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Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War…

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (2016)

by Mary Roach

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If you are expecting a book about battles or types of weaponry, what the Special Forces do, or even the effects of PTSD, this isn't the book for you. As it says in the title this book is about the science of humans at war. Mary Roach is known for looking at the as she says "dark corners" of a subject that no one else is looking at. Her first book, Stiff looked at what happened to your body after death, as in the options beyond cremation and burial. In Packing For Mars she writes about the space program; in Boink she writes candidly about sex, and in Gulp, she writes about the digestive system. In each of her books, she makes the subject sound completely fascinating. And that is certainly the case in this book.

In Chapter one she covers the design and endurance of the military uniform. The military hires fashion designers to not only make functional uniforms but something the soldiers would want to wear because it is comfortable and it looks good. They also make something called "blast boxers" which protect the genitalia from dirt and sand that is launched into that area and can cause hard to get rid of infections to the wound.

Another couple of chapters deal with what happens when your genitalia is shot up. When a man [It is believed that a woman would not be able to survive and have her female system gone.] steps on an IED his first thought is never is my penis still there? It's always "Where's my buddy?" or "How are my men?" And when he does get around to thinking about his penis if it's bad enough he'd rather stay there and die than be medevacked because he can't imagine a life without a penis. These days the doctors can do amazing things to repair damage and put in pumps to help if necessary. They can take tissue from the mouth to make urethra tubes. Now they have managed to transplant a penis from a cadaver. The doctors at Johns Hopkins have been working on it for a while and have a soldier waiting for a donor. Roach witnesses a cadaver penial removal. I looked online and a 64-year-old cancer patient back in May of last year successfully received a penial transplant and did not reject it.

In the chapter titled "Courage Under Fire" it deals with training certain soldiers, such as medics to cope with the sights and sounds of war while providing medical care to soldiers. Stu Segall, a man who has had many careers over the years is probably best known for his work on the TV crime drama Hunter. Now he has a studio set up to mimic conditions such as a village in Afghanistan or aboard a ship. He also invented the Cut Suit Silicone Repair Kit. A person wears the suit and you can have him or her have any problem you need them to have and the medic can "operate" on them just like they would a real person and with a real person wearing the suit you have the experience of a human being looking at you talking to you or making noises as opposed to the animals they usually use that are put to sleep for the operation. He also has vets with missing limbs who are done up with a kit to appear to have just lost the limb and are bleeding. While all this is going on you can hear loud gun fire and bombs going off. When you enter this situation your adrenaline kicks in with your survival stress response and you become "fast, strong, and dumb." Your hands will shake and other reactions inside your body will cause you to lose the ability to reason or analyze. The idea is to get these medics as used to the stress as possible before they face the reality and have lives in their hands.

Roach watches as submariners train for going below by a very realistic simulation exercise and by working with the suit they will wear if they need to to take them to the surface. She also goes aboard a submarine and sees firsthand how a nuclear sub works. One of the main problems on submarines, and nuclear submarines, in particular, is the lack of sleep. They get at most four hours of sleep. And research has shown that "failure to get adequate continuous sleep every day results in overly fatigued personnel who, in a matter of days, function at a deficit similar to being intoxicated." A submariner will tell you that "Marines sitting around in a bar will tell you how many push-ups they can do. Aviators will tell you how many g's they can take. Submariners will tell you how many hours they stayed up." No one wants to be known as a "rack hound". Those that are of lower rank have to study for tests on top of the work and drills they have to do. Also, there are numerous drills for fire, flood, hydraulic rupture, air rupture, man overboard, security violation, and torpedo launch. Your sleep is constantly interrupted and sometimes it can take a day or more to fix something and you won't go to sleep until it is fixed. It's scary to think of these sleep-deprived soldiers operating complex machinery, but at the same time, you don't hear about submarines crashing all the time.

Roach also covers such topics as being able to hear in battle, making the Styker vehicle more bomb proof, the science of sweat and how to deal with it, the seriousness of diarrhea and why soldiers rarely ask for help when they could be fine in less than a day rather than suffering for five, good bugs and bad bugs, stink bombs, shark repellant, and how the fallen help those now, by being autopsied to find out what worked and what didn't and what went wrong or didn't. This book is compelling and engrossing and just plain interesting. She shines a light on spots of the military you wouldn't think to think about and makes you want to know more. That is what she is best at doing in her books and she does not let you down here.


