An Ode to the Unmentioned Scientific Heroes Behind One of Humanity’s Deadliest Endeavours – A Review of Grunt by Mary Roach

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War is one of the things humanity is famous (or notorious) for, not least because it is one of the things that makes us who we are, as a species. Though some scientists have recently begun to claim that chimpanzees and ants engage in warfare, other scientists are leery of making such claims, stating that the idea that animals engage in warfare is anthropomorphising them and therefore not sound science. It also doesn’t help that our own species has a hard time deciding what a “war” is: what one group of people call a “rebellion” or “revolt” might be called a “war” by another (example: the Philippine-American War of 1898-1902, which some still call “the Philippine Rebellion”).

For the most part, though, when we think of the word “war” we think of “armed conflict between two groups of people”: a “hot” war as opposed to a “cold” war (the latter involving no armed conflict between two opponents, though they may participate indirectly in other “hot” wars waged by nations allied with them, as happened in the Cold War between the United States and the USSR in the wake of World War II). The problem with hot wars, though, is that they are incredibly messy. Any person with even a mild interest in history and/or current events is entirely aware that there is nothing glorious about war, and not just because of the violence on the battlefield. Keeping fighters physically and emotionally healthy both on and off the battlefield is an arduous and often thankless task, but what these unmentioned war heroes do is incredibly important. It is their stories that Mary Roach tells in Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War.

Grunt is divided into fourteen chapters plus an introduction. In “By Way of Introduction” Roach eases the reader into the nature of American military scientific research by talking about the (in?)famous chicken gun: a cannon that shoots frozen chickens at the windshields and engines of airplanes to test their durability against midair avian collisions (military term: “birdstrike”). The chicken gun is an example of the things that do not get covered or discussed in all the other media about war – probably because there is nothing very glamorous about shooting frozen chickens at windshields and engines, even if it is vital to the safety of not just military aircraft, but commercial aircraft too. Roach then goes on to emphasise what she wants to focus on in this book:

People tend to think of military science as strategy and weapons—fighting, bombing, advancing. All that I leave to the memoir writers and historians. I’m interested in the parts no one makes movies about—not the killing but the keeping alive. Even if what people are being kept alive for is fighting and taking other lives. Let’s not let that get in the way. This book is a salute to the scientists and the surgeons, running along in the wake of combat, lab coats flapping. Building safer tanks, waging war on filth flies. Understanding turkey vultures.

This is borne out in the subsequent chapters. For example, in the first chapter, “Second Skin”, Roach looks into what soldiers wear to war, starting off with the US Army’s quest for a fabric that is flame-resistant, dirt-resistant, comfortable, and still manages to look cool – and yes, that latter requirement is actually a lot more important than the reader might initially suspect. Roach explains why that is the case in the following excerpt:

Back before hulking body armor and gear-festooned vests supplied the intimidating profile, the clothing itself was sometimes recruited for the task. High hats and epaulettes made officers appear taller and more broad-shouldered. And the boots. The boots. Dashing knee-high leather boots protected the pant legs, yes, but surely they also boosted morale. Uniforms created not just uniformity but brio and self-confidence.

As someone who watches a lot of historical period movies and television shows, I can relate to Roach’s gushing over boots. The “brio and self-confidence” a well-fitted uniform lend to the wearer can be extremely attractive, and certainly morale-boosting, considering how wearers of said uniform are not above taking advantage of the appeal their clothing lends to them when around civilians. Anyone who has seen An Officer and A Gentleman or Top Gun enough times understands the appeal of “a man in uniform”.

Annette LaFleur, a fashion designer working with Natick Labs (which is wear everything an American soldier wears is designed and tested), emphasises the “cool factor” not just for morale, but for safety reasons as well:

“With protective gear especially, it’s key that you design something that’s kind of sleek and cool, because otherwise they’re not going to want to wear it.”

This makes sense: after all, if soldiers think something is “cool”, they are more likely to wear it, and, therefore, let the item do what it was designed to do – which, in most cases, is to protect them.

However, the “cool factor” is really just a bonus. Soldiers on the front line of war, particularly in the Middle East where the US wages most of its battles nowadays, are more concerned about comfort and safety: two features no single fabric can provide. Still, the people at Natick do what they can to keep soldiers both safe and comfortable – even if that means creating a “spider room” where researchers can raise and milk spiders for their silk, in order to study the substance’s properties (in particular, its superbly high tensile strength) in the hopes of turning it into a fabric.

