Mary Roach’s latest book looks at the science of humans at war
Jeanette Ferrara • July 28, 2016
The US military is full of scientists who specialize in things other than weaponry — like uniforms, ear protection and intestinal health. [Image credit: Pixabay User Defence-Imagery| CC0 Public Domain ]
Like all of Mary Roach’s books, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, is excellent. Going in, I wasn’t sure how Roach, whose conversational writing is typically a well-struck balance of information and humor, would handle the subject matter. If war isn’t a serious topic, I don’t know what is. But in her introduction, she lets the reader know up front that this isn’t a book about war strategy or weaponry. It’s about the science that goes into protecting soldiers in the field.
Grunt follows Roach’s typical narrative pattern. Each chapter focuses on a fairly specific topic, such as designing what soldiers wear, automotive safety in tanks, developing the best possible ear protection, dealing with genital damage and transplants, keeping soldiers cool in combat, dealing with diarrhea in combat and my personal favorite: developing effective shark repellent.
Roach’s signature humor is largely circumstantial, making the most of her material. For example, consider the chicken gun, a gun that fires dead chickens at aircraft at speeds up to 400 miles per hour. I can’t help but chuckle at the mental image of a gun designed to shoot chicken carcasses at aircraft, though it has the serious purpose of testing whether the aircraft can survive being hit by a live bird in flight, like a goose or a turkey vulture. Fun fact: turkey vultures account for only 1% of all bird strikes on Air Force jets, but they cause 40% of all damage to Air Force jets by bird strikes. Hence the need for the chicken gun testing. This ridiculous-sounding apparatus is probably the closest Roach comes to talking about actual artillery in the book.
The book is brimming with similar interesting factoids and tidbits, like the length of US military specifications on buttons for uniforms (22 pages). The exhaustive report includes details of how buttons are to be ironed, boiled and broken between steel blocks to test for durability in combat situations. It’s a major problem if someone is on a mission and their jacket button breaks because it snags when they are doing an Army crawl. And they can’t just use Velcro because it’s loud and can alert enemy forces to soldiers’ whereabouts.
Roach also reveals that before Julia Child became famous for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she might have helped develop the Navy’s recipe for shark repellant. Though the supposed danger to Navy seamen from shark attacks is minimal, while Child was an OSS operative during World War II she mixed up a brew in her bathtub that might still be in use today. Child herself claims only to have mixed the ingredients, so whether or not she developed the recipe herself is a mystery.
One of Roach’s pieces of trivia I found most interesting was the revelation that the US Navy has its own version of the Kobayashi Maru – the unbeatable simulation test from Star Trek that (future captain) James Tiberius Kirk beats by hacking it. In the Navy simulation, a submarine called the USS Buttercup tilts as it starts to sink from its stern (the back of the submarine). It’s a no-win scenario because the Buttercup always “sinks,” but the exercise is supposed to prepare men on submarines for how to deal with leaks and stay calm under pressure. So far, it hasn’t been hacked yet.
As always with Roach’s work, in the midst of a quick, entertaining read, I learned quite a bit about things that I had never even considered. Like how special operations forces in the Middle East take care of diarrhea on a mission (hint: kitty litter).