Camo print became so popular that eventually Navy personnel began clamoring for it. To the embarrassment of many, the current Navy working uniform is a blue camouflage print. Unsure whether perhaps I was missing the point, I asked a Navy commander about the rationale. He looked down at his trousers and sighed. “That’s so no one can see you if you fall overboard.”

-Mary Roach (Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War p 35)

All the added armor had Humvee engines screaming and straining on the uphills, and brakes burning out on the downs. Safety modifications on the Strykers added 10,000-plus pounds—far more than the vehicle was built to handle…For every piece of reinforcement, people like Mark would be called on to ditch something of similar weight. And the Stryker was never a lushly appointed vehicle. There is no onboard toilet. (There are empty Gatorade bottles.) The early ones didn’t even have air-conditioning. I tell Mark I’m glad to see some cup holders were left in place. I recognize the brief polite silence that follows. It’s Mark Roman rendered mute by the fullness of my ignorance. They’re rifle holders.
-Mary Roach (Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War p 43-4)
He helped me put on my gear. (“I can stick my lip balm and tape recorder in these skinny vest pockets.” “Those are for ammo.”)

-Mary Roach (Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War p 59)

Walter Reed Medical Center pays for phalloplasty, although there was initially some resistance. (The implants alone cost about $10,000) Erections were thought of as “Icing on the cake,” Dean says. “They’d say, ‘Oh, people don’t really need that.’ I’m like, ‘Well, the guy with the amputated leg doesn’t really need prostheses. Put him in a wheelchair!’ And they’d go, ‘Oh, no! It’s important that they walk!’ I’d say, ‘Okay, well, most people would think it’s important to have sex.’”
-Mary Roach (Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War p 84)
If you don’t have a pair of cadaver shoes, you’re not doing enough research.

-Mary Roach (Dr. Rick Redett to Mary Roach in Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War p 96)

Stewart Springer voiced the cockamamie irony of it: “It was okay to give one’s life for one’s country, but to get eaten [by sharks] for it was another matter.”
-Mary Roach (Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War p 205)

Few of the students will cop to it, but there’s some anxiety in the house today. Some of these boys can barely swim. The Navy entrance requirement is minimal. You are dropped in a pool fifty feet from the edge, and you get to that edge however you can. You don’t have to like the water to join the Navy. “I don’t even like baths,” said one submariner I met.
-Mary Roach (Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War p 235)

Medical historian Philip Mackowiak compared eyewitness and officers’ accounts of Stonewall Jackson’s performance during a series of Civil War battles with the general’s opportunities for sleep, if any, in the days leading up to those battles. In 100 percent of the battles for which Jackson had had no chance to sleep in the three days prior, his leadership was rated “poor.” In the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, his chief of staff described him as “thoroughly confused from first to last.” His brigades were not merely “out of order”; “he did not know where they were.” The Battle of Glendale found Jackson “benumbed, incapable…of deep thought or strenuous movement…uninterested and lethargic.” At times during the Battle of Malvern Hill, Jackson “appeared to be almost a bystander.” In the midst of the Battle of McDowell, he was discovered napping.
-Mary Roach (Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War p 248)
To reduce troops’ load, the Army adds caffeine to gum or mints or foods that soldiers are already carrying, like jerky. Natrick public affairs officer David Accetta feeds a Caffeinated Meat stick to reporters who visit the food lab. To me, it tasted just like you’d expect caffeinated meat to taste. Accetta was taken aback. “Brian Williams loves them.” Or did he?

