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!

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Movie review: Fury (2014)

Fury recounts a few days in the life of one tank—named Fury—which is called upon to go behind enemy lines. In April 2015 WWII is in its final intense throes on the German homeland. American resources are running low and Fury is assigned missions without the preferred number of tanks accompanying it.

Into the mix comes Norman, an eight-week veteran of the Army and trained to be a clerk. Fury has just returned from a mission where it lost a member of the crew. Norman is the replacement. Needless to say, Norman doesn’t have an easy time fitting in. He bungles tasks, such as not shooting approaching Germans, which cost the lives of other tank members. The commanding officer of the Fury then forces him to kill a German captured in the battle.

Life in WWII, Fury shows us, is a savage world where you kill or be killed. Life is dirty and repulsive, as are your tank mates. They treat the locals as dispensable. None of this is new knowledge, but is presented in a very raw manner that produces a visceral response.

Norman finds all of this out the hard way and in short order. His softer side, his humanity is wiped out by the battles he encounters. Shortly after a romantic encounter with a local German woman, a potential war bride for Norman, he sees her body in the rubble. But he is prevented from making peace with her death and saying good-bye.

He watches those all around the Fury die and ultimately all of those in the Fury die. In the last battle, a desperate attempt to follow their orders of keeping a crossroads free from the enemy, Norman emerges as a hero. The real heroes are not just him but the entire crew of the Fury, dying to defend the crossroads against a battalion of SS troops. Norman was just the lucky one who didn’t die.

Fury depicts the life inside the tanks and the role of tanks in the war. The utter destruction of war, the senselessness of killing, and the repulsiveness of the soldiers are a bit much to bear. But overall Fury is a well-made movie that depicts the horrors that a more sensitive soul such a Norman encounters in the hell that is war.

Battle between elites fought by the unrepresented

I’m not used to thinking of the Revolutionary War as a battle between elites. Rather it was a battle for liberty, a battle between us Americans and the British who were taxing us without representation. The Boston Tea Party and all that. Thomas Paine’s radical call to arms.

But when you think of it, becoming our own country divorced from Britain did not lead to representation. At least not among slaves, indentured servants, Native Americans, women, and men without property. Only men with property could vote and hold office. They were the ones that made up the Continental Congress. They were the ones that signed the Declaration of Independence. They were the ones that passed the Constitution. They were the ones the Constitution was written for.

No, the Revolutionary War was quite possibly just a war between American elites and British elites. Who was going to have wealth and power in the colonies? The American elites or the British elites?

Those invisible to the Declaration and the Constitution fought the war to defend the interests of the former, though their support was not unanimous by any means. Conscripted by the British earlier to fight their battles, the common man was then conscripted to fight against the British.

History has a sick sense of humor. War continues to be planned and profited by elites and carried out on the backs of those who really have nothing to gain and everything to lose.