Author: Mary Roach
APA Style Citation:
Roach, M (2016). GRUNT: The Curious Science of Humans at War. New York, New York. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.
Mary Roach has added to her prodigious collection of publications with her latest venture into the world of military science. Roach approaches her first book on the military with a unique and humorous twist as she does with all of her projects. She delves into the jobs of those conducting scientific research for the military, some fighting dysentery, others investigating shark repellent and even a captain at the army medical research lab who has injected himself with snake venom to test the possibility of building immunity to it. Perhaps the most interesting is Ernest Crocker who develops foul smelling odors to drive enemies from their hiding spaces. Roach puts a public face on the often-unsung heroes who work behind the scenes to protect the lives of those on the front lines.
Roach meets up with Annette La Fleur who designs flame resistant uniforms for snipers. Because snipers may spend hours lying on the ground, the current suits have zippers on the side to make them more accessible and comfortable. The coated backing La Fleur used, keeps moisture from seeping through and the pockets have been placed onto the sleeves for easier access. Annette LaFleur is designing uniforms that work for the people using them and she takes feedback, which she then incorporates into future designs, much like human factors psychologists design products that work effectively for those using the products. In addition to the snipers suits, she has designed mittens with one glove like finger to accommodate firing a weapon effectively in very cold weather, of a concealable armor vest, a far cry for the swim suits she designed at the start of her fashion career, but in both form follows function. While the American military has yet to create bomb proof underwear as their British counterparts, they have found that spider silk is naturally breathable but unlike cotton it has a strength to density ratio better than that of steel and if exposed to an explosive device, this silks will not fragment and leave bits and pieces in the wound that often gather bacteria and cause infection.
Helicopter pilots are regularly exposed to sounds over a 100 decibels (a Blackhawk helicopter 106 decibels). 85 decibels is the point at which the human ear can be exposed to sounds without experiencing any hearing loss, but beyond this, the sounds become exponentially more damaging. If solider experience significant hearing loss because of this or other exposure to loud noises, they may place both themselves and the others in their unit in danger. To fix this, one might recommend that the military hand out millions of ear plugs each year, but these will muddle the external sounds and soldiers need to hear in order to be safe. Hearing poses a real threat while in the field, if soldiers on a patrol are too close together they risk becoming a target for the enemy, if they are too far apart; they risk not being able to communicate with one another. 50 to 60% of information about one’s current situation comes from the hearing, so this is essential in combat situations. Roach tries out the military’s current solution to this called TCAPS (Tactical Communication and Protective System). Incoming noises are analyzed and quiet ones are amplified while loud ones are reproduced more quietly. TCAPS also has radio capability but these are not in general use because they are expensive to produce and soldiers are concerned that they will simply be given more equipment to carry around that is often broken and useless. Those in special operations are more likely to experience hearing loss because of the time they spend around explosive and artillery.
Stuart Segal runs Stu Sewall productions, which is set up to train military personal for combat situations. This means creating situations as similar as possible to the real situation. Roach attends training on a day in which Segall has created a simulation of an attack in an Afghan village. The scene includes a market, mud bricks buildings (it had goats but Segall got tired of feeding them each day). Those in the role-play have silicone prostheses that include bone fragments and will even bleed to lend to the credibility of the situation. Ironically, the company that creates these limbs is called “missing something”. Segall and others scream at trainees during the simulation to ensure that this situation seems real. The sympathetic nervous system of the trainees is in fight or flight mode and they must learn to operate under these conditions in order to be certain that they perform well in an actual combat situation. It is extremely stressful for the trainees but this ultimately makes for a better functioning military.
Roach also visits the nuclear submarine Tennessee, those who work on submarine are chronically sleep deprived because submarine work generally divides a 24 hour day into six hour shifts, sailors work two of these, have one for free time and another for sleep, at least one hour of shift is done while the body feels it should be sleeping. During the six hours of sleep, sailors may be woken for a drill or for to man their post for someone boarding or if they are going to the surface. Those who are sleep deprived operate as if they were under the influence of intoxicating drugs and gradual sleep deprivation such as six hours over a period of two weeks can be as cognitively dangerous as those who had been awake for 48-hours straight. Staying awake for 24 hours straight can reduce cognitive activity by as much as 25%. The military has looked for ways to allow soldiers to stay awake for long periods without experiencing the deleterious effects. Nathanial Kleitman spent thirty-two days in Kentucky’s Mammoth caves to determine how circadian rhythms would be impacted by a lack of sleep and wake cycles. The caves had no signals for light and dark much like life on a submarine. The military has tried three separate shifts as a way of dealing with sleep deprivation and cutting the work time for individuals but this became isolating because sailors did not see their friends on others shifts and the limited space on the ship used for meals and social activities needed to be open constantly for meal to accommodate the multiple shifts. The military is now working on developing goggles that emit melatonin suppressing light waves to fool one into thinking it is day time and help with staying awake when one’s body believes we should be sleeping. Even traditional boot camps schedules interfere with circadian rhythms because for the young recruits lights out at 10:00 and waking at 4:00 counters the production of melatonin, which aids sleep and is produced later in younger individuals.
Roach approaches this book as she does all of her books, with interesting stories and amusing anecdotes backed by strong scientific research. She celebrates these individuals who support the men and women on the front line and contribute to saving lives as much as those who are in the trenches.
Other Related Resources
Mary Roach introduces Grunt
Mary Roach quizzing people on military jargon
Live Science: Question and answer session with author Mary Roach about Grunt
Wire Magazine: Crotch Explosions, severed heads, and pee cups: Yep it’s Mary Roach on the Science of War
Mary Roach: Science Friday
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Conduction hearing loss
Phantom limb syndrome
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Stage 1 sleep
Sympathetic nervous system