U.S. Navy photo by Devin M. Langer

Military Solution

Mary Roach explores the dangerous and disgusting situations soldiers encounter and how the military tries to protect its rank and file.

Mary Roach. Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. W. W. Norton, 2016. 288 pp. $27.

Mary Roach had me in the palm of her hand from the opening sentences of Grunt, her latest look at science’s stranger endeavors:

The chicken gun has a sixty-foot barrel, putting it solidly in the class of an artillery piece. While a four-pound chicken hurtling in excess of 400 miles per hour is a lethal projectile, the intent is not to kill. On the contrary, the chicken gun is designed to keep people alive.

Roach loves detail and understands technology. These chickens are fired at military aircraft as “stunt doubles” for all the birds—ducks, pigeons, geese, gulls—that collide with jets. But chickens are denser than ducks and geese, so their carcasses slam into engines and canopies with different effect. “Nonetheless,” writes Roach, “the chicken was the standard ‘material’ approved by the U.S. Department of Defense for testing jet canopy windows. Not only are chickens easier to obtain and standardize, but they serve as a sort of worst-case scenario.”

Despite the almost cartoonish vision of a gun designed to shoot chickens, Roach’s opening—and the rest of Grunt—is about the work of researchers who find ways to keep soldiers alive and healthy through the many hazards of war and military life in general.

Almost 20 years of the past 44 years of my life have been spent in the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, and Army National Guard. In the 1970s I served in the United States and West Germany, then switched to the reserves. I left the military in 1984 only to re-enlist in 2007. I had one tour in Iraq and finally retired in 2015. After reading Roach’s rollicking review of sweat, diarrhea, hearing loss, penis repair and potential replacement, maggot medicine, and much more, I felt almost glad about my retirement. But her book did lead me to recall my time in Iraq and to think about what my fellow soldiers and I really worried about.

When I deployed in 2009, the army issued me four full duffel bags of gear. Some of it was important: the uniforms, boots, socks, and underwear that were my daily companions. Some of it was crazy. We all got cold-weather gear good to −60°F. I left that gear in my locker in Pennsylvania, where it stayed until I was discharged.

Of all the things I carried, what did I have with me on every flight and every mission? Joining my helmet, rifle, ammo, Kevlar body armor, and other requirements was an empty Gatorade bottle stashed in the right cargo pocket of my uniform. Many of my fellow soldiers carried a Gatorade bottle so they would have someplace to spit tobacco. I carried that bottle because a 56-year-old man in a Black Hawk helicopter might not make it to the next landing zone before needing to recycle his last cup of coffee. In the army a single mistake can follow a soldier through an entire career, and I did not want to be known as the old sergeant who pissed himself.

Roach devotes a whole chapter, “Leaky SEALS,” to the body’s exit ramps, though she focuses on diarrhea. She turns to Mark Riddle, who runs an army clinic devoted to the study of the subject, and in her delightful, snarky way quotes Riddle on his work as saying, “I live and breathe this stuff.”

In past centuries the statistics on diarrhea among soldiers were grim. Roach tells us that 95,000 soldiers died from diarrhea or dysentery during the American Civil War and quotes William “Father of Modern Medicine” Osler as saying, “Dysentery ‘has been more fatal to soldiers than powder and shot.’ ” Modern medicine has made diarrhea far less fatal, but a soldier with a failed digestive system is out of the fight and in the latrine. According to Roach, 54% of American combatants in Afghanistan and 77% in Iraq came down with diarrhea, with 40% of the cases serious enough to require medical help. Soldiers may not die from it these days, but I have heard them mutter “just shoot me” while curled into a fetal position in between sprints to the latrine.

While fear of intestinal disease varies among soldiers, a different type of fear trumps all others. But first a word about war movies and videos: if you want to give a soldier a reason to laugh, just give him or her a war movie. The great exception to that rule is the HBO series Band of Brothers, which I never heard a soldier criticize. Why’s that? In episode three there is a moment that perfectly illustrates the greatest fear every male soldier brings to war.

