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.

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