Grunt by Mary Roach

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Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (Norton & Company, 285 pp., $26.95) exposes the sometimes absurd and gruesome but often fascinating science performed behind the scenes to develop and test new U.S. military technologies. Best-selling author Mary Roach investigates a new problem and its technological solution in each chapter. That includes how not to get eaten by sharks, how combat medics are trained, and diarrhea as a threat to national security.

Then there’s the chicken gun. Roach describes it as having “a sixty-foot barrel, putting it solidly in the class of an artillery piece.” However, “while a four-pound chicken hurtling in excess of 400 miles per hour is a lethal projectile, the intent is not to kill. On the contrary, the chicken gun was designed to keep people alive.”

The chickens are launched in place of the thousands of geese, ducks, and other birds that crash into military jets every year, causing an estimated $50-80 million in damages. If a chicken gun sounds to you like an interesting and unusual piece of technology, then this book might be right up your alley.

Roach thoroughly reports on the development of these unusual technologies. She also doesn’t shy away from addressing their problems, limitations, and the difficulties of testing field equipment in a lab. In the case of the chicken gun, Roach explains that chickens are a poor choice to represent other birds that collide with aircraft since chickens don’t fly, are denser than other birds, and hit planes in a different way than flying birds would—with their wings outstretched and legs trailing.

“It hits like a flung grocery item,” Roach says. Her language rarely pulls any punches, which makes for exceptionally candid observations throughout the book.

Older and younger veterans will particularly enjoy Roach’s chapter on the military’s research into how to combat heat stroke in the field and whether some individuals are genetically prone to heat illness.  Roach cites the Vietnam War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Georgia-based Army Ranger School in the chapter.

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Mary Roach

To test how prone certain individuals are to heat stroke, soldiers are put into a “cook box,” in which they run on a treadmill in 104 degree heat for two hours with a rectal probe inserted to measure their core body temperature. Those stationed in the tropics lose roughly ten kilograms of sweat per day, Roach explains, so understanding how to better equip troops to withstand the heat is very important, particularly with today’s wars in the Middle East.

Roach’s integrity and background as a journalist guide the in-depth research, on-site observations, and interviews that inform Grunt. She has an uncanny ability to transform what could be boring scientific material into entertaining and informative accounts about the development of new military technologies that will keep you engaged—and probably make you laugh out loud.

—James Schueseler

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