Mary Roach’s schtick is breezy, quirky science/history of science nonfiction on odd, often gross subjects (corpses (Stiff), life after death (Spook), digestion (Gulp), in which her investigation is part of the story. Also one-word titles. Her best book, on space exploration (Packing for Mars) is the only one without a one-word title; it’s her funniest, especially the memorably gross chapters on bathing or rather not bathing (NASA’s experiment on exactly how long it takes for your underwear to rot off feels more sadistic than their chimp experiments), going to the bathroom (EWWW), and food (at one point, created by veterinarians until the astronauts rebelled at eating kibble.)

In general, her books are fun but suffer from a lack of depth; she frequently raises interesting questions and then either fails to explore or fails to write about the answers. This is most noticeable when you happen to know something about the subject, which is why Bonk, on the history of sex research, was particularly unmemorable to me.

Grunt is a mid-level Mary Roach book. I know something but not tons about the subject (the science of less-written aspects of war, such as uniforms, stink bombs, shark repellant and vehicular safety), so it was reasonably informative and generally engrossing. In contrast to NASA, which was hilariously uptight about its image and in a perpetual state of horror at Roach’s questions about zero-gravity sex and astronaut toilets, the US military was surprisingly enthusiastic about letting her write about the gross stuff. As a result, she got access to submarines, labs, hospitals, and all sorts of trainings. This part was much more interesting to me than the military history parts, which I generally already knew about.

But the issue of “go deeper” and “and then what?” remained. For example, she mentions that uniforms need to look cool because soldiers won’t wear critical items if they make them look like dweebs. She reports one unintended result of this, which is that the Navy got blue camouflage; when she finally found a Navy commander willing to comment on the purpose of this, he dryly remarked, “It’s so if anyone falls overboard we won’t be able to find them.” And that is the sum total of her reporting on that issue.

To me, this is a fascinating topic that could have been a chapter all by itself. Something she doesn’t mention but which I’ve read about elsewhere is that in a recent war US soldiers were getting a lot of eye injuries due to failure to wear eye protection. When asked, they said it made them look stupid. The Army called in Rayban to consult in designing cooler eyewear, and eye injuries went down.

How did Rayban define cool when designing military hardware? Is it even true that cool value is a significant factor in gear-wearing compliance? Did the dorky eyewear also have some more significant drawback, such as limiting vision? What would soldiers say if you got them in a real conversation over exactly what they’re thinking when they set aside their protective gear, the meaning and importance of coolness, the value of safety, and whether any of this relates to why they’re in the military at all?

The book doesn’t get into any of these questions, instead focusing, in the clothing chapter, on whether bomb-proof underwear exists (not really, but you can design undies to reduce infection in case of below-undie blast injuries) and how uniforms are safety-tested. Interesting stuff, but I’d have preferred more depth and detail. And that was my feeling about the entire book.

A book on war and specifically on the US military in a time of war has some implicit questions, namely “Is it all worth it?” and “What exactly is the point of all this?” Roach doesn’t address these questions explicitly, though the content of some chapters brings them to the reader’s mind, until the very last paragraph, where she does so with pointedness and grace. But it’s literally one paragraph. In Packing on Mars, those questions were central to the book and she asked them of a number of people she spoke to. They’re what gave that book the depth that’s missing from her others. Those are touchy issues in a military context, but they’re touchy at NASA too given that astronauts do die and the space program is constantly at risk of cancellation.

I doubt very much that Roach was banned from asking those questions while she researched this book. Maybe she thought they were too sensitive or people would shut down if she asked or she did ask but ended up deciding the answers would make her book too political for a science book. Who knows. But I wish the larger questions were more present. It might have taken the book from “worthwhile if the subject interests you” to “excellent nonfiction of general interest to anyone who can take the content.”

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


Something she doesn’t mention but which I’ve read about elsewhere is that in a recent war US soldiers were getting a lot of eye injuries due to failure to wear eye protection. When asked, they said it made them look stupid. The Army called in Rayban to consult in designing cooler eyewear, and eye injuries went down.

How did Rayban define cool when designing military hardware? Is it even true that cool value is a significant factor in gear-wearing compliance?


