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A Review of Mary Roach’s “Grunt”

Everybody’s favorite gross-out writer has done it again. Mary Roach—author of the widely praised and best-selling earlier books Gulp and Stiff—has taken her research and her pen to medical issues involving men and women in the military. That mostly means medical innovations to keep these people alive during battle and—in these days of endless warfare—restore and reconstruct the lives of those who have been damaged. Roach is concerned with physical disabilities and impediments, not the psychological ones. Reading Grunt, you will learn about the medical issues the military must deal with every day—aspects of survival you (if you are like me) have probably never considered.

Let’s begin with an obvious one but a problem that makes most of us so squeamish that it’s not an issue we want to talk about: diarrhea, but Roach (if I may parody her style) wades right into it. To be up-front, it’s a major problem. Roach quotes William Osler, writing in 1892, who said that dysentery “has been more fatal to soldiers than power and shot.” In the Civil War, 95,000 soldiers died from it. That’s the historical aspect, but a medical research report “revealed that from 2003 to 2004, 30 to 35 percent of military personnel in combat in Iraq” were confronted with unsafe food and water. “In that same survey, 77 percent of combatants in Iraq and 54 percent in Afghanistan came down with diarrhea. Forty percent of the cases were serious enough that the person sought medical help.” Roach makes it clear that soldiers often have to fight with their uniforms soiled. The military has spent vast amounts of money attempting to alleviate a problem that may never go away.

But to go back a step to Roach’s interest and the reason for this book (military science), gruntroachwhich begins with birds—birds that “collide with Air Force jets, costing $50 million to $80 million in damage” every year. Roach read about attempts to thwart birds from hitting aircraft by using radar beams, “something that would alert birds to the danger sooner, so they’d have time to react and get out of the way.” To this statement, she adds, “This is the sort of story that drew me to military science—the quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, bacteria, panic, ducks…. People tend to think of military science as strategy and weapons…. I’m interested in the parts no one else 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.” Quite a topic.

Roach writes about clothing worn by men and women in the military and how complicated its design has become in order to protect them; about the science of noise control and the extent of hearing losses (huge) of the people who protect us; she describes the use of cadavers (Warrior Injury Assessment Manikins) in simulated explosions in order to study body damage; about reconstructive surgery and the cruelest shot of all (in the groin), which touches on the current work on penis transplants; she is concerned about medics and how they hold up in the face of shots and explosions going off all around them. (There are Hollywood-like sound sets for training medics, complete with amputee actors.) She mentions pneumothorax—punctured lungs—the “second most common cause of combat death.” In a chapter titled “The War on Heat,” she describes all the awful ways excessive temperatures (the environment, military gear) can lead to death. There’s a chapter on “military maggots” and their healing use for cleaning dead flesh from wounds. Even a chapter on stink bombs and their potential for military activity (police forces sometimes use similar materials for dispersing rowdy crowds). And there’s a chapter on the military’s attempt to develop a shark repellent for soldiers struggling for survival in the sea.

All of these areas are fascinating, totally interesting until Roach gets to her final three chapters devoted to the numerous problems regarding the safety of men and women in submarines. She details the scary aspects of the bends, should surfacing happen too quickly for men deep in the water. She explains the complicated sleep patterns for the crew, which in many cases result in sleep depravation. Then she describes the issues of boredom and of close proximity to others. All of these are likely to result in stress. She concludes, “If everyone in the world did a stint in the Navy [particularly on a submarine], we wouldn’t need a Navy.” But, in the aggregate, these chapters, coming at the end of the book, are too long and take some of the juice out of her famous style.

Alas, parts of Grunt seem forced, though I credit Roach with relentless enthusiasm for her work. Reading this book, and her earlier ones, you move from horror and disgust to frequent belly laughs. She knows how to pack a punch in a brief sentence after she’s provided all the necessary information about a topic. In the section on the urgency for shark repellent for soldiers caught in water, she observes, “It’s no simple matter to make a man smell like shit.” To quote one of her similes—after she’s mentioned a company hired by the military to develop disgusting orders—they “put their top odor and flavor man, their ‘Million Dollar Nose’—on the job. Ernest Crocker rose to the challenge like the reek off a landfill on a summer’s noon.”

The cover photo of Grunt shows a soldier in uniform, carrying a stack of backpacks (supplies) that is taller than he. The galleys that I read provided no credit for the photo, which I believe is real, not photo-shopped. It’s a revealing image, conjuring up Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried. How any soldier can carry so much boggles the mind. Like the cover photo, Grunt gives the impression that this time Mary Roach’s topic may have overwhelmed her.

Mary Roach: Grunt, the Curious Science of Humans at War

Norton, 288 pp., $26.95

 

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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