives and
their retelling.
In the question and answer
session that followed the lecture,
Dawes continued to struggle with
his presentation of these confessions.
Dawes kept repeating that
he does not know what to do with
the information with which he has
been entrusted.
He acknowledged that he
feels he is entering into a form of
betrayal. Though he is equipped
to take on the task of retelling the
narratives, he cannot always “do
what they want [him] to,” which
often involves the communication
of these men’s political beliefs.
However, Dawes restated his
simple mission, which was to comply
with the repeated request in
common with all those from whom
he received a confession: “Please
make sure you tell these stories.”
Particularly addressing the students
present, Dawes insisted on
the importance of sharing these
narratives, especially with prospective
participants in the future of
the human rights movement.
His persistent questioning
of the most appropriate method
of sharing these narratives was
applied to the larger perspective,
and he maintained that only
through talks like these can the
human rights movement learn to
deal with such confessional narratives.