I am willing to bet it is, based on the number of gun/engineering/manufacturing videos on Youtube in which everyone in the video appears to subscribe to the "hold my beer, I got this" school of safety procedure. Heck, based on the people I grew up around ... My brother (former Army guy) has always been EXACTLY that sort of person. And my stepdad actually makes fun of other people, especially guys, such as my husband, for wearing ear and eye protection while doing things like shooting guns.

(I went shooting with my stepdad exactly once as an adult, and then decided that if my options are getting mocked for wearing earplugs while doing something I don't want to do anyway, or just not doing it at all, I have lots of other hobbies that are way more fun and don't involve a risk of hearing loss. As a kid, I am not sure if I ever saw anyone wearing ear or eye protection while doing any of the umpty-zillion dangerous things that a person can do in backwoods Alaska. In fact, I'm not even sure if I realized until I was an adult that wearing hearing protection for shooting guns is something you CAN do. It sure never came up when I was a kid.)

Though it's not just guy-culture machismo and related vanity; this also makes me think of something I read awhile back about female factory workers in WWII. Apparently there was a recurring problem with injuries related to loose hair, especially having to do with the then-popular peekaboo hairstyle popularized by the actress Veronica Lake, in which long hair covers up one eye. So Lake did a series of PSAs on worker hair safety and abandoned her trademark hairstyle, and injuries did in fact go down (by a significant margin; I think I read somewhere that it reduced them by a third): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgpvKXLTwr8

tl;dr - people are remarkably resistant to common-sense safety procedures for no other reason than wanting to look cool.
recessional: a photo image of feet in sparkly red shoes (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional


Social cachet and its loss is immediate and predictable (and psychologically very painful, and potentially has serious implications for future interpersonal relationships); injury due to being dumb avoiding said is ephemeral and only potential.

When you have that kind of balance, an awful lot of people are going to pick keeping social status. Which is why I used to walk 15mins home at -28C in jeans and sneakers, no hat, no mitts and just my ski jacket. Because when choosing between being guaranteed to be a target of active bullying on a daily basis, and maaaaaaybe getting frostbite, it was (to 14yo me) a no-brainer.

(nb I am sparing everyone a précis of the social status dynamics of my jr high, but trust me: 14yo was 100% correct about what dressing for the weather would have got her, and based this on lived experience and continual observation. Just to head off a Certain Kind of Response.)
alessandriana: (Default)

From: [personal profile] alessandriana


Is it even true that cool value is a significant factor in gear-wearing compliance?

Agreed, this seems to match my experiences on military bases. On one of my previous jobs I worked on a base in the wilds of Texas that had split shifts, and everyone who was out after dark was supposed to wear a reflective belt. They did not look cool. In fact, they were hated. I can't recall ever seeing anyone wear them unless a Sergeant was staring over their shoulder.

ETA: Ok, actually, I've fallen into a hole of reflective belt memes and I can't help but share. So here you go.
Edited Date: 2016-10-28 01:26 am (UTC)
recessional: a photo image of feet in sparkly red shoes (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional


I would predict the level of potential hostility provoked by asking the "is it worth it" in infantry dominated environments particularly would waaaaaay exceed that provoked from astronauts.

Based on, you know, watching the explosions happen.
vass: Jon Stewart reading a dictionary (books)

From: [personal profile] vass


This is the second review I've read of this book, and each time I see it mentioned I have to fight my reflex assumption that it's going to be extremely gritty fantasy satire about orcs and elves.

No, self. This is Grunt, by Mary Roach. Not Grunts!, by Mary Gentle.
mildred_of_midgard: (Default)

From: [personal profile] mildred_of_midgard


Omg, you're right, that's why I was surprised this wasn't about orcs and by the author of Ash!
vass: Jon Stewart reading a dictionary (books)

From: [personal profile] vass


Thing I just remembered: in Amy Efaw's Battle Dress (which is fiction, but the author did go to West Point) one of the soldiers at West Point's basic training wears his contact lenses into the tear gas tent because he doesn't want to wear his TEDs (tactical eye devices, i.e. military issue glasses) because they look so dorky.

The book doesn't go into detail about the result, other than to say "he's real unhappy right now." (The heroine also has contact lenses, and accidentally left her gas mask inserts behind because she didn't know what they were, but she has the sense to leave the contacts off and unconvincingly play the role of a fully sighted person during the gas drill.)

