Land Mines and Punch Lines Grunt educates, but is willfully removed from the lethality of its subject.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

By Mary Roach (2016, Norton) 272 pgs., plus acknowledgements and notes

In Ben Stiller’s 2008 film Tropic Thunder, the washed-up Hollywood action star Tugg Speedman (played by Stiller) leads a team of other celebrities looking to restart their careers into the jungle of southeast Asia to shoot a war movie. Among them are Alpa Chino, a closeted gay rapper who is perhaps best known for marketing the energy drink “Booty Sweat,” Jeff Portnoy, a scatological comedian with a serious drug problem, and Kirk Lazarus—played by Robert Downey, Jr.—an Australian method actor who has taken his craft to new heights and undergone a medical procedure to turn his skin black and really “get into” character. Sexual vulgarity, drug abuse, and blackface are supposed to be funny. The crude jokes are edgy and inappropriate locker room talk that would raise offended eyebrows in any context but even more so in a war zone, in which the heightened significance of life and death would, we presume, foreclose the possibility for such bawdiness. To complicate our reaction to the humor, the central conceit of the film has these actors believe they are shooting a movie when, in fact, they are being shot at. Their stunt weapons shoot blanks but the heroin cartel they are disrupting in the jungle has real bullets and believes itself to be at war with the troupe of actors. Ha! At one point, Stiller is tied up by his feet and dunked repeatedly in water by his captors. He is being tortured but does not realize he is being tortured (is it still torture then?) and keeps yelling “CUT!” every time his head emerges from the dunk tank. We smirk because we know what is going on but the buffoon on screen does not, and in so doing (and perhaps without fully realizing it) we allow ourselves to laugh at waterboarding.

I am not here to preach, but like Tropic Thunder, Mary Roach’s Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War demands that we grapple with how humor mediates our relationship with war. Is war a laughing matter? Roach, who is definitely laughing in her author photograph on the back flap, is a science writer with several other one-word titles such as Stiff and Spook and Gulp about (respectively) cadavers, the afterlife, and digestion, and her prose is curious and at times compelling. You are certainly going to learn about the practical problems the military faces which science helps to fix while reading Grunt (I discovered the most in the chapter on diarrhea), but you might (as I did) double-take on matters of tone. For instance, designing battlefield clothing presents a series of tradeoffs because you want garments to be strong, burn-resistant, warm when soldiers need to be warm and cool when they need to be cool—and all at the same time. In the first chapter of Grunt, Roach visits Natick Labs and the woman responsible for engineering a new sniper suit with a material called Cordura. Why Cordura? “She chose it because it’s durable and flame-resistant, and because the coated backing keeps moisture from seeping through. And that’s important if you’re lying someplace damp waiting to kill someone.” There are life-and-death consequences if fatigues catch on fire too easily or fail to wick away sweat quickly, but that sober reality is not the drift here. At moments like this when a sniper waits to pull the trigger, I felt like I was waiting for the rimshot—waiting, furthermore, for the dryness to fade and the prose to address the serious business of human beings killing other human beings.

Perhaps the ironic disruption of what we think war and a war book should look like is part of Roach’s project with her tone, and indeed if it were, she would join a chorus of other like-minded chroniclers of the absurdities of war from Ambrose Bierce to Joseph Heller.

Grunt, however, is willfully removed from the lethality of its subject, as in chapter 2, which investigates how to better protect tanks and other vehicles from IEDs. Human bodies are needed to test new armor and the effects of explosions on soft tissue. “A late October sun softens the chill and highlights the white butterflies that flit around the bioengineers as they work. The clearing is edged by oaks, changing their outfits before dropping them to the floor. The cadavers too, wear fall colors, one in an orange Lycra bodysuit and one in yellow. For now, they sit slumped in their seats, chins on their chests, like dozing subway commuters.” The dressed-up dead is but one of many uncanny encounters in the book—in the sense that Sigmund Freud meant the term wherein familiar sights and experiences (fall clothing, sleepy strangers on the train) are somehow made unfamiliar (they are corpses about to be exploded) in an effort to estrange readers from themselves. Perhaps the ironic disruption of what we think war and a war book should look like is part of Roach’s project with her tone, and indeed if it were, she would join a chorus of other like-minded chroniclers of the absurdities of war from Ambrose Bierce to Joseph Heller.

