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

In this book Mary Roach delves into the sometimes funny and sometimes horrific science around sending troops into harm’s way. She takes a journalistic approach, interviewing and inserting herself into some experiments and demonstrations. She takes a light touch that is sometimes a relief and at other times seems strangely inappropriate.

Among things on the lighter side include military experiments with bad smells to demoralize the enemy. (Sewage smells against western troops, corpse smells for Asian combatants.) There are the awkward attempts to save the hearing of troops, even though sound deadening can actually put troops in danger by making commands difficult to understand plus an odd sense among troops that some hearing loss conveys status. And there are stories about the attempts to allow more sleep for submariners by setting up regular shifts, which only contributed to overworking kitchen staff and keeping friends apart on a crew of around 200.

Then there are the gory and horrific stories. Penile reconstruction for those who have had theirs injured or removed in battle. Roach meets soldiers getting other body parts removed or reconstructed, and even sits in on a general weekly conference of medical examiners. She says that only suspicious deaths were autopsied in the past, but now all autopsies are photographed and reviewed, with surgical and medical corpsman equipment in place to evaluate how attempts at life-saving are succeeding or failing.

Roach says that she intentionally avoided some topics, such as post-traumatic stress, simply because it’s already heavily covered in other areas. This gives her more room to cover other and sometimes jarring subjects like hydration, diarrhea in the field, and various experiments to design protection from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in military vehicles. This includes balancing weight and safety, which also applies to protective and fireproof clothing.

These are elements of running a military that never crossed my mind and may have gotten the attention of only a small number of the soldiers and sailors wearing or using the gear.

The book is generally interesting though some items will make a reader squirm, and attempts to lighten the mood of the book sometimes seem out of place given the gravity of the topics.