Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War – Mary Roach (2016)


If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I have a serious writing crush on Mary Roach, who, in my opinion, rules the roost on narrative non-fiction. (See reviews of Gulp, Packing for Mars et al.). Naturally, when I saw that her newest book was on the New Releases shelf, I snatched that puppy up.

As always, it was a joy to read. (Honestly, Mary and I would be best friends [in a non-stalker-y way] if we ever moved in next door to each other.)

This volume (as evidenced by the title) covers numerous aspects of the science behind the military’s equipment and people, and, whether you have military experience or not, I think you’d really enjoy this read. (Well, I did.)

[Full Disclosure: I was an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserves for 8 years. Very proud of that.] Moving  on…

It’s difficult to do an overall review since I’m just going to fangirl the whole thing, so I thought I’d give you some of the notes that I made as I was having the read:

The U. S. Army’s Natick Labs do loads of important research, but one of their projects has resulted in a sandwich which is supposed to be edible for three years. (I wonder if it has Marmite in it…)


It’s important to understand how humans endure stress of all kinds, so there has been a lot of study in the field of the human startle response (i.e. when you jump at something unexpected that makes you scared initially). I had thought that this would already have been researched to death by now, but there’s always something new to learn.

In the U.S. Marines for example, the instructors have a reputation for being very tough on the recruits, and the reason is that the young recruits need to reduce their startle fight/flight response so that when something critical is happening in a tough situation, their training will kick in, over-ride the natural responses, and they’ll stay alive. A sort of “emotional inoculation” from stressful situations (e.g. noise, blood/guts, being attacked etc.)

For example, the lab studies how humans get sweaty hands when they are stressed out. At first, you might think: big deal. Sweaty hands. You wipe them on your trousers and move on. But it’s more important than that because if you are a USMC corpsman (medical person) and you have sweaty hands, you’re more likely to drop the stretcher that you’re carrying that could be holding a critically injured person.

So there’s research on how the human body can train its startle response to reduce the sweating reaction. (There’s also research, I imagine, on the different materials that can be used to cover the handles of the stretchers to make them less slippery and so on.)

One of the reasons that uniformity within the unit is enforced (i.e. same haircuts, same clothing etc.) is that it trains people to think as a group instead of as an individual. If you look like everyone else (and vice versa), it’s easier for your first response in a stressful situation to be for the good of the group, not just you.

maryroachWho would know this tidbit: Stink bombs play an important role in warfare. One of the goals during WWII was to design a stink bomb that would stick to one’s clothing and lead to “derision or contempt” from others. If the smell is in your shirt and trousers, it moves with you so you can’t get away from it. If it’s a bad enough smell, others will be able to smell it and as it’s in your clothing, they’ll associate with you. There’s no getting away from it, and so an effective stink bomb can break up critical meetings, important conversations, or empty rooms. The goal at the time was to make a stink bomb that smells like human poo, one of the most repellant smells to humans (according to Roach). If you make the smell also foul and unidentifiable, people will be more likely to scatter as their first reaction is, typically and from an evolution perspective, not knowing if the smell is dangerous or not. (It also smells really bad so that’s another reason!)

Researchers are also studying the smell of stress. If there are sensors that could be embedded into the actual fabric of uniforms, then the “smart uniforms” could detect when the soldier/sailor was stressed and help people manage their stress levels in dangerous situations.

And then, curiously enough, Roach forays into the world of stomach problems (notably diarrhea) as they are the most common medical issue that arises when soldiers are stationed overseas.

Diarrhea not only increases the risk of dehydration (especially important in dry arid places), but also means that the sick soldier in question is thinking more about the possibility of pooing in his/her pants than aiming the trigger or looking for bad guys. (It’s hard to concentrate when you’re sick like that so it’s important that this issue is addressed for both the soldier and to succeed in a military situation. This is something that had not occurred to me before. Thank you, Mary.)

As you can probably surmise, this was an excellent read covering everything from how uniforms have evolved to how war can affect your hearing, make your hands slippery (difficult for the fine motor tasks such as steady hand on trigger situations), getting a genital implant from surviving an IED explosion (impact comes foot-first for the most part as soldiers are probably driving over the placement of the IED…) to the best way to fight off sharks if you get tossed overboard.

Oh, and I can’t forget the fascinating chapter on submarine life.

I loved it.


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