Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

by Mary Roach

Mary Roach and her irreverent humor definitely puts her up there with science writer Sam Kean in the spot of “person I most want to learn science from.”

And in this book, she describes a sojourn to various Armed forces labs and a camp in Djibouti not to talk about missiles or guns or strategy, but much, much more mundane issues soldiers have to deal with: diarrhea, genital transplants, uniform fabric, maggots in wounds, sleep deprivation on a submarine, deafness due to weapons discharge etc.

Mary got a bunch of military geeks and soliders to let her into their world (one of the best vignettes is her description of a special ops guy in the Djibouti camp chow tent answering questions about diarrhea) and she lets the reader into their world in a visceral way that brings home how human soliders are, and how mundane their everyday worries about their gear influence them.

And its fascinating…and often humorous…as we learn about how some material gets its super-shedding properties from nubs on a lilybpad, or how a bunch of money was wasted by a soldier on desiccating sharks to create “shark repellent” pellets for pilot’s lifejackets.

And its gross. There’s a whole chapter of the creation of maladorous smells, sections about maggots in wounds, and the challenge of genital transplants on soldiers unlucky enough to tread on IEDs.

Roach is always respectful of the military scientists and soldiers/sailors she encounters, and even hints of hero-worship peek through whilst describing the most human of foibles. Definitely an interesting read for any mechanical engineer or student of the human body’s limitations, or just writers looking for interesting tidbits of information (like keeping a ziplock full of kitty litter in your pack when going on desert missions with little access to military rations in preparation for the runs).