Book Review: Grunt-The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach

I had previously read Gulp by Mary Roach and found it highly entertaining so when I saw this book I knew i had to read it, I was not disappointed.  Like her other works, Grunt takes a behind the scenes look at its subject.  In this case that subject os outfitting and equipping the modern American military member for war.  Given that I myself am a recently retired combat arms soldier (SCOUTS OUT!) who spent some time working weapons testing I was curious to see a civilians take on how the military does what it does.

First, the book itself.  There are 285 pages of text divided into 14 chapters with an acknowledgements section and an 8 page bibliography.  The chapters are topical with each chapter examining a specific topic in detail.

The topics chosen for the individual chapters are interesting and the Ms. Roaches humorous writing style keeps the narrative flowing.  Given that I knew how she wrote I was not surprised to see some topics ignored.  It would have been nice to see chapters that examine military field rations and the development of load bearing equipment but it was not to be.  She does include some very good chapters on other topics though.  The military’s field ration, the much panned Meal-Ready-to-Eat has been much panned by soldiers and admired by those outside the military.  Having eaten both the MRE’s predecessor the C-Ration and several generations of MRE’s in my career the science behind their development would have been interesting to read.  They certainly have not figured out how to make food that is shelf-stable in harsh environments tasty but not for lack of trying and it would have made for an interesting read.  I would have liked to read about Load bearing equipment because it is something I spent years bitching about and having worn several different iterations it would be neat to hear about the research they conduct when developing new concepts.  I found the chapters on hearing loss, heat control in uniforms, and the use of cadavers in blast research the most interesting.

The hearing loss chapter was interesting because as she states, hearing loss is the single most common disability suffered by veterans.  Being in the military, especially in combat arms, is inherently noisy.  Not only are guns loud, so are lots of other things the combat arms soldier is exposed to from fighting vehicles (you aint sneaking up on anyone in a Bradley or Tank), the tools used in the motorpool.  To hear about some of the ways the military is trying to reduce the incidence of hearing was both interesting and entertaining.

Having been to Iraq I can attest that it is hot, unbelievably hot there.  We routinely planned on using 5 gallons of water per man, per day on mission and the old desert uniform (DCU) was more of a heat trap than anything else, especially when you strap 60 pounds of gear to yourself.  The newer uniforms are slightly better.  The chapter on heat discusses military research in how to both prevent and treat heat related illnesses.  It is very interesting and is a subject near and dear to every soldier who has ever spent time with the sun beating down on them at range.

The last chapter I found the most interesting was about the use of cadavers in military research.  This is specifically about using cadavers to test the effect of explosives on the human body so that a militarily useful version of crash test dummies can be perfected and built.  The rest of the chapters are interesting as well dealing with such varied topics as the military development of a stink bomb to methods to allow crews to escape a sinking submarine.  The narrative throughout is a mix of Ms. Roach’s signature style that mixes humor with seriosuness in a way that makes otherwise mundane or boring topics interesting.  I highly recommend this interesting and easy to read book.