While designing military uniforms at least has the glamour of fashion design attached to it (however peripherally), there is nothing at all glamorous about the medical side of military science – and it doesn’t get any less glamorous than studying diarrhoea, the subject of chapter 8, “Leaky SEALs”. Diarrhoea might not seem like such a high-priority concern in the twenty-first century, unlike in earlier periods when cholera could cause entire regiments to literally shit themselves to death. But it is still a problem, not least because of the way it can reduce the cognitive effectiveness of, say, a Special Operations commando trying to take out a high-value target. To be fair to Special Ops people, though, they would not let something as “small” as stomach trouble get in the way of accomplishing their mission, as this excerpt shows:

… “I have many stories where I’ve soiled my pants on missions. In Iraq, I’ve soiled my pants. In Afghanistan, I’ve soiled my pants.” No one stays back or leaves to find a toilet once an operation is under way. Diarrhea cannot be a “kill stopper.”

As Roach explores these little-known (and occasionally gross) corners of the military, a few things stand out. First is the overwhelming misogyny of all branches of the armed forces. This is something that will come as no surprise to any reader with any small awareness of the way the military (any military) works, but some of the convolutions made to accommodate it are almost laughable:

The ACU [Army Combat Uniform] used to be unisex, but women complained. The shoulders and waist were too wide for many women, or the hips too narrow. The knee patches tended to hit at the shins. Women hated it. They hated it enough that the Army commissioned a female uniform.

“But you can’t call it that,” Accetta says. “Because some of the guys are wearing them” It’s called the Army Combat Uniform-Alternate, a uniform “for smaller stature Soldiers.”

This excerpt illustrates how misogynistic the military is: on one hand, that they consider the average male build the “default” for all human beings to the point that they consider it “unisex”; and on the other, that they refuse to call a uniform “female” because men are wearing it too. And speaking of the female form, here’s an interesting tidbit about how the US military buys underwear:

Female soldiers, unlike males, receive vouchers to shop for their own underthings. The US military is gearing up to buy uniforms embedded with photovoltaic panels—shirts that can recharge a radio battery—but it is not up to the task of purchasing bras for female soldiers. “I’ve done that sort of shopping with my wife,” said an Army spokesman quoted in Bloomberg Business. “It’s not easy to do.”

While these and other passages are cringe-worthy and perhaps anger-inducing, they are small in comparison to the reality that people die in war – and sometimes, whether they admit it or not, those deaths are because too few important people actually care about what happens to the grunts on the front line. A lot of science goes into better and more efficient ways of killing people, and this shows in the way the media treats the military: on both film and television, it’s all about the guns and the planes and the drones and the tanks and the many, many ways American soldiers can kill their opponents. But too little attention is put on the doctors, the engineers, the researchers who try to keep those people safe. Roach puts it thusly, at the end of this book:

I guess war is like that. A thousand points of light, as they say. Only when you step back and view the sum, only then are you able to grasp the worth, the justification for the extinguishing of any single point. Right at the moment, it’s tough to get that perspective. It’s tough to imagine a stepladder high enough.

No matter how fascinating the military is as a subject, no matter how intriguing, it still remains that its business is ending lives, even if it means sacrificing a few in order to accomplish that goal. This means that all efforts to keep soldiers safe and healthy is really just an effort to keep them alive as long as possible so they can kill as many enemies as possible, until they, themselves, must yield up their lives for “God and country”. That is the sobering conclusion Roach comes to at the end of this book.

Now, while the insights this book provides are fascinating and, as I just mentioned, sobering, it is still not as perfect as I might like, though I feel my complaint is relatively minor. While Roach’s writing and narrative style are a joy to read, and I believe always will be, there is something rather odd about the narrative arc of this particular book. The storyline (such as it is) is not all that coherent; the chapters feel more like individual essays than anything a reader might consider a plot (a term I use loosely here to mean “narrative arc” or “storyline”, since this is a nonfiction book). I suppose a bit more effort could have been put into linking the chapters together in a more fluid, coherent way, but in the end this is, as I said, a minor complaint. The transitions between chapters are only slightly jarring, after all, and do not get in the way of the reader’s enjoyment of the book.

Overall, Grunt is exactly the sort of book readers can expect from Mary Roach: science and history made funny, without shying away from the gross bits – in fact, most of Roach’s fans will probably be looking forward to the gross bits. However, though the insights are interesting and meaningful, and Roach’s writing is all readers expect and hope it to be, this book does suffer from some organisational issues; the chapters do not connect as smoothly as I think they ought to. Still, this is a minor problem, and will not get in the way of the reader’s overall enjoyment.

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