Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach, New York, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2016, $26.95
Author Roach always seems to light on unexpectedly fascinating topics. Among her previous offerings are fascinating and highly readable books on corpses and their uses, digestion, life in outer space and the scientific aspects of afterlife. While not pure history, Grunt has its historical moments and offers the reader a rich and diverse menu of facts, stuff you never imagined you’d care about but soon find absorbing.
Take the military work uniforms commonly referred to as fatigues. In the past they were often too hot in summer and too cold in winter. No more. At a complex of U.S. Army laboratories outside Natick, Mass., researchers design and test cutting-edge military technology, including fabrics for all kinds of applications. Among the products they’ve developed is a textile that balloons away from the body when it burns, giving its wearer valuable seconds to stop, drop and roll. Refinement continues, since the fabric tears easily and doesn’t handle moisture well.
Of course everything has a downside, which is the challenge in engineering. Roach spoke with experts in the field and watched tests in progress to get inside the subject and reveal the science behind it. For example, a proficient military force doesn’t just give its soldiers weapons and teach them tactics; it also equips them with, for example, the best boots for particular climes and tasks, the best food (researchers have developed a sandwich with a three-year shelf life), the best sniper clothing (no zippers, which reflect light) and on and on. Roach even talked her way aboard submarines to ask questions and take notes. Not given to shyness, she describes current medical techniques used to repair groin injuries and observed one of the first-ever penis transplant operations. One chapter bears the subtitle “Diarrhea as a threat to national security.” Another centers on shark repellent.
The author covers just about every contingency one might face in combat and how to address each in turn. Roach does so in her characteristic bright, quick, witty style, loaded with facts and rich with actual people. This is a wonderful book.