Is that it? I do not know. The tenor throughout is not sardonic per se. Gallows humor is one thing, but at times Grunt succumbs to camp, which is to say it indulges in its own questionable taste. Take the chapter about noise and the incredible risks for hearing loss in combat. TCAPS is short for Tactical Communication and Protective System, a headset apparatus that filters noise on the battlefield in order to amplify important sounds such as human voices and quiet distracting noise such as gunfire. The science of the device is interesting, yet as soon as the book turns to the activity of war rather than the science of it, the purpose of that science (to hear better so as 1] to not get injured and 2] to coordinate better so as to injure the enemy better) gets lost amidst Roach’s jolly persona. Here, Roach’s character dons the TCAPS while in a simulated military patrol:


          “Approaching village, over.”

          “Copy, Liberty. Any update from the target site?”

          “You need to put some sunscreen on the back of your neck.”

          “This is Hammer in the overhead. We have four military-age males who appear to be orienting themselves to the objective area.”

          “Copy that, Hammer.”

          “So do the Taliban use hearing protection?”

          “This is Hammer. We’ve got an exodus of women and children from the village. Two other military-age males messing with something under a tarp.”

          “Start surging assets.”

          “Halo, you are approved for rockets and guns, over.”

          “All these holes in the ground—are they from mortars or, like—”

          “Prepare to attack!”


          “Attack imminent!”


Like the larger book, the scene reveals two conversations taking place at the same time. The soldiers, who need to test and become familiar with the science of their equipment lest they go to war unprepared, take the exercise seriously. They are not  at war but act like they are. Then there is Roach joking with her readers about sunburn and gophers. Like the carefree characters in Tropic Thunder, we readers are not at war and never will be, and so the book never forces us to confront the ethics of how science making soldiers hear better is at the service of making them kill and injure better. We laugh therefore not only at what makes us uncomfortable (corpses) but also only after we realize we are safe from a similar fate (no Afghan village patrols for me). Reading Grunt, I felt as oblivious as Ben Stiller being tortured, free to laugh because I was realizing no risk.

I suspect I might be coming off as self-righteous.

There is no danger in this book, no pride or beauty or redemption, let alone any sense of loss or trauma or tragedy. Not even in the chapters on genital injuries and transplants (where there are plenty of you-know-what jokes).

My point is not anti-military but rather anti-insincerity. I am not saying Roach is insincere, but the book’s ethics are. There is no danger in this book, no pride or beauty or redemption, let alone any sense of loss or trauma or tragedy. Not even in the chapters on genital injuries and transplants (where there are plenty of you-know-what jokes). I feel puns rather than pain in the front cover image of the lone “grunt.” Grunt, of course, is military slang for an infantryman, and the term carries with it a sense of obedient labor. He or she is that soldier who follows orders, who perhaps begrudging grunts but recognizes there is a job to do and a chain of command. This particular grunt on the cover is overlaid with all the scientific gear that one will find in the book (TCAPS, Shark Chaser shark repellent, a stink bomb full of “Who Me?” which is reportedly the most foul synthetic odor in the world), to such a degree that the letter “U” is  succumbing to the weight. The scene visualizes Vietnam War veteran Tim O’Brien’s famous metaphor from his 1990 novel The Things They Carried, in which the burden of “things” is both concrete and emotional: “As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighted 2.9 pounds fully loaded.” And then this zeugma: “He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men.”[1] For O’Brien, the proliferation of physical gear symbolizes the even heavier accumulation of responsibility, love, fear, and shame. The load overwhelms Jimmy Cross and the grunts he commands. In contrast, Grunt has no sense of burden until the very last (and shortest) chapter on the dead, in which a military medical examiner thinks of all the dead American personnel that he has seen (literally all: “Every person (and dog) who dies in the service of the US military is autopsied ). “‘It’s too sad …. These are all young people. Our kids. It makes you ask questions. Like, Was it worth it?’” . It is a moment of intimacy that strikes me as unearned in a book that mostly refuses to linger long on the humanity of its subject. That is, the book is titled Grunt but we do not see the inner lives of any grunts (the closest we come is in the chapter on battling heat).

I suspect I might be coming off not only as self-righteous but downright arrogant, like I am upset that Roach’s book is not the kind of book that “I wanted” it to be.

After all, there are plenty of “those” kinds of books out there that focus on veteran experience—not only O’Brien, but Karl Marlantes, Colby Buzzell, Kayla Williams, Phil Klay, et al. Can not  a science writer just write about the technology of the armed forces? Is there not a value to and a place for a curiosity into military dilemmas that civilians probably would likely never consider, such as the paradox of flies and maggots that both contaminate food yet also debride dead human tissue? Or the challenges in organizing submarine work and sleep schedules in an environment that fails to provide any clear environmental clues about when it is time to work and sleep? Absolutely, but that does not excuse Grunt from the other conversations it invites. Why call a book Grunt when it has little to do with grunts?

