Recommended Reading: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War


51837639Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
Mary Roach
W.W. Norton, 2016
Hardcover, 285 pages
Almost three-quarters of a century have passed since some 13,000 paratroopers dropped from the skies over Normandy a few hours before thousands more Allied soldiers would land on the beaches to begin the liberation of Europe from the Third Reich.

Those paratroopers dropped with anywhere from 90-120 pounds of gear, including parachutes, rifles, knives — some dropped with machetes — entrenching tools, flashlights, compasses and maps, packs of rations, and extra ammo and grenades. All this gear was meant to be used to survive anything Hitler’s Wehrmacht launched at them: bullets, bombs and bunkers or panzers, machine pistols and panzerfausts.

On their way down the paratroopers probably prayed not just that their lives and their comrades’ lives would be spared the barrage of flak coming at them, but that they had, on landing — and if they survived that landing — the guts and guns to fight the men firing that flak at them and at the planes that dropped them. We know they had the guts and guns. That’s well-documented.

What we don’t know is whether they worried if their iconic cotton-twill uniforms might survive the blasts of a grenade’s explosion or wick away their body heat as they marched from one Norman farm field through another. These sorts of worries are the meat of research at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Massachusetts. There, scientists test Kevlar body armor and its variations; they test fabrics to see which cling to the skin in the vacuum created by an explosion, worsening burns, or which cloth lifts away from the skin, lessening the damage the victim might endure.

When you think of military science, you might think of the marvels of engineering that might go into the so far hypothetical F19 stealth fighter or even the strategy and tactics a commander uses to launch a successful campaign.

In Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Mary Roach explores the sort of military science performed at Natick, the kind that researches the best uniforms that protect the men and women wearing them from “all that modern warfare has to throw at them: flames, explosives, bullets, lasers, bomb-blasted dirt, blister agents, anthrax, sand fleas.”

It’s the unsung, behind-the-scenes science of warfare that Roach puts into the spotlight, the things rarely talked about in history books or heard of on the news, “the quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, panic, ducks.”

Ducks? Exactly.

Unless you’re Elmer Fudd, I doubt you think of a duck as something that poses a risk to national security. But “birdstrike,” as the military calls the mass of geese, gulls, ducks and other birds that collide with Air Force jets, costs “$50 million to $80 million in damage and, once every few years, the lives of the people on board.”

The Air Force tests birdstrike — so you’ll know— with an aptly named chicken gun, which hurtles chickens against jets at speeds of 400 mph or more.

Grunt is Roach’s fifth book. I’m currently reading her first, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which explores how cadavers have been used to aid the progress of medical science, and even of military science, as they were in 1893 when Capt. Louis La Garde of the U.S. Army Medical Corps experimented with what’s now termed stopping power of the then new .30-caliber Springfield rifle, firing the gun at a series of naked and unarmed corpses.

With the advent of ballistics gel, the military, as well as law enforcement, rarely use cadavers in weapons testing any longer — the freshly dead, as it turns out, aren’t good test subjects to determine stopping power. The already stopped often don’t react to damage from bullets in the same way the living or simulated living parts made from the gel do.

Actually, one primary task of the military now is to prevent its personnel from becoming corpses. One way to do this is to train medics in gruesomely realistic settings, as the 1st Marine Division does its medical corpsmen at Camp Pendleton. In its combat trauma management course, the Marines find themselves in the midst of a simulated Afghan village when all hell breaks loose during an insurgent attack.

Only, the corpsmen aren’t anywhere near Afghanistan; they are in a movie studio designed to give them the feel of war. Here, they find actors — in some cases amputee Marine veterans — screaming in agony as gouts of movie blood fountain from the same sort of special effects equipment that makes a mess of soldiers on screen. In the background all the while, as the medics tend the wounded, realistic sounds of combat blare out over speakers — audio from the movie Saving Private Ryan.

While these scenes are engaging, Roach gives us her best with the quirky stories ­ — sometimes asides in a chapter — that have the most potential for maximum gross-out factor, as when she turns to the subject of wound care using maggots.

She first encounters the fly larvae in Stiff, where she describes her visit to the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility. There, where forensics researchers study decay in cadavers in the name of law enforcement and solving murders, Roach notes “grains of rice” squirming in a man’s belly button. “It’s a rice grain mosh pit,” she writes with her characteristic sense of humor.

Only, these aren’t grains of rice. They’re maggots, which she decides to give a much more palatable name to — “haciendas”. In Grunt, she graduates to making roses roses and maggots maggots, when she visits wound care researchers at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR).

