Grunt; The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach.

Grunt; The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach. W.W. Norton, 2017 paper.

Mary Roach’s book is not about giving belligerents greater fire power, it is about keeping them alive and battle worthy.  Her investigation involves everything from the composition of a “grunt’s” uniform and his rations to how best to assure that sailors manning both submarines and surface warships can escape their “metal coffins.” Much of the life-saving research was carried on at the Natick Soldiers’ Research, Development, and Engineering Center.

Recent wars fought in the Middle East have had to deal with Improvised Explosive Devices, IEDs. Most WWII vehicles – tanks, troop carriers – expected to be attacked by machine guns and hand grenades from their flank or from above. Mines were the exception. But today these explosive devices are detonated by walking on or running vehicles over them. So army contractors have been set to work to arm the underbelly of Humvees and other All-Terrain vehicles.

The coffee break. Coffee keeps the soldier alert but only for a half-life of six to eight hours. The Germans developed much more effective drugs for that purpose during WWII. Our Natick labs developed freeze-dried coffee which didn’t need to be brewed, only water heated to boiling.

Military uniforms have to be flame-resistant, warm in cold weather, cool in hot weather, and insect repellant. Roach points out that some of these requirements are contradictory. Wool is more flame resistant than cotton, but also warmer than cotton.

Whatever the fabric of the infantryman’s uniform, it is thoroughly saturated with chemicals. But crawling around in those battlefields requires washing and the material soon lost most of its chemical treatment.  So there has been much investigation of how to prolong the life of those chemicals. The next time that you see soldiers in military outfits, be admiring of the science that goes into them.

There was a requirement that service men be clean shaven. This was a holdover from World War I when whiskers compromised what was designed to be air-tight gasmasks. (Roach makes the point in the first years after our entry into World War II, we were fighting with WWI technology.) Fortunately chemical warfare was not used in World War II. So whiskers, or at least several days’ growth of facial hair, flourished.

The US did use something like a stink-bomb. Very smelly chemicals were frequently sprayed airily over Japanese soldiers that smelled like objectionable body odors. These “body smells” were so objectionable and so durable that those sprayed were frequently ostracized. No one wanted to share a fox hole with a soldier who smelled like excrement. (One of the ‘fragrances’ was “Who, me?”) This created a problem for the individual odorous soldier but also for his squad who needed to keep together.

Buttons. Always problematical. So much so that the U.S. military had twenty-two pages of specifications. Replacement: zippers? They could be a problem, especially after the person wearing the zipper had crawled around in the dirt long enough to thoroughly foul a zipper. The solution was to remove the zippers from the front of the garment and put them onto the side where they were less vulnerable.  Velcro; can you imagine the attention that its noise would get from a nearby enemy snipper. Of course camouflage prints were carefully worked out to blend with the alien vegetation. Eventually they escaped into high fashion.

The “Essentials of Sea Survival” was a British wartime publication which laid out what to do in case your submarine or warship sank. There would be an immediate effort to stop the sea water from rushing through any hole however tiny. Should that prove impossible, an immediate decision had to be made to seal off the flooding compartment even if that involved the lives of sailors inside. Still the navy did everything it could procedurally to prevent the sinking of a ship from being fatal to its crew. These weren’t technological, but rather common sense procedures to get the sailor to the surface of the ocean where he could be found and picked up by a rescuer.

On such occasions there was said to be a problem of man-eating sharks. Were sharks attracted to the presence of blood?  The navy devised a chemical that could be sprayed around the struggling survivors to discourage sharks from attacking. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution worked on a chemical that promised to deter sharks from going after wounded survivors of a sinking ship.

It turned out that while there were various unfortunate results of long-term exposure to ocean water discussed in “Essentials of Sea Survival”, sharks were not mentioned. But the idea was sobering enough to result in a background dread of sea warfare. Though not to worry about sharks if you were dead; they do not go after dead meat!


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