Saturday, June 11, 2016

Navy Reads 'Grunt'

Aboard USS Tennessee (SSBN  734) Photo by MC1 Rex Nelson
Review by Bill Doughty

Mary Roach's interest in writing "Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War" (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016) is not in the killing "but in the keeping alive."

Mary said "Grunt" is "probably the most interesting book I've written." (My interview with Mary was posted earlier this week.)

One of the most popular and best science writers in our time, Mary Roach is attracted to the offbeat and weird. She brought us the science of sex in "Bonk," of death in "Stiff," of the possible afterlife in "Spook," of digestion in "Gulp," of space in "Packing for Mars," and of all kinds of curious, cool stuff as editor of "Best American Science and Nature Writing (2011)."

In "Grunt" she explores foxholes and body armor, flies and medicinal maggots, heat and sweat, beaded curtains and unrefrigerated goat meat, camouflage and MRAPS, IEDs and earplugs, and diarrhea and sharks.
  • In Groton, Connecticut she takes us into a wet trainer, aka, "one of the reasons Sailors swear." Here's Mary: "A blast of pressurized air empties the submarine's ballast tanks like a Heimlich maneuver on a purpling guest."
  • At the Monell Chemical Senses Center she donates her own underarm gases to stink researchers who evaluate and provide a grade.
  • At Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti, Africa she examines the insufficient size of toilet paper provided in MREs and hears that "Navy guys pack baby wipes" while "Marines just cut off a piece of their t-shirt. Which possibly sums up the whole Marine Corps-Navy relationship."
    Getting a tour of a Stryker. (Photo courtesy of Mary Roach)
  • At Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton's paintball range she asked to be shot to see what it feels like. Forty Marines volunteered, for which Mary seemed to have mixed feelings.
But there's a serious side to Roach's investigations and reports.

At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center she makes a poignant connection with wounded warriors who share their mental toughness and grit. They joke even when severely wounded. Their first thoughts are about their fellow troops rather than about themselves.
"This is some kind of blinding selflessness, the sort of instinct that sends parents running into burning buildings. The bonding of combat, the uncalculating instinct of duty to one's charges and fellow fighters, these are things that I, as an outsider, can never really understand ... My world is full of people, and that includes me, who never have to put their lives and bodies on the line for other human beings or for things they believe in. 'Hero' has always been a movie word, a swelling orchestral soundtrack word. A Walter Reed hallway word. Now it has something under it."
Mary Roach focuses on the sacrifice and resilience of wounded troops who return from war: young people changed but committed with their families to getting back on track.

But there's always insatiable curiosity and Mary's willingness to, in the words of David Bowie, turn and face the strange.

"Grunt" brings us research about maggots in wound care and explores whether sharks are really as dangerous to live humans as their reputation is made out to be. By the way, according to the scientists, "human urine does not attract sharks." A typical Mary Roachism: How do sharks acknowledge pee in the pool when they have "no eyebrows to raise or shoulders to shrug."

Photo from Navy Medicine, DoD NavyLive Blog.
Regarding sharks, she references a former Chief of Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, reveals studies from the Office of Naval Research, and quotes from a paper by Navy Captain H. David Baldridge Jr.: "Analytic Indications of the Impracticality of Incapacitating an Attacking Shark by Exposure to Waterborne Drugs."

Sharks eschew what's alive and chew what's dead, preferring, in Mary's words, to "take no risks and go after a meal that's not going to put up a fight. Injured is good. Dead is better."
"As with fish, so with humans. Over and over, in the shark attack reports of World War II, corpses took the hit. A floating sailor could dispatch a curious shark by hitting it or churning the water with his legs. (Baldridge observed that even a kick to a shark's nose from the rear leg of a swimming rat was enough to cause a 'startled response and rapid departure from the vicinity.') 'The sharks were going after dead men,' said a survivor quoted in a popular book about the 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis, an event that often comes up in discussions of military shark attacks. 'Honestly, in the entire 110 hours I was in the water,' recalls Navy Captain Lewis L. Haynes, in an oral history conducted by the US Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, 'I did not see a man attacked by a shark ...' They seemed to have been, he said, 'satisfied with the dead.' Haynes says fifty-six mutilated bodies were recovered, but there's nothing to suggest that any more than a few of them were bitten into while alive."
Mary asked a Naval Special Warfare Command representative about sharks attacking Navy SEALs. His reply: "The question is not, Do Navy SEALs need shark repellent? The question is, Do sharks need Navy SEAL repellent?"