-Mary Roach (Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War p 256)

Female soldiers, unlike males, receive vouchers to shop for their own underthings. The U.S. 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.”
-Mary Roach (Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War p 269) ( )
  nicolewbrown | Jan 23, 2017 |
Roach goes where research is being done in all aspects of war survival and recovery. She attends a war survival recreation school, visits a laboratory that houses the most offensive smells ever created in the name of war, follows the trail of scientists who work to keep military food sanitary, thereby cutting down on serious illness among soldiers, and other scientists who believe maggots may be a viable medical tool. Roach has an incredibly high tolerance for the stuff that would have the rest of us barfing, but that doesn't stop this from being very readable, as it's full of amazing accomplishments, unsung heroes, and Roach's humor. ( )
  mstrust | Dec 15, 2016 |
There aren't too many authors that make my pulse start racing when I hear they are coming out with a new book, Roach is definitely in that category! Funny thing, the last two offerings of hers I thought I'd like more than I did, and this one didn't seem like something that would interest me. Oh ye of little faith. I should have known that in Roach's capable hands and curious mind that she would make the subject of war thought provoking with out turning off the reader.

I hope with her wide readership that our young service men and women will become news again, instead of what makes the headlines currently! ( )
  Iambookish | Dec 14, 2016 |
Roach tackles a number of topics affecting US military, from uniforms and equipment that protect the soldier but are also light enough to wear and carry, to the new types of injuries caused by IEDs, to the bizarre scientific research that is part of military medical science. As with previous books, the value of Roach's outlook is that she sees it with a novice's eye and isn't afraid to ask the questions any one of us might - and then makes it funny. In the case of the military, the humor is tinged with horror. Roach learns that an impaired submarine will have more than seven days of food on hand because "you're probably dealing with a proportion of the crew" and it takes Mary (and the reader) a moment before the penny drops - because several members of the crew will certainly have died trying to repair the damage. With this subject especially, Roach's humor is funny but always respectful. ( )
  bookappeal | Dec 12, 2016 |
I've been a huge fan of Mary Roach since I read Stiff in 2009. I read all of her books, and have eagerly anticipated each new release since. Grunt kind of snuck* up on me, I wasn't even aware of it until right around the time it was published, and it's taken me a few months to get around to reading it, but I must say I'm not disappointed!

Grunt focuses on military science, particularly of the non-weaponry variety. Things like how medics are trained stateside to prepare them for the horrors of improvised battlefield treatments, the prominence of hearing loss among soldiers, the surgical options for genital damage after IED explosions, and the effects of widespread diarrhea among soldiers serving overseas. Yes, if you know Mary Roach, you know she doesn't shy away from the ickier topics, and you know she always speaks about with respect, but in a casual, humorous tone.

I will say that the book is a little less snarky than previous books. I noticed about 100 pages in that it seemed like there were a lot less of her laugh-inducing footnotes. I wasn't sure why while I was reading it, but thinking about it now I think it has more to do with wanting to respect the people she was interviewing. While I would never consider Roach disrespectful (barring a passage or two in Spook, perhaps) I think she wanted to treat the topic with a little more reverence this time.

That's not to say that it isn't hilarious. It's just as fun, light-hearted, and informative as her other books. It just felt a little bit more reserved, and I honestly don't have a problem with that at all. Grunt is definitely worth reading if you are a fan like I am. ( )
1 vote Ape | Nov 30, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mary Roachprimary authorall editionscalculated
Kohsar, WakilCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kulick, GreggCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393245446, Hardcover)

Best-selling author Mary Roach explores the science of keeping human beings intact, awake, sane, uninfected, and uninfested in the bizarre and extreme circumstances of war.

Grunt tackles the science behind some of a soldier’s most challenging adversaries―panic, exhaustion, heat, noise―and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them. Mary Roach dodges hostile fire with the U.S. Marine Corps Paintball Team as part of a study on hearing loss and survivability in combat. She visits the fashion design studio of U.S. Army Natick Labs and learns why a zipper is a problem for a sniper. She visits a repurposed movie studio where amputee actors help prepare Marine Corps medics for the shock and gore of combat wounds. At Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti, in east Africa, we learn how diarrhea can be a threat to national security. Roach samples caffeinated meat, sniffs an archival sample of a World War II stink bomb, and stays up all night with the crew tending the missiles on the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee. She answers questions not found in any other book on the military: Why is DARPA interested in ducks? How is a wedding gown like a bomb suit? Why are shrimp more dangerous to sailors than sharks? Take a tour of duty with Roach, and you’ll never see our nation’s defenders in the same way again. 15 illustrations

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 14 Dec 2015 17:06:36 -0500)

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