In late 1965 Sahlins traveled to Vietnam to learn firsthand about the war and the Americans fighting it, work that resulted in his seminal essay “The Destruction of Conscience in Vietnam.” He became one of the clearest and most forceful anthropological voices speaking out against efforts (in the 1960s and 70s, and in again in post-9/11 America) to militarize anthropology.
In 2009 I was part of a conference at the University of Chicago critically examining renewed efforts by U. military and intelligence agencies to use anthropological data for counterinsurgency projects.
He wrote a bestselling ethnography used in introductory anthropology classes around the world, describing the Yanomami as “the fierce people” because of the high levels of intra- and inter-group warfare observed during his fieldwork, warfare that he would describe as innate and as representing humankind in some sort of imagined natural state.
Chagnon, is currently basking in the limelight of a national book tour, pitching a memoir (Nobel Savages) in which he castes the bulk of American anthropologists as soft-skulled anti-science postmodern cretins embroiled in a war against science.
The first project examined “The Context of Military Environments: Social and Organizational Factors,” the second, “Measuring Human Capabilities: Performance Potential of Individuals and Collectives.” Reading the announcement of these projects forwarded by Sahlins, it is apparent that the military wants the help of social scientists who can streamline military operations, using social science and social engineering to enable interchangeable units of people working on military projects to smoothly interface.Here is another tentacle of the militarization of anthropology and other social sciences, of which the Human Terrain Systems is a familiar example. Price: To combine themes embedded in Chagnon’s claims of human nature, and the National Academy of Sciences supporting to social science for American military projects; can you comment on the role of science and scientific societies in a culture as centrally dominated by military culture as ours?Sahlins: There is a paragraph or two in my pamphlet on The Western Illusion of Human Nature, of which I have no copy on hand, which cites Rumsfeld to the effect (paraphrasing Full Metal Jacket) that inside every Middle eastern Muslim there’s an American ready to come out, a self-interested freedom loving American, and we just have to force it out or force out the demons who are perpetrating other ideas [see page 42 of Sahlins; The Western Illusions of Human Nature].Nor do I wish to be a party to the aid, comfort, and support the NAS is giving to social science research on improving the combat performance of the US military, given the toll that military has taken on the blood, treasure, and happiness of American people, and the suffering it has imposed on other peoples in the unnecessary wars of this century.I believe that the NAS, if it involves itself at all in related research, should be studying how to promote peace, not how to make war.” Napoleon Chagnon rose to fame after his fieldwork among the Yanomami (also known as Yanomamo) in the rainforests of northeastern South America’s Orinoco Basin in the 1960s and 70s.Marshall Sahlins’ resignation is an heroic stand against the subversion of science to those claiming an innate nature of human violence, and a stand opposing the increasing militarization of science.