Maggots eat dead or decaying meat. “When the meat is part of an open wound,” Roach reports, “the act of eating performs upon the meal a kind of debridement. Debridement — the removal of dead or dying tissue — fights infection and facilitates healing.”

The last thing a wounded soldier trying to recover from those wounds needs is infection. Enter the WRAIR maggot therapists, who treat wounds using said fly larvae, to eat away dead, decaying, infectious flesh. These larvae, of course, aren’t grown in the wild but safely cultivated in sterile environments by the therapists — sometimes in home labs.

Having seen maggots at work before, Roach is less squeamish this time around: Maggot therapist George Peck places three of the wriggling larvae on the tip of Roach’s index finger. When they rear up in search of food, Roach likens them to puppets on Sesame Street.

It’s sort of a sweet scene — if you think of the maggots as, say, puppets or playful puppies. Then comes the kicker, when two of the larvae lift their companion up as if in celebration. Peck informs Roach, “They do cannibalize.”

Which, indeed, is what they do.

Roach peppers her book with scenes like this. At once graphic, yet somehow endearing, largely because throughout the book, Roach charms with her voice, a voice that is at once affable and serious. Voice and narrative always make a piece work.

Grunt works because of Roach’s voice and her ability to set scenes like those above. Still,  war is a grave, serious subject, and while Roach’s voice is often charming and witty, she never makes of her subject a frivolous thing.

She tells the story of the people involved in the science of war with humanity and depth, and how their work affects them.

Grunt ends poignantly inside the morgue and mortuary of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, where military autopsies are performed. Roach notes that since “2004, around 6,000 autopsies have taken place here,” all of men and women killed in combat.

Here, autopsies uncover more than the cause of death. They uncover what could save the next soldier’s life. The beefed-up, buff pectorals of many weight-lifting soldiers and Marines, for instance, have caused small needles to miss their mark when medics try to relieve air pressure off of shot-through collapsed lungs. Autopsies discovered this. Now, longer needles are used on buffer pecs.

In the end, however, war is about the dead, the dead young men and women going through the morgue and mortuary, and the question posed by one of the medical examiners, “Was it worth it?”

History shows us it was worth it to land behind the lines of the Norman coast in 1944. Still, it’s a difficult question to answer. Roach leaves us pondering that question with a final image. She sees a stepladder in the exam room: she learns it’s used by autopsy photographers to get perspective, to get the whole body in the frame.

“I guess war is like that,” Roach writes. “A thousand points of light, as they say. Only when you step back and view the sum, only then are you able to grasp the worth, the justification for the extinguishing of any single point. Right at the moment, it’s tough to get that perspective. It’s tough to imagine a stepladder high enough.”


The Barest of Beginnings

Almost Human: Making Robots ThinkAlmost Human: Making Robots Think by Lee Gutkind

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It may be a long time before we have robots as sophisticated as R2D2 or C3P0, but roboticists get closer every day as they work toward making robots think. Lee Gutkind’s Almost Human: Making Robots Think tours through contemporary robotics research — largely at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh — and gives readers a glimpse of where we are going with this particular technology and reveals that getting to the point of making independent thinking machines is at “the barest beginning.”

Gutkind focuses heavily on researchers involved in trying to find out whether robots could traverse the rugged extraterrestial terrain of Mars and perform independent experiments to discover signs of life on the Red Planet.

One intriguing concept Gutkind follows briefly is the idea of human/robot interactions — that humans will have to learn to adjust to almost-human machines in the same way we are having to adjust to the rapid advances in computer technology.

But most of all Gutkind puts a human stamp on the machines, potraying in depth the scientists and engineers behind the robots. We find out these researchers are driven, willing to put in long, grueling hours into designing and testing their machines. Gutkind’s portrait is reminiscent of Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine, an examination of the computer revolution in the ’70s and ’80s.

What Gutkind finds, I believe, is that the soul of these new machines is human.

View all my reviews

Stumbling into Buddha

The Accidental Buddhist
By Dinty W. Moore
Doubleday, 1997, 208 pages

Lashing memoirs for their self-indulgent, whiny navel-gazing seems common among critics of the genre — although the memoirs/autobiographies I’ve read over the past few years have been anything but whiny or self-indulgent.

Dinty Moore’s The Accidental Buddhist, a spiritual autobiography, is not whiny or self-indulgent.

It’s also not “inspirational”; it’s not a testimonial autobiography intended to uplift the reader and send him or out to shout “Namaste!” over the hills and everywhere, or to go out, ring doorbells and deliver good karma. It’s also not an in depth theological-philosophical exploration of Buddhism that would require a degree in philosophy, theology, or quantum physics to understand.

