Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
By Mary Roach
285 pages. W. W. Norton, 2016. $26.95.
Reviewed by Ron Soodalter
WAR ISN’T SUPPOSED TO BE FUNNY. But when science writer Mary Roach takes on a subject, readers can assume she will find a fair amount of humor in it. So it is with Grunt, the latest of her insightful and often irreverent investigations of offbeat topics, which have included some that most people avoid, such as the afterlife of cadavers (Stiff), and the passage of food from the mouth to, well, its final destination (Gulp).
Grunt examines the military’s drive to equip, protect, and maximize the performance of soldiers in the field. Roach begins by looking at the “chicken gun,” a long-barreled piece of artillery that hurls dead chickens at unmanned airplanes to help the U.S. Air Force figure out how to prevent “birdstrikes” that cause tens of millions of dollars in damage, and many human casualties, every year.
Roach goes on to cover such subjects as the difficulties involved in outfitting soldiers in uniforms that are at once protective, comfortable, and sporty; efforts to “up-armor” land vehicles so their crews can survive IED and RPG attacks; the harmful as well as beneficial effects of flies and maggots in military settings; and the development of the stink bomb. Roach isn’t afraid to face what she calls “unpretty facts”—to broach subjects that many of us have secretly wondered about, such as bowel movements under battle conditions (covered in her chapter on how the architects of secret ops missions plan for such gastrointestinal eventualities as diarrhea).
Light though her tone often is, Roach takes a serious approach when it is called for. She devotes an entire chapter—“Below the Belt: The Cruelest Shot of All”—to the reconstructive surgery required to repair or re-create the penis when it has been damaged or destroyed in combat. Her final chapter, “Feedback From the Fallen,” is a jarring study of military autopsies, which analyzes not only injuries to the victim but also the methods used in attempting to save him or her. (Today, everyone killed in U.S. military service receives an autopsy.)
Although Roach describes herself as a “goober with a flashlight,” she certainly is much more than that, skilled as she is in presenting complex scientific information in an easy conversational style. Grunt not only entertains and informs but also answers, along the way, more than a few questions that in less capable hands might go unanswered. MHQ
RON SOODALTER, a frequent contributor to MHQ, is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue (Vol. 29, No. 2) of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Reviews: Causes and Effects.
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