Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Review: The science of war – horrifying and curious

Review of: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
Author: Mary Roach
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: A

You won’t find specs for the newest weapons in Mary Roach’s Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Ditto, don’t expect tips on how to become a Navy SEAL without actually going through the process, or how to win a ground war in Asia, or messy pictures of dead terror suspects. As the subtitle says, Roach focuses on gathering the kind of curious (i.e. oddball) science you’ll never see in any other military volume.

From heralding the contributions of chickens and swine, to concocting the vilest smells ever to delight a little boy’s heart, to restoring the manhood of soldiers who’ve suffered the unkindest shot of all, Roach leaves little to the imagination.

And she writes in a compulsively readable style, even when dealing with the horrific, as when she watches cadavers (donated for the purpose by their late inhabitants) being prepped to test the effects of an exploding vehicle. (Automotive crash test dummies proved incapable of dealing with the vertical impact of blasts from beneath a vehicle. T
he U.S. Army hopes to have its version of a crash dummy available by 2021.)

As scientists arrange the cadavers, clad head to foot in Lycra body suits that cover their faces, Roach muses on “this strange job that only they, as dead people, are qualified to do. To feel no pain, to accept broken bones without care or consequence, is a kind of superpower. The form-fitting Lycra costumes, it occurs to me, are utterly appropriate.”

Not everyone agrees with her.

A complaint that “personal beliefs had been affronted” almost shut down such a test in 2007. At least, the scrutiny has, in the words of a source, it’s raised awareness about the risks soldiers are facing. Or in Roach’s words, “maybe they’ll worry a little less about the dead and a little more about the living.”

If this, or the discussion of testing uniforms capable of withstanding the heat of a nuclear blast (anesthetized swine stood in for soldiers on that one), or of penile transplants (still in the experimental stage) prove too distressing, take a break with Grunt’s chapter on seriously bad smells.

Stinks as chemical weapons? Originally intended to deodorize open air latrines, stenches were considered as possible ways to demoralize German and Japanese officers in occupied countries during World War II, and as a means to benignly disperse violent mobs. They even morphed into possible shark repellents (more about that later.)

Surprisingly, it’s tough to compound “the universally condemned smell,” a research told Roach. The closest so far is one named U.S. Government Standard Bathroom Malodor, named for its developer, not its source, Roach assures her readers.

In product testing, another stench labeled Sewage Odor was described by 20 percent of Caucasians, Asians and black South Africans as smelling edible. Three percent of Caucasians tested were even willing to wear the charmingly labelled “Vomit Odor” as a scent.

If humans sometimes find vile smells attractive, the odors proved useless as shark repellents. Maybe it's the dilution effect. As one researcher said, “You can’t do much with a pint of liquid in an ocean.”

But although Roach participated in a heat endurance test with Navy SEALs, sat through a discussion of autopsy photos, took a cruise on a submarine armed with nuclear warheads, and played a wounded victim in a training scenario for combat medics, strangely enough, she never volunteered to swim with what a shipwrecked World War II sailor described as “the boys with the peculiar dorsal fins.”

Somehow, Roach also finds space in this relatively short volume (272 pages, not including acknowledgements and bibliography) to discuss encounters between aircraft and turkey vultures, fashion trends in uniforms, hearing loss, humans’ love-hate affair with insects, how to escape (or not) from a downed submarine, sleep deprivation, and, a topic only Roach, who’s written about the human alimentary canal from top to bottom, would broach – diarrhea. Could this age-old military scourge affect national security? The answer she receives from a Special Forces operative who remains anonymous (for more reasons than one) may startle readers.

(So many military books have piled up on my to-read list, this week leading up the Glorious Fourth is beginning to look like war week. Stay tuned for reviews of Mark McCurley’s Hunter Killer and Lee Child’s Night School.)

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