How does the U.S. military protect against a soldier’s hearing loss? What medical benefits can maggots have for treating battlefield injuries? Why was there so much research into stink bombs during World War II? These questions and many more are all answered in Mary Roach’s latest book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Even as it deals with serious topics, Grunt never loses its sense of humor and is a fascinating read.
Grunt is structured into fourteen chapters that each cover the science behind a different aspect of the military, ranging from what soldiers wear to life on a nuclear submarine. While any chapter could be read and understood independently, Roach skillfully moves from topic to topic throughout the book, creating a connected narrative. Through Roach’s energetic writing, the reader feels like they are along for the ride, discovering the interesting science behind the military with the author.
It should be noted that Grunt is not for the weak stomached. With chapters devoted to diarrhea, maggots, and stink bombs, it is fair to say that Roach does not shy away from the grosser details of military science. I found “The Maggot Paradox” to be the most fascinating chapter, despite having no previous desire to learn about maggots. In it, Roach talks with George Peck, who works in the Entomology Branch of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. He has studied the medicinal use of maggots, including using blowfly larvae to treat chronically infected IED wounds, and the possibility of genetically modifying blowfly maggots to produce antibiotics to treat bacterial infections. The use of maggots is viewed as advantageous because they are drawn to just the dead flesh of a wound and their small mandibles are more precise than any medical tool. However, cost in training staff in maggot debridement therapy, as it is known, has prevented this therapy from becoming more widely used. Each dose of maggots must be completely wiped out before a new one is introduced or they might grow into flies. The gross factor of working with maggots surely has some impact as well, but perhaps this therapy will gain traction in the future.
Previous topics Roach has tackled include space travel in Packing for Mars, the “lives” of cadavers in Stiff and a scientific look at the afterlife in Spook. Readers of her previous work will find the same wit and self-deprecating sense of humor present in Grunt. Roach approaches every topic with enthusiasm, no matter how gruesome. Her curiosity is infectious, and readers will become interested in topics they might not have previously thought they would have enjoyed. Roach clearly has a great deal of respect for the researchers she profiles and while her work takes a humorous tone, she acknowledges the hard work of these individuals.
I found Grunt to be a fascinating and fun read. I enjoyed learning about the research that the improves the lives of military members, no matter how unglamorous that research might be.
By Elizabeth Weislak
Children’s Library Assistant at the Mebane Public Library.