Grunt: Science of War, Medicine, and the Humans in the Middle of It All

Mary Roach’s Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War gives readers a glimpse into the stunning world of military science and medicine.

Roach sets the stage with an anecdote about an artillery-grade gun that shoots frozen chickens—aptly named the “chicken gun”—at aircraft to test if windshields can withstand colliding with birds of flight. She explores how these “chicken guns” as well as flame-retardant and water-resistant fabrics, zipper-free vests (for snipers, so as not to give away their position), and other military “fashions” are trying to improve the lives of soldiers while reducing injury and death.

“Heroism doesn’t always happen in a burst of glory. Sometimes small triumphs and large hearts change the course of history. Sometimes a chicken can save a man’s life.”

For military science, however, death is a key component for advancements. Not surprising, this means “life and death” is a central theme in Grunt. Readers learn about human cadavers getting detonated in test explosions, as the subject of comprehensive autopsies, and for providing vital transplant organs. Roach specifically highlights the transplant of male genitalia, paving the way for fascinating legal discussions such as does any remaining quantity of donor sperm belong to the donor’s family? And, if said donor was a soldier, would any resulting offspring be a military beneficiary of things like pensions?

Roach, who has described herself as a “goober with a flashlight, stumbling into corners and crannies,” is an exceptionally clever, congenial writer going into those dark corners where many other writers won’t. Other noteworthy works of hers include Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, a book about eating, digestion, and—because why not?—elimination, and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, exploring the lives of post-mortem bodies. Michelle Dean at The Guardian writes that while Roach isn’t necessarily an investigative journalist, she still “has specialized in tackling the uncomfortable, and at the heart of her every book is her desire to explore the places from which we recoil.”

In Grunt, Roach gives us a glimpse at several of those uncomfortable topics most unsuitable for the faint of heart’s dinner table, such as the aforementioned penis transplants. (This is wholly dependent on your typical table conversations, of course.) She explores other grotesque aspects of military science and medicine: how a urethra can be constructed from cheek skin, the best kind of underwear to not fuse to your flesh if wounded (silk, interestingly enough), and “the maggot treatment”—introducing blowfly larvae into a wound for the purpose of debridement.

Don’t worry. There’s plenty of diarrhea-talk, too.

“…the Navy researcher who comes up with a way to speed the recovery time from travelers’ diarrhea. These things matter when it’s 115 degrees and you’re trying to keep your troops from dehydrating to the point of collapse. There’s no glory in the work. No one wins a medal. And maybe someone should.”

Readers will never see their nation’s soldiers in the same way again after taking this tour of stunning (and sometimes sickly) military science and the less-than-talked-about soldier plights after reading this book.enotes blog grunt summary giveaway.pngRead the eNotes summary of Grunt with characters, quotes, and themes. We’re also giving away a copy signed by Mary Roach to one lucky reader: entries are open to U.S. and Canada residents and are accepted until July 13, 2017, at 9:00 p.m. PST!

*Cover image by Benjamin Faust via