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."


Anonymous said...

Nice article - I just found the book at local library.
I think the link at the bottom of your blog is incorrect. The picture that links to the Navy Professional Reading Program should point to and not which times out.

Bill Doughty said...

Thank you for letting me know about the change to the link to the reading program. I updated the link to Aloha!