Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016. 9780393245448.
Sarah: Mary Roach is awesome at writing books on a topic and giving you all of the cool things you want to know about and not any of the dumb stuff you don’t want to know about.
Gene: Science-ey topics.
S: Yes, she’s a science writer. She wrote one about what happens to your body after you die, called Stiff.
G: I listened to that while driving to North Dakota last year.
S: They’re great on audio. That one had everything you might want to know about donating your body to science. There’s one about the digestive system, the alimentary canal.
G: That’s called Gulp.
S: And Packing for Mars, which is the only one with a long title. I still talk about things I learned from that book, it’s great in conversation.
G: That one’s about the science needed to go to Mars, and how it’s being developed?
S: Yeah. One of my favorite things from that to bring up in conversation, which is why you should invite me to parties, is that there’s a science behind pet food, dog food especially, to minimize the amount of shit that it creates.
S: They want to make really efficiently digested foods so there’s less poo. You need that if you’re on a spaceship because you don’t want to generate a huge amount of waste.
G: But this book is not about shit?
S: The subtitle to this is The Curious Science of Humans at War. Picking it up, I wasn’t sure this was a good topic for Roach, but she always picks the absolute best topics. She’s not talking about missiles, or about being a spy, or any of the stuff that’s been covered elsewhere. She’s got a chapter on the U.S. military’s fabric and fashion designers, she talks about the kind of fabrics you need if people are going to shoot at you. How they’ve changed some of things about the fabric because of IEDs, how they’ve changed some things because of the way fires start in tanks.
G: What did they change? The way it shreds?
S: Yes, to affect how much of the fabric gets left behind in wounds, because you can’t get it out again. It’s just in there. How inflammable materials have to be, how easily cleaned they have to be. And then there’s the fashion design: how do you want your military to look? Do you want lapels? How fashionable?
G: Is there something about camouflage patterns?
S: Yeah, and how that has weirdly gone in the other direction. Usually the military is absorbing things from fashion, but camouflage got absorbed by fashion from the military. The military hires people with fashion degrees because they know about garment construction. And then every once in a while there’s someone high up in the military who makes a decision just because they want to, despite it being against the advice of all the people designing the uniforms and the opinions of the grunts. One high ranking guy wanted berets, despite the people in the field who liked a brim on their hats because it kept the sun out of their eyes!
G: What’s the science-ey stuff in here?
S: There’s a whole section on hearing protection. It was great. You have to balance not having people go deaf versus keeping them aware of their surroundings and able to understand the people who are giving them directions.
G: Apparently hearing loss is a huge problem in the service.
S: Huge. She’s talks to a bunch of people who say “yes, my hearing is terrible but I fake my way through the tests because this is my job and I want to do my job.” She balances the stories of what people want the soldiers to be doing with what they actually do. She has a section called “Below the Belt: The Cruelest Shot of All” in which she interviews people at Walter Reed who have lost their genitals.
G: Oh my god.
S: This is a relatively new problem, because previously when people were hurt that badly, they just died. Now they survive. So there’s more soldiers with no legs and some of them are also missing other things. The government does not want to talk about sex, the government does not want to talk about genitals. They were reluctant to even have a nurse on staff to talk to guys about how to go back to their relationships. And how to continue being sexual when they don’t have the parts.
G: Is that just American Puritanism?
S: I think it is, which is sort of a relief to me, because I usually only see it politically around women’s issues, around birth control and abortion. It was nice, in a strange way, to see that the weirdness covers men, too.
G: It’s interesting, I could see how culturally, it’s taking away from the soldiers, it’s literally emasculating them, to talk about them like that. But it doesn’t mean they can’t have lives, or sexual lives.
S: Exactly. She’s talking about people working on reconstruction and… and this is the thing I’ll be bringing up for years to come… transplants.
G: Penis transplants. I’ve heard about this. They’ve done them, right?
S: In tests. There was one actual live transplant in China but it didn’t end up working out, but they are figuring out how to hook up the vascular system, how it would all work. She compares it to things like hand transplants, where the general public think “Wouldn’t it be too weird to have someone else’s hand? It seems so personal.” But when you talk to soldiers, the attitude is more “Well, I can have someone else’s hand or I can have no hand. I would rather have someone else’s hand.” And that’s been the attitude around genital transplants: I can have nothing or I can have this. She also talks to a woman whose son lost his genitals, she said that someone should be telling the soldiers to bank their sperm before they go overseas. And the government is saying they won’t do that, that’s not going to happen.
G: What’s the uplifting part of this book?
S: She is super humanizing about people who are going through these things. It feels like the technology and the medicine would be distancing, but she doesn’t go that way at all. She’s got a chapter about these, essentially, wet suits with artificial organs in them? They have actors lie down and act like they’re injured, so medics can practice. They put the medics in really high-stress situations with gunfire and shouting, because that’s going to be their workplace. You feel for the medics, you feel for the people who are training them and what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to keep people alive and they’re trying to make sure the medics can work under these terrible conditions. This is the most compassionate, the most thoughtful, and funny book about science and the military. I know that’s not a huge genre!
G: Did you just flip past maggot wound treatment?
S: That chapter’s really fun. It talks about how it originated in the military, and it’s continuing in some places, though it’s controversial. There’s also a great chapter on stink bombs. She goes into a classified history of stink bombs in World War II and the current state of both stink and de-stinking research. It has this great section… again, more party small talk for me… on how not all bad smells are bad in all contexts, and not all bad smells are bad in all cultures.
G: Like kimchi and rotten soy beans, as I’ve learned. (Reference: smell my fridge.)
S: Yeah. There’s not a universal bad smell. There’s things that are yucky in some circumstances, but in others it’s like, “Oh, that’s Parmesan cheese!”
G: There’s some chemical smell that’s rated as the worst, and you can buy it. Does she talk about that?
S: She does. The closest they had to a universal bad smell was based on an open-pit latrine. Pretty nightmarish. She goes to a lab where they are super careful about spills, have air hoods and stuff like that.
G: That’s not how I want to spend my day.
S: There’s a great digression about shark repellent! In World War II, there were guys who were afraid of being eaten by sharks if their ships sank or their planes went down. So there was a brief period of funding for research on shark repellent. They learned a lot about sharks, a lot about repellents, but they found there was nothing they could use that wouldn’t be a one meter square brick of some substance. There’s nothing portable.
G: Because it diffuses in the water.
G: Did they have stuff that works?
S: They came close, but they didn’t test it, it wasn’t practical. They found out that what sharks like, what they’re attracted to, it sometimes varies with species. What it boiled down to was that really, almost nobody was eaten by a shark anyway, so it was not a big deal. One military study found only two service members who had been bitten, and one turned out to have been bitten by an eel! But people were worried. If it was me? I’d address the problem by lying — just say, “Yeah, there’s repellant on your life jackets.”