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Book Review

‘Grunt’ takes look under the hood of the machine of war

Mary Roach’s newest book, “Grunt,” follows her other one-word titles: “Spook,” “Stiff,” “Bonk,” and “Gulp.”Jen Siska

In 1993, while being fitted for a new prosthesis, I met an amputee who lost his leg in the first Iraq War. As a result of a birth defect, I’d worn a wooden leg since 1978. The other amputees I’d met who were vets had served in Vietnam. It felt odd to encounter one my age (21) in a prosthetic office. I didn’t dislike it.

“The knee trips me,” he observed, indicating his hydraulic joint. “Me, too,” I chirped, and suggested that we practice together on the “runway,” a 20-foot walkway lined with balance bars.

Adjusting to a new leg is exhausting, like learning to walk again, even a new appendage featuring innovative technologies designed to increase mobility.

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“What’s next in leg technology?” I wondered.

He shrugged. “Wait until the next war.”

Mary Roach’s latest bit of brilliance “Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War’’ suggests that my friend’s prediction is likely right on the money.

As meticulously researched, beautifully written, and disturbingly funny as her previous books about ghosts (“Spook’’), dead bodies (“Stiff’’), sex (“Bonk’’), and what happens inside your mouth (“Gulp’’), “Grunt’’ examines the science behind war, as well as the researchers who are leading the charge in these state-of- the-art developments.

Roach’s prose is a triumph — an engaging blend of anecdote, research, and reflection. In a series of chapters, each focused on a specific development, we watch as she meets (and charms) researchers who instruct her in such matters as the potentially lethal perils of diarrhea; the impact of noise; the military’s surprising role in the “athleisure” fashion trend (camouflage yoga pants, anyone?); the heat at which flesh burns (111 degrees Fahrenheit); how officers in a submarine, a.k.a. the “iron coffin,” deal with “the bends” as well as horniness; how lack of sleep could kill you but a maggot might save your life; and what goes into the making of the party novelty “Liquid Ass,” and why it’s useful.

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You’ll find yourself laughing out loud, often at situations or facts that aren’t funny. (Then, of course, you feel implicated, which is no accident.) For example, nobody wants a medic who freaks out at the sight of blood, so the circumstances of combat must be simulated in training. In “Carnage Under Fire,” Roach encounters an amputee actor waiting for curtain call to participate in such an exercise. “The special effects gore was still wet on her stump. She sat with her legs crossed, idly scrolling through her phone. It was like lions had come and gnawed off her foot while she checked Facebook”

In another extraordinary scene from the same chapter, Roach learns that the next level of medical combat training takes place in an urban war zone: “To gain experience with actual screaming humans, Camp Pendleton’s corpsman trainees may spend time observing and helping out in an emergency room in a gang-saturated Los Angeles neighborhood. ‘That’s our equivalent of Iraq or Afghanistan . . . Gunshots, strafings, stabbings.’ ’’

Roach describes herself as “the goober with the flashlight,” but she’s the most courageous — and empathetic — science writer we’ve got. A master of synthesis and scene, she unpacks subjects that on their surface might seem boring, disgusting, outrageous, emotionally charged, or morally suspect and infuses them with insight, humor, and humanity.

Although Roach is careful to present her scientists as just that, she does not shy away from the moral consideration at the center of their research: that breakthroughs in countless arenas rely on lessons from actual battle, from the dead and wounded. War is the cruel teacher, and as much as these researchers like (even love) their jobs, they know this, and are sobered and motivated by it.

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Because Roach makes the world of military science interesting, accessible, and truly transporting, the conundrums and challenges she describes come to seem that much more absurd, which is a way of making them more horrible. As she says in the introduction, “I’m interested in the parts no one makes movies about — not the killing but the keeping alive,” because “[s]ometimes courage is nothing more than a willingness to think differently than those around you.” Roach, of course, is talking about the scientists and soldiers and researchers and doctors we’ve met over the course of “Grunt,’’ but she may as well be describing herself.

GRUNT:

The Curious Science of Humans at War

By Mary Roach

Norton, 288 pp., $26.95


Emily Rapp Black is the author, most recently, of “The Still Point of the Turning World.’’