What happens in Grunt?

Mary Roach explores the often strange world of military science in her book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Instead of focusing on the science that can kill (guns, bombs, drones), Roach focuses on the science of saving lives and improving the quality of a soldier's life.

  • Roach begins by diving into the world of military fashion, examining flame-resistant uniforms, liquid repellant fabrics, and the struggle to find the right color of camouflage for each environment (forest, tundra, desert, et cetera).

  • Roach then takes a look into the world of military medical science. She talks to top doctors and researchers who are developing cutting-edge technology, using innovative training methods, and rushing to devise new treatments for the new injuries soldiers face thanks to 21st century warfare.

  • Roach also uncovers some of the stranger scientific studies performed by the military. In one, researchers attempted to develop the perfect weaponized stink bomb. In another, they tried inventing shark repellant.

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Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War gives its readers a glimpse into the fascinating and often bizarre world of military science. Beginning with an anecdote about the "chicken gun"—the massive, artillery grade gun that shoots frozen chickens at jets to test whether the windshields can withstand high-velocity collisions with birds—the book sheds light on the unexpected, innovative solutions scientists have come up with to tackle the unique problems faced by the military both on the battlefield and off.

In the first chapter of Grunt, Mary Roach visits Natick Labs, also known as the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center. The "flame goddess" Margaret Auerbach leads her on a tour of the Ouellette Thermal Test Facility, where Roach witnesses a test on various swatches of fabric. Each fabric burns in a different way (polyester, for instance, melts, adhering to the skin, while Nomex, the material used in firefighter uniforms, will give wearers up to five extra seconds before catching fire; unfortunately, it's hard to print Nomex in camouflage).

The scientists at Natick Labs are also researching liquid-repellent fabrics. Roach watches ketchup, coffee, and milk roll off a patch of camouflage fabric. She's amazed by the combination of science and design that goes into all forms of military clothing: buttons, for instance, must meet minimum compressive strength standards, and zippers are a liability to snipers (the reflective metal can give away their position). This brings up the broader question of safety, which leads Roach to examine the different kinds of protective gear available to the military.

Annette LaFleur, the Army's top fashion designer, tells Roach that style and feel are as important as function, if not more so. "With protective gear especially, it's key that you design something that's kind of cool and sleek, because otherwise they're not going to want to wear it." This can mean the difference between life and death. There are many different kinds of protective gear soldiers wear: body armor, helmets, ear plugs. In combat, any part of the body can be injured, including the heel, which poses one of the most complicated problems for scientists.

WIAMan—the Warrior Injury Assessment Manikin—was designed to help researchers study one of the most common injuries soldiers face: deck-slap, which occurs when an IED detonates from below and knocks soldiers in their heels, causing various foot, leg, and spine problems. WIAMan is so lifelike that it's able to mimic the hyper-specific injuries soldiers receive in an explosion, all the way down to the tendons that are affected. It's still being tested, however, and the bureaucracy behind military research leaves something to be desired. Getting official approval for projects like WIAMan can take years—especially when that research could, theoretically, be done with human cadavers.

Roach doesn't shy away from the more grotesque...

(The entire section is 1,127 words.)