It is, at the very least, a good story, a narrative that leads the reader from Moore’s project to explore why Americans have become interested in Buddhism and what American Buddhism was like to his own spiritual discoveries: why did he seek out Buddhism? could he become a Buddhist? and what kind of Buddhist would he become?

Like many of us who hit a certain age beyond 20-something, Moore had come to a point in his life in which he “wasn’t particularly happy . . . . I was just getting along . . . . No matter where I went, what I did, I always felt a little bit empty.” Instead of sitting back and letting that emptiness overwhelm him, and simply keep puttering along, Moore set out to understand that feeling, to confront it, and see if it could be filled.

Of course, like most spiritual seekers, Moore’s journey didn’t begin as a journey toward enlightenment: it began as a project. A writer and writing teacher, Moore set out on the quest with a story in mind. He was going to write about Buddhism in America.

Much of the book is solid first-person reportage: he tells stories about his experiences at Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York, and writes about other American Buddhists such as Linsi Deyo and her husband Patrick Clark, who run a meditation cushion business from their farm in North Carloina’s Great Smoky Mountains. He weaves these stories into his own budding understanding of what it means to be a Buddhist and his beginning practice.

Buddhism wasn’t foreign to Moore. “As for myself,” he writes, “I had toyed with Buddhist philosophy in my young adulthood. Like millions of other college kids, I read Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in one long weekend, put it down thinking my life had been forever transformed, then promptly forgot about it. I even took a meditation class once, but never got past how to fold my legs.”

It’s only later, after reading a few other books and setting out on his book project, that he begins his spiritual journey. It starts with his experiences with meditation, an essential practice of Buddhism, at Zen Mountain Monastery. He tries various schools: Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and Theravada. Like most Americans, no matter their faith, he takes bits and pieces from each of the schools and practices with others and alone. As the story unfolds, he slowly begins to see what it means to be a Buddhist.

What makes this memoir engaging, besides Moore’s skills as a storyteller, is what makes the best spiritual autobiographers — C. S. Lewis, Karen Armstrong — engaging: He gives us himself warts and all. Like any of us with any spiritual or philosophic questions, Moore goes through periods of doubt. He constantly wonders if he can be a Buddhist, if he can ever rid himself of his “monkey mind,” and experience enlightenment. His enthusiasm  for the new-old religion slackens: “At times, it seems as if the only real point is to somehow keep holding it all together. Life becomes a loop of concern and uncertainty.”

Then Moore carries on and discovers he can be a Buddhist after all. And he does it with humor and humanity — and imperfection.

Some Gems from Frank Conroy

I wanted to share this post from Richard at Narrative:

Frank Conroy on mystery & memoir

Conroy’s one of my favorite writers. I read his memoir Stop-Time about a decade ago, after trying to write a short story about my then strained relationship with my dad. While Conroy’s narrative about his relationship with his father is absorbing — it’s not the whole subject of the memoir — what drew me in most were Conroy’s sentences — deceptively simple declarative sentences packed with meaning.

Stop-Time‘s also one of the first creative-nonfiction memoirs I’d ever read. It’s a fine example of the form.

Some of  the interview excerpts from Richard’s post that drew me into Conroy’s mind:

“The power and almost obscene wealth of parts of America resemble nothing so much as the Roman Empire. I don’t understand why people aren’t completely scandalized by the degrading of humanity through films and television over the last twenty years, a degradation of the soul. I’m not religious, but I insist on being able to use some of the concepts generally scorned in a secular society. The soul and spirituality are important parts of life . . . . The spiritual emptiness of society is very deep and unsettling, so people are looking for something better.”

“I don’t believe in the natural writer. I believe in the natural reader who gradually begins to write. You can’t write independent of literature, so you read, you read, you read, you read, you read, and then you begin to write.”

John McPhee’s New Book Gets Personal –

When I began my journalism career close to 10 years ago I knew nothing about the terms literary journalism/creative nonfiction. I knew the term “new journalism” coined by Tom Wolfe; I had read his collection of pieces by “new” journalists like Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion. I had also read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, wherein Zinsser argued that nonfiction was the new American literature. I longed to write the kind of nonfiction Wolfe and Zinsser were describing.

After I started writing at the newspaper, I started making attempts — however mangled — at “new” journalism, which I had learned by then was also known as literary journalism. At the same time I was discovering and reading great talents such as Susan Orlean and John McPhee. Both were inspiring.

McPhee is a favorite. He has a new book out — Silk Parachute. The L.A. Times recently interviewed him:

John McPhee’s new book gets personal –

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