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.”


Entering the Dark Republic: a review of D.L. Young’s Soledad

So, when I received my copy of D.L. Young’s debut novel, Soledad, it was right around the time the U.K. took leave of the European Union.

After that vote, there were some half-serious memes on social media calling for Texas’ exit from the U.S. As ridiculous as that sounds, as yahoo-ish as that sounds, there are not a few here in the state who wouldn’t relish the chance to revive in their minds the glory days of the Republic of Texas. There is/was, for instance, the notorious Republic of Texas movement in the 1990s, led by the now imprisoned Richard Lance McLaren, which claimed, among other grievances, the U.S. illegally annexed Texas in 1845.

Historically, Texas, as early as September 1836, just a few months after becoming a republic, sought annexation, but the Van Buren Administration wasn’t keen on it, fearing, in part, war with Mexico.  The U.S.’s westward expansion, and fears of British expansion and economic growth, prompted President John Tyler to promote Texas annexation in 1844, although that push, with much U.S. prompting, didn’t pass until 1845.

In the 90s, Secession appealed to a certain element rife with conspiracy and government hatred, in particular after the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco.

“The idea of nationhood appealed to many Texans,” Joe Nick Patoski wrote for Texas Monthly, while covering the McLaren standoff,  “and a movement was born.”

Most in the area of McLaren’s property at Davis Mountain Resort, Patoski reports, didn’t like McLaren much. Some offered to shoot him themselves if the DPS didn’t, others planned margarita parties if and when he was pronounced dead.

McLaren’s supporters, however, echoed his rhetoric, including a street preacher, W.N. Otwell, as Patoski reports, who said, “‘He’s the one who’s done the research,’ [Otwell] said. ‘We’re here because we’re interested in this, because we believe the New World Order has trampled our constitutional rights. It’s the Antichrist and the mark of the beast.’”

McLaren was and is still imprisoned in Amarillo, after a 1997 standoff with the Texas Department of Public Safety. In that standoff, two hostages were taken on McLaren’s property at the Davis Mountains Resort.

This strand of apocalyptic thinking is all too common among the ahistorical Secessionist types — with its nascent Tea-Party rhetoric too chillingly trumpeted in the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his followers, and its a strand of thinking Young carries forward in speculative excellence with his Soledad.

Young’s is a dystopian vision, a hellish republic divided against itself; it’s a what if of what Texas could be if these Secessionists succeeded, and an extended metaphor of what I fear the U.S. could become should the trumpeters take the stage this November.

Ostensibly, the novel tells the story of a “reader” Soledad Paz, a slave, whose drug-enhanced psychic abilities allow her to inform the brigand-businessman Flaco Guzman whether those who would do business with him are lying to him. Liars, of course, get shot in the head and their bodies dumped in the West Texas desert, a “meal for coyotes and vultures, like all the others who try to pull one over on the great and powerful Guzman.”

But the novel takes us beyond the already balkanizing republic, beyond a Mad-Max-esque adventure — spoiler alert: Soledad escapes into a wilderness of hate — and like Soledad herself, stares at our collective souls, sees things we can’t even see ourselves because we’re too blind or too wrapped up in rhetoric to see.

For me, the most chilling section of the novel is the set piece in Waco, when Soledad and those who have helped her escape Guzman, get captured by Christian fundamentalists who make current Islamic terrorists look like black-pajamaed Boy Scouts, “the thousands of well-armed zealots who don’t like strangers” and “have a special hate for outsiders, anyone who’s not a baptized, Bible-carrying, true believing Fundie.”

These are the kind of people who weave the divine into every detail of history, much like the McLaren bunch, much like the conservative evangelicals blowing their shofars for Trump or Cruz and lamenting the loss of God in their fantasy Christian nation. The uber-patriots wrapped in flags, an AR-15 in one hand and a Bible in the other. They spew the wrath of God, rather than the Sermon on the Mount. They shout down opposition and claim persecution at the slightest slight.

In the novel, this group commits one of the most chilling atrocities, one we’ve seen or heard about, the kind of thing we associate with Islamic terrorists: a woman buried up to her neck and stoned to death for being a heathen (a Catholic in this case). Young depicts this stoning with ferocious detail, as if it’s something he actually witnessed.

One fortunate thing about Young’s dystopic vision, is that as Margaret Atwood has noted, “[W]ithin each dystopia [is] a hidden utopia, if only in the form of the world as it existed before the bad guys took over.”

Of course, as Atwood says, in each utopia there is a concealed dystopia, and perhaps Soledad will, instead, reach for some sensible middle ground, and not try to make things perfect, only better.

— Todd

Review of China Mieville’s Embassytown

EmbassytownEmbassytown by China Miéville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

China Mieville’s Embassytown is as much an exercise in semantics as it is a science fiction novel about an alien culture on the brink of apocalypse as it comes to clash with human colonists.

The alien culture—the Ariekei—has a language that would be a fundamentalist’s/literalist’s wet dream or worst nightmare; it has almost no figurative language, and what little figurative language it does have, in simile, is taken as literal truth.

Everything is true or passes as fact. They cannot make subtle distinctions and have no room for gray areas of ambiguity.

The language, known as Language to human colonists, is so obscure, only altered humans, known as Ambassadors can fully understand it. Which leads to intrigue and near apocalypse for both Ariekei and humans when an Ambassador introduces lies into Language.

The Ariekei become addicted to the lies and crisis erupts. In the middle of this crisis is Avice Benner Cho, who has just returned to her home planet after years in the immer, a sort liquidy wormhole that allows for interstellar travel (Mieville is ever inventive with language). Avice is an unwilling participant in the intrigue, partly because her husband Scile, a linguist, is a co-conspirator and partly because she is a simile in the Ariekei Language.

