One line overview:

Absolutely cracking book on all the weird research that the military does and funds

Again with most books, the Wellcome collection in Euston provides me with a ridiculous amount of books to add to my wish list every time I go. This time, ‘Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War’ by Mary Roach was one that I added to my list way back when I first moved to London. I can’t really remember when or where I bought it, but it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for a fair bit. After reading ‘To Be a Machine’ (not sure if I wrote a review on this excellent book?) I thought I’d go back to my war/warfare based books (e.g. Drone theory, Assassination complex and so on).

What I thought the book would be how weapons and equipment are thought up, to one up the ‘enemy’, but as I’ll write on, you’ll see it’s more of a comical journey of items you didn’t think the military invested in or ever thought about (well, the US military is the main focus).

The first chapter, Roach covers the precision and thought that goes into the US Army selection process for clothing materials, something that won’t burn like plastic or won’t light up like a BBQ. Especially, this focuses around this clothing in warfare, why you shouldn’t use one material over another, as when heated, it would make wound care impossible. This is something I particularly didn’t think of, I just assumed the armies of the world picked the cheapest material they could find considering how many soldiers they have in their ranks.

Roach then touches on improving personnel safety in vehicles that unfortunately encounter IED/bombs/suicide bombers, as previous iterations of vehicles simply exploded along with all passengers inside. Here, detail is giving on the rigorous testing that is done to prevent harm coming to soldiers in vehicles, even using human cadavers, though a new and hyperrealistic dummy is being made.

Another explains the problem with soldiers and noise, again, something I didn’t think of as being a huge factor in the military. If there is constant gun fire, explosions going off and people screaming, how do you both protect soldiers hearing capabilities as well as ensuring they can still hear commands/effectively communicate with squad members?

This next chapter then touches on quite a tough subject, personnel that have either been shot below the belt (literally) or stepped on IEDs and lost part of their genitals. It’s something again you wouldn’t really think of, losing a leg/arms yes, but genitals you don’t necessarily think of. The chapter covers the surgical work being done to ensure soldiers are still able to have functioning genitals including whole transplants.

One that I did expect was ‘fake’ combat scenarios, in which soldiers are put to the test under life like conditions, with particular focus on an American company that specialises in whole village scenarios.

Jumping from this, you then encounter the wonderful world of sweating, diarrhoea, and flies/maggots. How doctors are researching and trying to prevent diarrhoea, an illness that can be make or break for some groups of soldiers, especially SEAL teams. The sweating research is understandable, considering how much soldiers carry and the work they have to do, researching ways to prevent them fainting, keep on sweating but yet not require gallons of water. Flies/maggots is where it gets lovely and gruesome, on how some doctors used maggots to clean necrotic skin etc. I’ll leave the full grim details to you 🙂

From one horrible subject to another…this time stink bombs. And believe it or not, the military put a lot of funding during World War II into the development of serious stink bombs, as either a way to ensure that a) Japanese soldiers would ‘dishonour’ themselves by smelling so bad (so ridiculous!) or, b) to just generally disrupt enemies. Leading from this, Roach touched on the military thinking of using stink bombs as shark repellents, as a way to save soldiers that end up overboard, but ultimately…actually I was going to spoil the chapter, I won’t say anymore as the end of the chapter is comical.

The penultimate chapters delves into the history of submarines in the war, how they were death traps when things went wrong and new developments in saving those that are trapped in submarines. One thing I really never would have thought of was sleeping on submarines and how this is a serious problem, as not all soldiers can sleep at once, as who is going to manage the radar etc? It then goes into details and methods that the Navy have tried to ensure all those on submarines get the recommended amount of sleep. One disturbing observation was crew members falling asleep, something that doesn’t seem so bad, but then you realise they are in charge of hundreds of nuclear warheads…

The final chapter is a great end: how the dead save the living. This covers how all the military pathologists and medics delve into causes of deaths in soldiers and how things (particularly trauma procedures and interventions) can be done differently in the future to save the lives of other soldiers that might endure similar injuries.

Taking into account of all the chapters, I found the book absolutely enthralling. Each chapter I was excited to read, even the one about sleep on submarines, as I knew Roach would write about it in such an intriguing and intuitive way. Would highly recommend!

Overall: 10/10 (I’m not going to buy all her other books!)