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Convinced that a sniper’s success is all in his aim? You may be underestimating Velcro.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

Mary Roach
Oneworld Publications
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Early on in my military career, a high-ranking officer made the decision to introduce black berets to the entire U.S. Army. Up until that point, those who wore the black berets were members of the elite Army Rangers. By having every soldier wear the headgear of the Rangers, the officer reasoned that morale and professionalism would increase exponentially. Unfortunately, that wasn’t exactly how things panned out; the berets were woolen and hot, required an extensive fitting and shaping process, lacked the sun-blocking ability of the traditional patrol cap’s bill, and were rarely worn properly.

Enter Mary Roach and her brilliant exploration of military science, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Roach is quick to explain that she will not be investigating the science of killing; there are already countless volumes dedicated to that subject. Rather, she is “interested in the parts no one makes movies about—not the killing but the keeping alive.”

In researching this book, Roach traveled around the globe, attending briefings and exercises with both researchers and military operators. She visits the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center, where everything from the melting point of fabrics to the design and placement of zippers is explored with an eye to functionality and comfort. She travels to Camp Lemonnier in the African nation of Djibouti to learn about the alarming frequency with which diarrhea affects deployed troops and learns what types of education and research are being performed to reduce and mitigate this debilitating condition. In a somewhat cringe-inducing pair of chapters, Roach visits the Urology Department at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, recounting every painful detail of phalloplasty and reconstructive surgery of the reproductive organs.

Soldier facedown on the groundGAMMA/GETTY IMAGES

“Heat exhaustion is embarrassing but not particularly dangerous,” writes Mary Roach in Grunt.

Throughout Grunt, Roach employs a quick wit, at times bordering on cynicism. Her humor does not detract from but rather adds to the message by introducing a human (read: civilian) element to what could easily be a dry and daunting topic of discussion.

Where a casual reader would be turned of by the technical jargon, acronyms, and minutiae of military research and development, Roach is able to retain the attention of the audience by connecting with them on a personal, relatable level. In each chapter, her ability to weave her experiences with researchers into the nature and necessity of their studies drives the topic and allows for an easily understood narrative.

From my own military experience and from what I learned in Grunt, I know that there will always be decision-makers within the Army who disregard the science. But with every decade there are advancements made in military technology, and the capabilities and effectiveness of the force are strengthened. Our ability to wage war or maintain peace requires countless machinations behind the curtains of bureaucracy. It is not only the senior echelons but also the researchers working behind the scenes who ultimately move us forward.

About the author

The reviewer is in the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15206, USA.