In the scene, First Sergeant Carwood Lipton is in a street directing his men. An explosion blows him back against a wall. He collapses. Another sergeant, Talbert, runs to Lipton and binds his injured arm. Then Talbert’s eyes follow Lipton’s down to the injured man’s crotch, which is bloody and getting worse. Talbert rips open Lipton’s pants and looks inside. “You’re OK, Lip. Everything’s right where it should be.” Lipton nods, relieved and grateful. The shrapnel that cut through his thigh and caused the bleeding is insignificant in comparison.

I remember many scenes from Band of Brothers, but few of them are clearer in my mind than the look on Lipton’s face before and after Talbert finds everything in place.

Roach followed a real soldier who was not so lucky and required several reconstructive surgeries; the book describes in detail how skin is removed from inside the cheek to rebuild the urethra. Skin tissue in the mouth has no hair and is tolerant of pee, she tells us. But the relatively small number of soldiers with this type of injury meant the military pushed such surgeries down the priority list: there were 18,000 amputations of limbs during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq versus 300 soldiers in need of reconstructive surgery “for their junk.” Despite the small number of affected soldiers, the psychological impact was huge: men who could adapt to the loss of both legs or both arms were devastated at the prospect of living their lives without their “short arm.” Army doctors had to be convinced that this surgery was vital to the well-being of soldiers, even if the numbers needing it were low.

For those soldiers too mutilated for reconstructive surgery, Roach introduces the prospect of transplants. Such transplants do not yet exist, but even the possibility of this radical surgery may brighten the future for the affected soldiers. As of 2015 Roach had found a French surgeon with one partial success and several failures. (As for women, given the way female anatomy is arranged, any significant damage to reproductive organs likely involves a fatal injury.)

In addition to pee, poop, and penises Roach introduces the reader to the latest research on, among other things, the use of horrible smells as weapons (a failed experiment Roach has fun reporting on) and sweat and heat injuries. In the desert it’s common for soldiers to wear more than 60 pounds of gear in 120°F heat; without frequent hydration soldiers can develop heat stroke, which the military now goes to great lengths to avoid. (In the past this problem wasn’t taken seriously.) While I was in Iraq, there were pallets of water bottles all around my air base, and sergeants constantly asked their soldiers when they last drank.

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U.S. Army soldiers training with a virtual-reality simulator in Grafenwöhr, Germany, December 2013. 

U.S. Army photo by Markus Rauchenberger

Many of the topics Roach covers, including roadside bombs, hearing loss, digestive failure, and the fear of being shot below the belt, are part of my lived and shared experiences in the army. Her discussions of the sea (and sharks) resonate less with me, though the chapter on submarines and sleep deprivation captures the corrosive culture of pride that both fuels much of the military and is one of its greatest threats. I have former “Nuke Boat” sailor friends who wore their sleep deprivation as a badge of honor. Yet, as Roach points out, sleep deprivation correlates with a decrease in mental ability. These confident, sleep-deprived sailors get progressively more error prone as the hours tick on. On a positive note I was surprised to find that the navy took sleep research seriously enough to make changes that address the problem. I can’t imagine the army doing the same thing.

Grunt is both entertaining and informative in the best tradition of science writing, and its author is well versed in the fine art of footnotes. Throughout the text she races from erudite explanations of how bacteria explode intestinal cells to what she learned by attending a bowling party for amputees. These relevant but parenthetical facts are kept on the page rather than hidden away in endnotes. In a chapter on foul smells Roach footnotes the difficulties of creating an odor that is universally sensed as vomit. International Flavors and Fragrances was asked to design such a smell and eventually gave up. The initial request came from a diet company that wanted to make certain foods repellent to dieters. The military investigated vomit and other smells as weapons to keep enemy soldiers away from certain areas. But, as Roach explains, few smells are universally repellent: some small percentage of people like what most people sense as the smell of vomit. Go figure.

In her introduction Roach writes, “Heroism doesn’t always happen in a burst of glory. Sometimes small triumphs and large hearts change the course of history. Sometimes a chicken can save a man’s life.” This sentence is not a bad summary of the book. Roach tells us about the strange work of those who try to keep soldiers alive in a profession that routinely puts them in the way of death. In telling that story she offers many smiles and, in my case, some real laughs.