If you are familiar with science writer Mary Roach, you know she is never one to shy away from parts of science that verge on the absurd. I read two of her previous books, and was enchanted by Roach's unique combination of endless curiosity and a wry sense of humor. So I rushed to lay my hands on her newest book, “Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War.” It will not fail to live up to her fans’ expectations. Even those who have never read her before will be hard-pressed to put down a book that I finished in a few short days.
The real joy of Roach’s writing is her talent for seeking out strange areas of science that a reader might never have known about. As an investigator, she answers questions you never knew you had. Her newest work is no exception. We discover, for instance, how the military tests the ability of a fighter jet to survive a mid-air collision with a large bird--by firing a dead chicken at the plane at 400 miles per hour. Roach uncovers the strange history of a World War II-era quest to find an effective shark repellent for downed airmen. We meet the scientists behind the ongoing attempts to weaponize stink bombs, research that originally began with the intent of giving resistance fighters a tool to humiliate occupying German and Japanese soldiers. That the chemically-synthesized versions of human body odors were never deployed is perhaps for the best. We learn about the unexpected intersection of fashion designers and the armed forces, and the arms race between armored vehicles and insurgent explosives in both Iraq wars.
As a reader might expect, a book about the science of humans at war isn't all light-hearted whimsy. Roach describes the development of techniques to rescue damaged submarines and what happens when these efforts fail. The chapter on the reconstruction of male anatomy in the aftermath of an IED attack is not for the faint of heart. Nor will the squeamish take joy in the discussion of using maggots to treat wounds, however effective a remedy it is.
Our journey ends in a military morgue. When all the efforts to protect the lives of military personnel have failed, the casualties come here for a mandatory autopsy. Even Roach's endless capacity for humor fails in such a setting. It seems out of place. These autopsies are research too, the results providing feedback to improve medical treatment in war. It’s too late to save those already in the morgue. But like much of the research the military undertakes, what is learned may prevent other casualties in the future. As difficult as it is to learn the workings of surgical centers and morgues, Roach refuses to look away. We should refuse to look away too.
“Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War” is written by Mary Roach. It’s published by W. W. Norton & Company and was released in June.
Reviewer Brady Clemens is the district consultant at Schlow Regional Library.