“Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War”
W.W. Norton & Co. 2016
Reviewed by Matthew Dean, KP News
Humor writer Mary Roach has made a career out of offbeat portraits of science and society, and her latest work is no exception. “Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War” is a look at military research and development on subjects from the mundane (temperature-regulating uniforms) to the bizarre (stink bombs and shark repellent).
Roach’s passion and curiosity are evident throughout the book, which is presented as her personal journey through a variety of military facilities, learning about the strangest parts of the U.S. war machine. Along the way, she seeks answers to questions that very few people outside the military have asked, such as how medics-in-training simulate the stress of combat. The answer involves several amputees, movie sets and copious amounts of fake blood and tubing.
The book holds true to its subtitle’s promise of “curious science,” giving a fascinating window into obscure scientific fields and the larger-than-life figures who inhabit them. While “Grunt” is certainly written as entertainment, it’s also a respectful and exhaustively researched look at the offbeat side of military science.
Roach’s witty, genuinely earnest writing is a reason to read the book even for those uninterested in military science. Her vivid descriptions of scientists and researchers suggest figures you might meet in a comic book or action movie, like a grizzled veteran vehicle mechanic or a fashion-designer-turned-military-tailor. “Grunt” also spends a fair amount of time in unusual locations as Roach tours submarines, scent libraries and climate simulators, which provides even more fuel for her descriptive narrative style. Her curiosity also seems to bring out the best in her interview subjects, who describe their professions with passion and fervor.
Despite its interesting content and engaging style, however, this book is not for the faint of heart—or stomach. “Grunt” is a book about the inner workings of the military and is unsurprisingly loaded with profanity, extensive descriptions of cadavers and gore, and disgusting bodily functions.
Roach’s quest for “curious science” goes a step further in its effort to shed light on little-known aspects of war. Entire chapters are devoted to the medicinal potential of maggots, efforts to limit diarrhea caused by Army meals and possible transplant options for soldiers with genital injuries. Roach’s narrative cheerfully marches on through the more disgusting topics of the book, treating them as serious concerns that are often ignored due to their inherent unpleasantness.
In addition, “Grunt” is not intended to be a comprehensive look at any part of military science or at military science itself. Those expecting a more detailed, even-handed or technical narrative will be disappointed. Roach is primarily a humor writer, not a historian, and those who find her style grating or distracting will be disappointed by the relatively brief looks at most of the book’s subjects.
“Grunt” is certainly not for everyone; hardcore military buffs probably won’t find much value in a newcomer’s perspective on obscure science and the occasionally crude or taboo subject matter could push some readers away. As a cleverly written, dedicated look at those serving our country in the most unusual ways, however, “Grunt” is a success and Roach is an unparalleled tour guide.