Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the third book I’ve written by Mary Roach (the others being ‘Bonk’ and ‘Packing for Mars’) and is my favorite so far. In this book Roach covers the science and technology of keeping soldiers safe and effective in war – sometimes (oftentimes) conflicting goals. [Note: In the interest of brevity, I refer to “soldiers” or “Marines” in this review interchangeably for all the military – yes, I know they refer to different branches of the military.]
Some of the topics are how to protect soldiers from IEDs when riding in troop carriers; the effect of noise on soldiers; training for medics; treatment of genital mutilation as a result of battle; diarrhea; shark repellent; and the effect of irregular sleep patterns for submariners.
A big problem in battle is the kicking in of the “fight or flight response” which makes one “fast, strong, and dumb”; [Loc 1294] while this response kept primitive man alive “when threats took the form of man-eating mammals, when hurling a rock superhumanly hard or climbing a tree superhumanly fast gave you the edge that might keep you alive.” [Loc 1294] “The technical term for f***in’ tunnel vision is attentional narrowing. It’s another prehistorically helpful but now potentially disastrous feature of the survival stress response. One focuses on the threat to the exclusion of almost everything else.”[Loc 1378] This can be a problem for a medic trying to help a Marine in the middle of battle. The resulting reduction of fine motor skills is a big problem for medics who are working with the “growing sophistication and miniaturization of medical equipment.” Add to this the motions and vibrations of a medevac flight, and you start to gain an appreciation for the military medic’s challenges.” [ Loc 1294] Of course the military has a way of training medics to deal with this – which she takes part in and describes.
Mary Roach sticks up for scientists’ contributions to the military. When talking about a Sergeant supporting the needs of platoon; she argues that s/he needs to have a wealth of information. “I agree that squad leaders are in the best position to know what and how much their men and women need to bring on a given mission. But you want those squad leaders to be armed with knowledge, and not all knowledge comes from experience. Sometimes it comes from a pogue at USUHS who’s been investigating the specific and potentially deadly consequences of a bodybuilding supplement [which is used A LOT in the military] Or an army physiologist who puts men adrift in life rafts off the dock at a Florida air base and discovers that wetting your uniform cools you enough to conserve 74 percent more of your body fluids per hour.”[Loc 1705]
Through it all Mary writes with her trademark dry wit. When discussing the impact of diarrhea on soldiers she talks about the venue for discussing the topic at lunch after training: “The tables in the hangar-size Dorie are arranged church-basement-style, in log rows, so there’s always a friendly stranger across from you or at your elbow, someone new with whom to chat about loose bowel movements while you eat.”]Loc 1772]
Mary Roach usually keeps a distance from her subject (and subjects) through her irony and dry wit. But what I especially like about this book is her warmer approach to the people she is writing about; while still keeping her humor. Humor can be used to keep a subject at arm’s distance; but here, she is bring them closer. “I’m adjusting to the concept of a ‘casualty collection point,’to the horrible fact that there can be enough casualties for a ‘collection’.”l [Loc 1660]
All-in-all this is my favorite of her books I’ve read. She brings her standard approach of tireless and detailed analysis of how science and technology is applied to critical elements of our lives.”
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