Mary Roach and notebook aboard USS Tennessee (SSBN 734). Photo by MC1 Rex Nelson
Mary explores curious military science aboard a boomer, Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Tennessee (SSBN 734), where "extreme caution is ever the mindset," and where she learns more about "crush depth," "the galley," "Momsen's lungs," and "Trident II launch tubes," among other things – including the importance of sleep in a world with no circadian rhythm. Despite the "long hours and grueling tedium" the crew remains focused and friendly:
"Almost everyone I've met down here has been easygoing and upbeat, especially given how tired they must be. I am, to quote the Dole banana carton in the galley pantry, 'hanging with a cool bunch.' If everyone in the world did a stint in the Navy, we wouldn't need a Navy."
As usual, some of the biggest smiles come from reading the footnotes. For example: Did Julia Childs really cooked up a shark repellent – or just a good story?; Did Brian Williams really like a caffeinated meat stick he sampled at Army's Soldier Systems Center, Natick?; Did you know that when diarrhea researchers are named Riddle and Tribble there's a 94 percent chance of mistakenly calling them "Dribble"?

Mary says that reading science books makes you smarter and more likely to attain attractive dinner partners. But some of her chosen subject matter may make you lose your appetite. In a good way.

"Grunt" ends with a perspective on getting perspective about death in war – important thoughts after her story about "quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, bacteria, panic, ducks."

Ultimately, Roach writes, "This book is a salute to the scientists and the surgeons, running along in the wake of combat, lab coats flapping," studying "the curious science of humans at war."

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Mary Roach Interview 2016 'Curious Science'

By Bill Doughty

Mary Roach's latest work, "Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War" hits bookstores today.

I interviewed Mary recently. As usual she was open, insightful and funny, never taking herself completely seriously.

Mary Roach deals with serious subjects – even war and death – in the same way many women and men in uniform do: with a fearless swagger but reflecting a sometimes sick, macabre humor. Shamelessly human and real.

In this interview: Who's a hero? Which branch of the service would Mary choose? What does she think of the World War II generation? Why read books?

What was physically toughest thing you did during research and writing of this book? What was mentally toughest?
​"I carried a 30-pound ruck inside the USUHS (Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences) "cook box," as part of a heat injury study. Thirty pounds is about a third of what soldiers regularly carry in heat like that.  And I lasted seven minutes, I think.  Put me on a boat, man."Mentally toughest: trying to strike the right tone in my writing.  Needing to be the irreverent, flip goofball my readers have come to expect, but at the same time wanting to be respectful of  men and women in the armed forces and cognizant of the hard work and risks that they undertake on behalf of all Americans."  
From your "Grunt" interviews and interaction, is there someone who is impossible to get out of your mind?
​"The young combat engineer I interviewed after his surgery at Walter Reed.  He had stepped on an IED​, lost all of one leg and part of another and his pelvis was broken, and his first concern, when he comes to, was his men.  He was their commander and he kept trying to get up to see who was hit, who needed help.   As I said in the book, the word "hero" never used to mean much to me.  Sort of a movie word, a swelling-orchestral-soundtrack word.  Now there's something behind it."
Aboard USS Tennessee (SSBN  734) Photo by MC1 Rex Nelson
Now that you've experienced life with different branches of the service, if you had to sign up tomorrow, which would you choose?
​"Why, Navy, of course, Bill!  What a silly question." ​
In "Grunt," you said, "If everyone in the world did a stint in the Navy, we wouldn't need a Navy." Would you mind elaborating a bit?
"I wrote that in my notebook when I was out at sea on an SSBN, the USS Tennessee.  Those guys were working and concentrating for hours on end on very little sleep, and I didn't hear anyone complain.  I never even saw a yawn.   Everyone was upbeat, flexible, and professional, with sense of  humor intact.  For weeks after I got home, I tried to conduct myself more like them.  Then I gave up and went back to being my usual whiney, bratty self." 
What was the biggest insight about the military? Any surprises to original surmises?
"I originally thought that access would be a problem.  I expected double-talk, obfuscation, delays. Got none of that.  PAOs, Navy especially, were more helpful and more forthcoming than most civilian PAOs.  Unless something was classified, the PAO would do what he or she could to address my request.  (Though, granted, I was not writing 'Zero Dark Thirty'!)"
You conclude "Grunt" with a perspective on thinking about war. Is war ever justified?
Mary climbs out of a Stryker. (photo courtesy Mary Roach)
​"The book ends at AFMES (Armed Forces Medical Examiner System), at a Combat Mortality Conference.  In that particular setting, it was hard to have the kind of perspective one needs to see the justification for the lives lost:  so many, so young.  But unfortunately there are situations in which it is justified."
In "Grunt" you mention previous wars, especially the Second World War. This December we'll commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Any words about "the Greatest Generation" and the legacy of that war?
​"They put us Baby Boomers and Millennials to shame. We're spoiled and self-centered. We  have no idea how easy we have it."
In general, what can young people get from reading books (especially science books)?
​"A deeper knowledge and understanding of history and the world around them.  The ability to sound smarter than they actually are, and thereby attain fame, riches, and attractive dinner companions."
What are you reading now?
​"I just finished 'Dead Wake,' Erik Larson's terrific book about the last crossing of the Lusitania.  I had not read much set in WWI, so it was doubly interesting for me.  My father came over to the US on the Lusitania in 1913, a couple years before she went down, so I was curious to learn about more about it.  My dad (he was 65 when I was born) traveled in steerage class, though, and there wasn't anything about that part of the ship in Larson's book. Probably because most survivors who went on to write memoirs were first-class."

