Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach

Eight stars

Roach is back for another scientific look at the world around us, this time honing her attention on the US Military. In ways unique to her, Roach is able to look at various aspects of military life and explore the informative components while injecting little known (or considered) facts about the process. Consider, for example the depth to which the Department of Defence has studied various materials for uniforms, from their flammability, coolness (temperature) factor, and even lack of fashion-worthiness. The controversial world of camouflage does not elude Roach, as she examines just how much thought (and many tax dollars) goes into a decision. However, this only skims the surfaces of her analyses, as she ventures into the world of prostheses, which are common among the injured returning from the battlefield and wishing to hold onto some semblance of their previous abilities. The reader might not expect the significant amount of attention paid to penile prosthetic implements and the surgery around trying to handle injuries to the area. Of course, Roach does not shy away from this, nor does her exploration keep her from asking (and writing) about the wonderful world of diarrhea, particularly for those deployed to ‘non-first world domains’. Have you ever wondered what a sniper would do if they were hit with a bout of ‘the runs’ while scoping out an enemy? Roach has and writes about this, at length. From there, it is exploration of flies and maggots, both of whom have been the focus of numerous studies by the US Government. Of course, no examination of the military would be complete without discussion of weapons, though Roach chooses some less than expected armaments when she researches and talks about the odorous weapons that US Military brass chose to develop and deploy. Stink bombs, scents that would be displeasing to a cross-section of various ethnic communities, as well as the disturbing results of focus group studies (that many asked would actually consider wearing a vomit scent as a daily cologne/perfume!). While out of sights, Roach refuses to keep those aboard submarines out of mind as she examines sleep deprivation and circadian rhythms for the men and women prowling the deepest seas. Roach has outdone herself yet again and left me with tears in my eyes, trying to stifle a laugh in a subtle cough as I sat in public. Enjoyable for anyone, but preferably not read anytime near food consumption.

It could be Roach’s delivery or her refusal to find anything off limits, but she has gone to the margins of possible exploration and then forged ahead. Her discovery of the most random areas of research and highlighting them in major portions of her chapters shows not only a strong grasp of the material, but also that she is able to synthesize it effectively. The reader will, if they are anything like me, remain agog of all the minutiae that comes to the surface while also constantly asking just how far Roach will push the envelope to add fodder to her books. She seems to write so seamlessly and with such confidence that the reader can absorb all that is presented and feel it is highly useful at the next dinner party or family gathering. The chapters remain all-encompassing though the entire book remains under 300 pages, allowing the reader to leave the experience without being too weighed-down with facts. 

Kudos, Madam Roach for taking us into the world of the military through science rather than the incessant ISIS babble that fills the airwaves today.