Monday, August 8, 2016

Book Review: Grunt

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
Mary Gentle

Mary Roach is a great writer--insightful, wide-ranging, off-kilter, and funny. Grunt is, as you'd expect, all of these things. The trouble, arguably, is that the subject matter isn't made for this kind of writing.

It's not that it's not interesting. I learned a little something about military clothing, and about reconstructive surgery, and how to sleep on a submarine, and dozens of other things. All the same, this is the first of Roach's books where I was intensely aware of what was left out--the entire Air Force, for example, which seems like a substantial oversight. Nor is there anything on (to take a few random bits that occur to me) body armor; burn treatment; dentistry; computers; battery technology; psychiatry; better mechanisms of actually, you know, shooting people; and so on, and on.

In short, "the curious science of humans at war" is just too big for a Mary Roach book. It's also, fundamentally, too serious. Roach is always an entertaining writer, but we're talking--at best--about people maiming and killing one another in organized ways and large numbers. Sometimes off-kilter and funny get awkward in this context. Roach is clearly aware of the problem: she doesn't mock anybody, and she's good at bringing in the occasional sobering turn. On the other hand, some of her topics are clearly chosen as being good fits for her approach. Sure, it's find to make fun of the search for the perfect military shark repellent . . . now, when the Pacific War has been over for seventy years and we know that it didn't work. That doesn't mean that it was a bad idea, or that it was done in bad faith, or even that it didn't produce useful negative scientific results.

Roach's previous books tend to be about semi-taboo subjects, such as dead people and the alimentary tract and sex. (Not all in one book, thankfully.) Her cockeyed yet insightful reportage works well there. It's a disarming way to learn something about things we're squeamish about. Grunt's subject matter is more somber than squeamish, and careful selection of which subject matter to include can't disguise the fact. I did enjoy reading it very much. I didn't think it fully did justice to its title.

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