Though Embassytown is as imaginative and inventive as Mieville’s Hugo-winning The City & The City, I preferred The City & The City and its intriguing look at how we see and choose to “unsee” (another of Mieville’s coinages)others set against the backdrop of a noir murder mystery.

Embassytown is, however, an intriguing look at how language can be abused, especially when varying shades of meaning are stripped from it and only literalism survives.
View all my reviews

Book Review: Pass With Care Through Pinebox

Buried Tales of Pinebox, Texas
Edited by Matt M. McElroy
12 to Midnight, 2009

Big fish lurk beneath the waters of Lake Greystone in Pinebox, Texas. Really big fish. But I will warn against a fishing trip, if you value your life. In fact, I will warn you to pass carefully through the little East Texas town.

Sure, it seems a friendly enough place with mom and pop shops and a state college.  You might stop for pie at Mom’s Diner or admire the architecture of the Golan County courthouse. Still, I recommend you pass on through, because Mayberry this town is not.

Strange things happen in Pinebox. And some of its strangest lore is collected in Buried Tales of Pinebox, Texas. Besides an unusual amount of deaths by alligator attack — though alligators are rarely seen — in Pinebox people disappear mysteriously, rumors fly of a creature known as the Piney Devil lurking in the  woods around town, old ladies get accused of witchcraft, and criminals . . . well, let’s just say justice gets served.

The thirteen stories in the collection range from transcripts left by a travel writer who mysteriously disappeared to Preston DuBose’s “The One That Got Away,” a campy story that’s sort of a cross between Call of Cthulhu and a Jeff Foxworthy routine, to Ed Wetterman’s “The Witch of Linda Lane,” a tale of young boys who suspect their friend’s death may have been caused by a witch. The stories are capped off by a series of Headlines, newspaper clippings recounting the strange happenings in the town and surrounding county.

This collection is a fun read, some good horror stories for this time of year. But beware . . . if you stay too long in Pinebox . . . well, as one local says, “‘Gators do funny things, sometimes’.”

Book Review: Making a Literary Life

Every time I vow not read another writing advice book, I find one that really seems to tackle issues I’m having trouble with.

Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life (Random House, 2002) is the most recent advice book that I’ve checked out. Along with chapters on craft, See adds a new dimension: How to make a life as a writer, which delves into relationships, publication, networking and promotion.

To the chapters on craft — plot, characters, revision and scene — See includes an interesting section on geography, time and space, which expands upon more than just setting.

In this section, she emphasizes specifics over generalizations.  She says, for instance, if a writer generalizes too much when trying to be “‘universal” the writer runs “the risk of boring . . .  readers to death. Because the ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in ‘the city’ may be easy enough to write about, but who can stand to read about them?”

The specifics matter. A character’s geography matters, how that character gets around matters, how time influences characters matters. Such things matter so much See suggests using such tools as drawing maps of the town a character lives in, of the place where a character lives. It’s a reminder we should know our characters inside-out as we work out their lives and stories on the page.

Also, as with other writing books, See stresses the importance of commitment to the craft. She has her version of Richard Rhodes’ Knickerbocker Rule — you write by applying your ass to your chair. See’s version of the rule is “a thousand words a day — or two hours of revision — five days a week for the rest of your life.”

There’s no other way around it, kids: to write, you have to commit to writing, you have to take time out and write and write and write, and then write some more.

My favorite sections in this book are about the writer’s life itself, the people around you, and the best people to be around (those who genuinely support your work); your life and outlook (how do you see yourself as a writer? how do you want others to see you?); how do you build a network of writers, editors, etc. (See suggests one charming note a day to a writer, editor, agent, etc.); and how do you manage publishing and promoting your work?

Continue reading

Book Review: In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction

In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction
Edited by Lee Gutkind
W. W. Norton, 2005
440 pages, $15.95

In my newspaper days, recorded in my reporter’s notebooks was every story’s genesis. Almost daily I set out from the newsroom, notebook in hand, ready to write stories of cross-pulling preacher-bikers, social club ladies, native plant gardeners, and an ex Hanoi Hilton POW, all people and experiences I thought I might one day weave into my grapplings with fiction.

A stack of weathered, worn notebooks, an image that evokes stories ready to be told. It’s the image on the cover of In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction, a selection of 25 essays from the first 10 years of the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction founded by Lee Gutkind, the “Godfather behind creative nonfiction.”

Each piece in the collection is representative of the genre, a sort of nebulously-monikered genre that encompasses almost every form of nonfiction: personal essay, traditional reflective essays, and New Journalism or literary journalism, reportage that largely relies on narrative to get its information and ideas across.

These pieces, each in their own way, seem to capture the spirit of the journal Gutkind founded, which he reports in his introduction to the collection is a mix of “good old-fashioned reporting — facts, plus story and reflection or contemplation.” Like journalists — and some as Mark Bowden are journalists — practitioners of creative nonfiction take out their notebooks and collect interviews and gather other documentation and report their stories, but they immerse themselves in the worlds of meth addicts who stumble upon a cache of money, as Bowden does, or report and reflect upon their experience of becoming a father, as Phillip Lopate does.

These essays are not works of confessional “navel gazers,” as Gutkind reports James Wolcott infamously quipped in Vanity Fair magazine. They are explorations into the world, engaging the reader, as writers always have, seeking out, as Gutkind himself has sought as a writer,  “other lifestyles, other professions, and the patchwork of prejudices and kindness that make some people different from others.” The pieces take us deeper into the world to discover the play of language, as Diane Ackerman does, or provide insight into the workings of  the brain and mind and whether there is a separation between the concept of the “mind” and the physical brain, as Floyd Skloot does.