From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com


The coolness factor of uniforms has always been an issue. From reading tons of letters and memoirs of the Napoleonic period, for ex, I discovered that the second most frequent reason for joining a given regiment was their uniforms. (The first being fashion, i.e. the most fashionable people were in it.) And before regulations, guys with the money would design their own uniforms, if they didn't think the one everyone else wore cool enough. Heinrich Himmler was one of these.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Fashion in more ways than one!

So Himmler thought he could improve on the SS uniform, huh?

From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com


I believe he designed them. (I am somewhere in Indiana, and so far from my books to check) The SS was his baby. But I believe he designed his uniform first--he went with the black, rather than the less dramatic colors of the German army uniform, adding the death's heads, etc. The SS was an arm of the Nazi party, and for the most part, the Wehrmacht (the actual army) despised them.

From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com


Amen.

In other news, a good friend of mine has been bombing my email with arghs. At two a.m.this morning came the last of the day, after watching Worse Birthday Party Ever. Considering that she teaches high school and so had to be at work at seven a.m. I'd say that NIF has caught her hard, heh heh.

She also said that I could have Jing, that Jingrui is her jam. I wonder if that will hold . . .

From: [identity profile] londonkds.livejournal.com


Goering was also notorious for redesigning his uniforms to look cool. There's an anecdote about Goering being photographed with his head sticking out of a battleship's porthole, whereupon Goebbels supposedly remarked "Ah, Herman finally found some bling big enough to satisfy him", or something of the sort.

From: [identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com


I joined Brownies for the uniform, and then the year I joined, they gave up the cute uniform-dress that I liked and went to trousers, which were much more practical, but I wanted the uniform dress! ... But then I was bored by Brownies (our troop never did much, and I didn't like the work-for-badges thing), so I dropped out.

From: [identity profile] davesmusictank.livejournal.com


That sounds quite interesting.Added to want list.

From: [identity profile] naomikritzer.livejournal.com


I loved Packing for Mars and this sounds great, although I am with you 100% on wanting more depth in books like this.

It is hilarious but weirdly unsurprising to me that the Army was totally willing to give her info about and access to all the gross stuff. I feel like most of the military people I've met, including officers, are kind of enthusiastic about gross details. It's part of the culture, I think.

The stuff about dealing with people who didn't want to look dorky by redesigning safety equipment so it looked cooler: also pretty fascinating, and it reminded me of a news story I read years ago that I think you'd probably have found intriguing. Soldiers who work with robots tend to really anthropomophize the robots. The example in the article: bomb-clearing robots. These devices are designed, in fact, to FIND MINES and get blown up, if need be, to avoid blowing up any humans (or animals). But the article described a soldier who tearfully brought in the mangled remains of a robot and when the guy behind the desk simply handed him a replacement, insisted that they try to fix "Scooby," instead. There are also (horrifyingly) stories of soldiers risking their own lives to save their robots.

When I read this, I felt like the solution here was not rule-making but mythology-crafting. Like, a mythology about how robots who give their lives in place of humans are the ones who go to robot Valhalla.

From: [identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com


I really like your myth-making solution (and that's simultaneously fascinating and, on another level, not surprising about the soldiers and the robots).

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I'm not surprised. People get very attached to dolls and such, and even nonhuman looking objects like vehicles. I like the robot Valhalla idea. There's a story there.

From: [identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com


That's a really good point about the glasses/goggles. I'm curious too: was there more to it than looking dorky? Because it seems entirely possible to me that there could have been.

From: [identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com


Maybe she thought they were too sensitive or people would shut down if she asked or she did ask but ended up deciding the answers would make her book too political for a science book. Who knows.

I listened to an interview with Roach around the time this book came out, and if I remember correctly, she said that she really wanted to focus on the individual soldier – the type of person who doesn't get to make big decisions about war – and not larger ethical/political questions. But that was almost a year ago, so I could have forgotten!

I guess I really should read Packing for Mars. I've read most of her books, but skipped that one because I don't find space exploration too interesting. But you seem to have a very similar regard for her books as I do (fun topics, almost too breezy coverage), and if you liked it so much, I think I might too!

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Hmm. That doesn't make much sense to me, because what seemed to be missing was the individual soldiers perspective on why they were there and whether it was worthwhile to them. Avoiding that even when it seemed really relevant didn't feel focused so much as evasive. Especially since most of her NASA people weren't making the big decisions either.

I don't think you need an interest in space to enjoy Packing for Mars.
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