Mary Roach's "Grunt" tour began this week at Barnes & Noble, Union Square, New York. My review of "Grunt" will be posted later in the week. See some other Navy Reads posts related to Mary Roach, including her previous recommended reading list here.

Friday, June 3, 2016

World Oceans Day and Rachel Carson

Review by Bill Doughty

Prose is poetry for Rachel Carson, whose "Silent Spring," published in 1962, awakened the ecology/environment movement in the United States. In "The Sea Around Us" (1951, Oxford University Press), she explains the oceans' relationship with the earth and our ties to the sea.

Perfect for World Oceans Day, June 8.

"The Sea Around Us" is a work of art. Carson's imagery is as fresh as when it was created mid-20th century. She shows how the earth and oceans formed and how life crawled from the sea, always dependent on "mother sea," but she presciently warns of a warming planet and rising seas.

Want to understand the science of the creation, tides, seasons and inhabitants of the oceans or how we are all connected by the oceans? Read Rachel Carson. 

Eventually after millions of years of evolution, "man, too, found his way back ..."
"And yet he has returned to his mother sea only on her own terms. He cannot control or change the ocean as, in his brief tenancy of earth, he has subdued and plundered the continents. in the artificial world of his cities and towns, he often forgets the true nature of his planet and the long vistas of its history, in which the existence of the race of men has occupied a mere moment of time. The sense of all these things comes to him most clearly in the course of a long ocean voyage, when he watches day after day the receding rim of the horizon, ridged and furrowed by waves; when at night he becomes aware of the earth's rotation as the stars pass overhead; or when, alone in this world of water and sky, he feels the loneliness of his earth in space. And then, as never on land, he knows the truth that his world is a water world, a planet dominated by its covering mantle of ocean, in which the continents are but transient intrusions of land above the surface of the all-encircling sea."
Carson predicts global warming based on natural phenomenon and cycles she observed and studied in the last century. In the 1950s and 60s she wrote about erosion, pesticides and pollution, invasive species, endangered species, and ocean dumping. What would she say about our impact on the climate and our effect on the planet today?

"Unquestionably, there are other agents at work in bringing about the climatic changes in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions," she writes in the mid-1950s. "We have therefore begun to move strongly into a period of warmer, milder weather. There will be fluctuations, as earth and sun and moon move through space and the tidal power waxes and wanes. But the long trend is toward a warmer earth; the pendulum is swinging."

She acknowledges the challenges of exploring the seas for fossil fuels and other resources.
"So our search for mineral wealth often leads us back to the seas of ancient times – to the oil pressed from the bodies of fishes, seaweeds, and other forms of plant and animal life and then stored away in ancient rocks; to the rich brines hidden in subterranean pools where the fossil water of old seas still remains; to the layers of salts that are the mineral substances of those old seas laid down as a covering mantle over the continents."
According to biographer William Souder, author of "On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson," among Carson's admirers was Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. (Both Nimitz and Carson were featured in the Great Americans series of stamps provided by the U.S. Postal Service in the 80s and 90s.)

Carson reminds us of the U.S. Navy's role in mapping and studying the oceans, especially by seafaring scientist Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury in the 19th century, prior to the Civil War. She writes of USS Ramapo's encounter with a 112-foot wave in 1933 while sailing from Manila, Philippines to San Diego. Carson shares discoveries in the Pacific by the U.S. Navy aboard USS Jasper, USS Henderson and USS Nereus in the Pacific during and just after World War II.

The ancients, she says, revered and respected the deep mysteries of the oceans.
"For the sea lies all about us. The commerce of all lands must cross it. The very winds that move over the lands have been cradled on its broad expanse and seek ever to return to it. The continents themselves dissolve and pass to the sea, in grain after grain of eroded land. So the rains that rose from it return again in rivers. In its mysterious past it encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives in the end, after, it may be, many transmutation, the dead husks of that same life. For all at last return to the sea – to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end."
Curiosity about navigating the oceans began thousands of years ago. "Of the methods of those secretive master mariners, the Phoenicians, we cannot even guess. We have more basis for conjecture about the Polynesians, for we can study their descendants today, and those who have done so find hits of the methods that led ancient colonizers of the Pacific on their course from island to island."

Ancient voyagers sailed by the stars, understood "the varying color of the water," read the clouds, felt the winds, interpreted the currents and followed the migration of birds to lead them to different lands.

Aboard the Hōkūle'a canoe, the Polynesian Voyaging Society's Malama Honua  voyagers are in New York this week during World Oceans Day, sharing their vision for a sustainable earth. No doubt the spirit of Rachel Carson sails aboard Hōkūle'a.

Rachel Carson with a feline friend and her 1951 book, “The Sea Around Us.” (A. Aubrey Bodine, Baltimore Sun file photo, 1954)