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!

Podcast review: Revolutions

Revolutions is one of those podcasts that you hear about years after it started and then find yourself devouring episode after episode. Kind of like binge watching shows on Netflix.

I first heard of Revolutions on the NPR Politics podcast. One of the regular presenters shared a podcast that she had found very enjoyable: a historical podcast on revolutions around the world. Ooooh! That sounds interesting, I thought.

I have devoured the first year of backlogged Revolutions podcasts with no sign of letting up. Yes, they are interesting. Very.

The podcaster, Mike Duncan, makes history wonderfully engaging, full of anecdotes, facts, and commentary. I find myself laughing at descriptions he paints or emitting an exclamation of surprise about a tidbit of information that he shares.

In one case, he described a German officer who was attempting to train Americans to be soldiers. He spoke no English and the Americans spoke no German. Communication occurred through French. (He spoke French. Someone translated from French into English.) Often he would get frustrated or enraged at the American soldiers, turning red in the face and swearing in German—which the American soldiers found absolutely hilarious.

In another case, he related an observation by this same German officer: that European soldiers immediately obey when they are told to do something. In contrast, Americans want to be told why they need to do something before they will do it. I spit out whatever I was drinking. Some things, I thought, do not change with time. Imagine Americans not doing something until they knew why?! (I’d add that Americans need to agree with the reason.)

Revolutions are divided into, well, different revolutions. The podcast starts with the English Civil Wars and continues with the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and others.(I’m currently in the throes of the French Revolution.) The various episodes describe the political/social/historical situation that led up to the revolution under discussion, the revolution itself, and the immediate aftermath.

The podcast has definitely increased my knowledge and understanding of history and events. For example, while some names of the English Civil Wars are familiar to me (such as Oliver Cromwell), I was pretty much in the dark about England’s civil wars. (There were two civil wars back to back?!)

When I hear names in other contexts, I can now place them in time and understand the historical context around them. (Oh, King Charles II? The king that was invited back from exile after the English attempt at a republic failed? Oh, the Howes? Those brothers who led British troops in the American Revolution?)

The episodes on the American Revolution solidified, expanded, and corrected what knowledge I did have about my country. Who knew that Washington was the master of the graceful retreat? What was the deal with Benedict Arnold?

The episodes also piqued my interest. I found myself picking up books about the American Revolution and noticed nice confluences between the book I was reading and the podcast. I am now feeling yearnings to re-read political theory from undergraduate classes. Anyone up for Burke, Paine, or Locke?

Lafayette, who popped up in the American Revolution episodes, reappears in the French Revolution episodes that I am currently listening to. (I am waiting for Thomas Paine to make an appearance in the later French Revolution.)

Only two and a half more years of backlogged episodes to go! (Or only two and a half revolutions, depending on how you look at it.) And then I can turn to his initial podcast, The History of Rome, which ran from 2007 to 2012 and has only 191 episodes.

Check out either podcast—Revolutions or The History of Rome. (I can’t vouch for The History of Rome yet, but in 2010 it won Best Educational Podcast.) You won’t be disappointed.