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
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