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Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach

September 13, 2016

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I love Mary Roach. She’s cornered the market on quirky, surprising and often gross trivia. She started as a journalist, writing (as she puts it on her website) “sort of a reported humor column, wherein I covered things like vaginal weight-lifting and amputee bowling leagues and the question of how much food it takes to burst a human stomach.” She says she likes “Scrabble, mangoes, and that late-night Animal Planet show about horrific animals such as that parasitic worm that attaches itself to fishes’ eyeballs but makes up for it by leading the fish around.” I’ve heard a number of podcast interviews with Mary, and it’s always a fun listen.

Likewise, Grunt is a fun book. As she explains upfront, there are plenty of books about the weaponry, strategy and psychology of war. She had no interest in covering that well-trod ground. What she was looking for were the stories in the nooks and crannies. The military, as she points out, is perfect for absurd trivia because of the conflux of massive amounts of money with peculiar needs and outside-the-box thinking. It’s hard to think of another book that slices so uniquely across topics such as battlefield hearing loss, marooned submarines, shark repellant, diarrhea, penis implantation and aviation bird strikes.

These topics are serious, of course. In many cases they’re a matter of life and death. It’s not hard to imagine why so much money was spent unsuccessfully searching for a repellant for sharks when one imagines a crew of Navy seamen swimming in the Pacific, awaiting rescue. Or why shooting turkey carcasses at 400mph out of a cannon into a jet engine is a worthwhile exercise if it can save one fighter jet from crashing. But just because the endeavors are serious doesn’t mean it can’t lead to absurd, often hilarious outcomes.

The military is often mocked for its wasteful spending and bureaucracy, but it is constantly innovating, and many of the innovations eventually find their way into civilian life. Research into flame-resistant materials and heat-refracting clothing (both covered here) will eventually save lives and provide comfort beyond the battlefield. Likewise with the military-funded medical advancements with prosthetic limbs and, explored in one chapter, genitalia.

But the most enjoyable bits are the failed experiments. The ideas that don’t quite work out, disasters and near-disasters. The failed weaponization of smell. The actors failing at playing victims in battle simulations. There are countless anecdotes in Grunt, but one of my favorite stories is that of the USS Squalus, a submarine that sank off the coast of New Hampshire in 1939. At the time, subs were equipped with an emergency buoy, which the Squalus crew released to the surface 240 feet above. The buoy was tethered to the sub and contained a phone with which rescuers could talk to the trapped crew. An interesting idea, but after a short bit of communication with the rescuers above, the phone line snapped, killing any ability to communicate. The rescuers had to resort to using a never-tested diving chamber. Working through the night, they managed to make four trips to the Squalus and rescue the remaining crew 33 members. Roach tells this story as well as other interesting ideas in underwater rescue—from emergency breathing apparatuses to “underwater parachutes.”

Whereas someone like Sebastian Junger embeds with the soldiers doing battle, Roach embeds with the nerds. And that’s what makes this book both different and charming. It’s a tad random. It leans pretty heavily on the gross. And some of the stories are better than the others. But overall, it’s entertaining and fun—exactly what it should be.

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