Language matters, especially in the representation of war, because the language of war seeks to evade and deceive.[2] “Grunt” is a euphemism, but then so is “The Threat” (what the military in the book calls the bomb when they are testing their armored vehicles) and “The Event” (when that bomb goes off). Similar to the humor of the book, understatements such as “Threat” and “Event” mask the violence of war that the science of the book helps to facilitate. “Threat” seems somehow safe when we put it that way as opposed to “the bomb that will obliterate anything in a 20 yard radius.” Often, humor and euphemism overlap in Grunt, as during the moment when Roach is at a shooting range:


The M16 has a scope with a small red arrow in the center of the sight. You align the arrow with what or (jeez) whom you wish to shoot and squeeze the trigger. Both “squeeze” and “pull” are exaggerations of the motion applied to this trigger. It’s a trivial, tiny movement, the twitch of a dreaming child. So quick and so effortless is it that it’s hard for me to associate it with any but the most inconsequential acts. Flipping a page. Typing an M. Scratching an itch. Ending a life wants a little more muscle.


Roach is squeamish yet folksy (jeez) about the reality that M16s are manufactured to shoot human beings rather than paper targets on a range. “Squeeze” sounds safe and easy, as the passage notes, and Roach is surprised by how effortless violence can be. Should she be? Language and tone are accomplices in getting people not to see war for what it is after everything else has been taken away. War is injury and violence, yet there is no injury or violence when the military describes a man’s genitals being blown apart as a “weapon-target interaction”  or when Roach comments that “Going kinetic is military shorthand for people are firing guns at you.” Going kinetic sounds fun, like getting some exercise on a Sunday morning. The phrase fails to describe what Robert Penn Warren in The Legacy of the Civil War (1961) meant by “the ruck of the event” itself.

The whole time I was reading Grunt I wondered if Roach had not only been shown what the military wanted her to see in order that she might only write about war the way they wanted it written about, namely, as a kind of safe simulation. Consider the vaguely named “Strategic Operations” company that constructed a makeshift Afghan village designed by a former Hollywood producer and writer. Outside of San Diego, “the call to [Muslim] prayer can be heard from the Carl’s Jr. parking lot,” which is the sign that a training session has begun. Here, medic trainees undergo a “combat trauma management course” in order to produce “stress inoculation” before being deployed . Unlike in Tropic Thunder, these are soldiers who realize they are on a film set. Actors with fake blood pumps scream and pyrotechnic teams coordinate stunts to imitate combat triage. These medics are aware of the ruse but need to practice because during heightened states of combat, “you become fast, strong, and dumb”  according to the science Roach cites.

The whole time I was reading Grunt I wondered if Roach had not only been shown what the military wanted her to see in order that she might only write about war the way they wanted it written about, namely, as a kind of safe simulation.

The instructors are mean for a reason. They aim to subject the trainees to as much fear and stress as they can without actually shooting at them. The entire experience—the mock injuries, the gunfire and explosion sounds, the anguish of being called a little girl in front of everyone—is meant to function as a sort of emotional vaccine.

We encode war in humor and euphemism so as not to be touched by it, so as not to catch it like the flu. Safe behind our own “emotional vaccines,” we manage to get on with our days without even a sniffle. “In this business, humor and candor are a therapy on their own. [A reconstructive penis surgeon] has been known to put a ruler to a discouraged patient’s penis and hoot, ‘You’ve got six inches! How much more do you need?’”  Laughter is the proof that our inoculation is working. It is also the symptom of a much larger denial.


•  •  •


I fear that my words have come across as negative. To be fair, I have never read any of Roach’s other books, but I imagine that her tone and persona are similar in those works. If so, then who am I to ask her to be different with Grunt? Most readers—and especially fans of Roach’s earlier writing—will probably read Grunt and feel right at home. Why am I fussy? Grunt does not offend me exactly. I am not shocked or dismayed by it. Indeed, there were plenty of moments when I did grin and where I did find myself compelled by the science itself. Yet this book was not about science or journalism for me so much as it was about all the conversations we are not having about how we avoid war—affectively through humor, ethically through linguistic evasion, and intellectually by self-selecting how we want to define ourselves and the purpose of our labors. Grunt cannot “just” be a light-hearted science book. Its subject is life and death. And that is no joke.

[1] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, Mariner, 2009: 5.

[2] I am thinking in particular here of the work of two scholars. See James Dawes, The Language of War, Harvard University Press, 2005 and Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, Oxford University Press, 1987.