illustration of the outline of a soldier's face set against a backdrop of green camouflage


by Mary Roach

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Last Updated on December 1, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631


War is the central theme of Grunt. It's also the topic of the book, the profession of many characters Roach interviews, and the setting or backdrop of a great many tragedies. Roach approaches war as a civilian, thinking less about the tactics of identifying and eliminating targets and more about the means by which the American military keeps soldiers safe and alive. War is figured not necessarily as a heroic battlefield but as a dangerous situation where the threat does not always come from a foreign power or enemy. Most of the scientists and researchers Roach meets in the course of the book are in some way combatting the negative effects of war. Their goal is not necessarily to make a war winnable but to make it survivable for the soldiers. This approach humanizes war, giving the reader a window into the lives of soldiers. War, it turns out, is nothing like what we imagine.

Medicine is an umbrella theme in Grunt, incorporating smaller themes such as disease, injury, and survival, to name a few. Military medical research is some of the most cutting-edge research in the field of medicine—particularly as it pertains to trauma care. Field medics are trained to respond in stressful, adrenaline-inducing scenarios that ER doctors would never face in a hospital. They train on Cut Suits designed to bleed like human flesh and learn how to treat wounds that only appear in battle. Military doctors also face the challenge of trying to keep up with the new injuries caused by new types of weapons and warfare. Methods used by doctors in the Vietnam War or even the Gulf War are obsolete now, in the age of IEDs. Researchers must devise new treatment methods for the spinal, gastrointestinal, and cerebral injuries suffered by soldiers. Perhaps the most innovative and remarkable of these procedures is the genital transplant.

When Roach writes about military technology, she avoids discussion of traditional weapons—guns and bombs and drones—and how they're developed. Her interest isn't in the research, development, or ingenuity of modern weaponry, and she doesn't focus on the technology that gets soldiers killed. Instead, she focuses on the technology that saves lives both on the battlefield and off: body armor, flame resistant clothing, protective gear, test dummies, training simulators, and more. All of these technologies are innovative and revolutionary in their own right, but do not, by and large, get much attention from the civilian world—in part because military procedure bypasses the traditional route of publishing findings in scholarly journals (a process which wastes time, but wins scholars quite a bit of attention from their peers). In general, the military technology Roach focuses on is important not because it's cutting-edge but because it has a demonstrable impact on a soldier's life.

Life and Death

It should come as no surprise that life and death are key themes in Grunt: where there's war, there's death. But where there's death there's also a concerted effort to keep people alive. Much of Roach's book focuses on exactly that: the science, the research, the medicine, and the military protocol that keeps soldiers alive, or attempts to. However, life isn't just measured by the presence of a heartbeat or the ability to breathe. Military doctors and researchers also show an impressive commitment to improving the quality of life for soldiers, which means preventing hearing loss, protecting them in the field, and making sure that injured soldiers able to both walk and have sex, which, as Christine DesLaurentis points out, is pretty important to most people. Though Roach appreciates the science and the scientists doing this good work, she sometimes questions whether putting soldiers at risk is justifiable. It's hard to see the big picture when you're staring at a corpse.

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