Book review: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

Mary Roach has made a career out of exploring subjects that are inherently interesting, gaining access to people, places, and records, and asking questions as a naïve outsider. She explores the topics and asks the questions that we would if we could.

In her latest book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, she applies her typical approach to looking at the bits of military science focused on keeping people alive. We see along the way the seriousness that the military devotes to finding solutions for specific problems—problems that you might not have considered—from clothing to medical issues to disasters. The common thread is the way that the military seems to push the envelope to seek solutions, either by encouraging the development of new technologies or by re-examining old one (such as the use of maggots).

As usual, her book is a fascinating look into tidbits. Along the way, you hear stories from different researchers and military personnel. She weaves the strange topics with facts and the personal. Grunt is far from being a dry list of facts or technologies. The information comes to life with stories of her investigation and involvement with the military, such as her time spent aboard a submarine or her attempt to gather first-hand stories about how diarrhea might have compromised military expeditions.

Most of the topics she investigates concern the here and now: making clothing soil-proof, bomb-proofing vehicles. Others are historical in nature: attempts during WWII to create smells that could be released in the midst of the enemy to demoralize or to make shark repellent. (She mentions the sinking of the USS Indianapolis but doesn’t seem to acknowledge that sharks ate the survivors in the water—men troubled decades were haunted by the screams of other men in the water being attacked and killed by sharks.)

In true fashion, she does not shy away from squeamish topics—in fact, I would argue that confronting these topics and wading into areas that no one else goes is what Roach does best. She looks into diarrhea as a national security threat, maggots as a renewed way to clean wounds, genital reconstruction and penile transplants. She is not afraid to ask the questions that you and I might wonder about—and that experts might roll their eyes at.

From this book, I gained a sense of how big the military industry is and how big it has to be to prepare its troops, keep them safe, and then provide care when they come home. I can also surmise how much of what the military does, investigates, researches, and provides solutions to bleeds into the public realm; the public often benefits from technologies, tools, and processes that were developed in the military. (Though I will admit, it would probably give me pause if/when my doctor tells me that he recommends using maggots on a wound that I had.)

Some bits piqued my interest more than others. The use of marrow infusions to prevent the rejection of transplanted organs—is this being used in the public realm yet? The ethical issues of transplanting testes along with the penis—any offspring are not part of the deal when the body is donated to science. Problems with submarines—I recently saw a water disaster simulator (sub room) in the Heslar Naval Armory in Indianapolis.

Grunt is an entertaining read. You’ll likely learn good trivia along the way—do not hold your breath when coming up from deep under water, do not rest your feet on the floor of an armored vehicle in a war-torn area, and whatever you do, kill flies—they are Satan incarnate as disease carriers, though ironically their young (maggots) could help save you from an amputation by cleaning out the wound.

As a teaser for MASH fans, Roach finds a Major Frank Burns mentioned in records she looked at. And there is also a Jim Nabors of sorts. Enjoy!