In 2001, after more than 20 years of “Be All You Can Be,” the U.S. Army changed its recruiting slogan to “Army Of One.” It didn’t last long. In 2006, the Army changed the slogan again to “Army Strong,” citing slumping recruitment numbers at the height of the Iraq War. But there was another problem. As many critics pointed out, the short-lived slogan seemed to contradict one of the most essential truths about being in the military: No soldier, of any rank or job description, is an army of one.
The U.S. military is a team, and that team is far more inclusive than most people, soldiers included, realize. Every 2,000 meter head shot, every mission accomplished, every life saved on the battlefield, is the culmination of more than 200 years of trial and error, countless man hours, and trillions of dollars worth of experimentation and research. Even the most elite commando units, with their heavy emphasis on self-reliance, couldn’t do what they do if it weren’t for geeks working around the clock in labs and proving grounds oceans away from the front lines. “Army Strong” is more than just a mantra. It’s a scientific achievement.
Author Mary Roach first came to appreciate that fact several years ago when she was working on a story about the world’s hottest chili pepper, which the Indian defense ministry had weaponized. As a writer and journalist, Roach has covered everything from the science of sex to NASA’s quest to colonize Mars. But it wasn’t until she encountered India’s chili powder grenade that she realized military science is a no less expansive field. Weaponizing fruit requires not only the expertise of engineers, but also botanists, chemists, and other characters not typically associated with modern warfare.
And so Roach set off on a mission to find out what kind of unlikely behind-the-scenes characters are currently working to make the greatest fighting force in the world, the U.S. military, even greater. The result of her investigations is a compact, humorously-written nonfiction book called “Grunt: The Curious Science Of Humans At War.” There’s an entire chapter dedicated to the development of shark repellent, another to the history of stink bombs, and another to advancements in combat uniform design. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Together, the 14-chapter book offers a comprehensive window into an underworld rarely discussed and hardly ever seen. You can read an excerpt here.
With “Grunt” due to hit shelves on June 7, Task & Purpose spoke with Roach about the evolution of military science, hanging out with Marine special operators in Africa, and how her perception of the military changed over the course of researching the book.
At what point did we really start to see major advancements in military science that improved the quality of life for the men and women on the ground?
What really got all the attention on clothing and tents and day-to-day life, I think, was World War II, because we had the extremes of weather — like on the Aleutian Islands, the number of cases of trenchfoot and frostbite were alarming. We were just not equipped for that. And similarly with the tropics: Clothing was just mildewing, and disintegrating, and falling off, and there were bugs. Just the day-to-day existence of the soldier suddenly became that much more extreme and it was clear that somebody had to figure something out. Like, let’s figure out how to make a boot that is lightweight, waterproof, and warm. And let’s figure out a way to keep tents from disintegrating. Let’s coat them with something. Let’s bring in science.
So I think that era, World War II, and then Vietnam also — the tropics and all of the tropical diseases and malaria and skin infections and all of the things that plagued the human body in the tropics — Vietnam really brought that to the forefront. In terms of keeping a body comfortable and not beset with seemingly minor but actually quite devastating illnesses and conditions, I think Vietnam played a very big role. Now, technology has sort of taken over and it’s like, “Hey, let’s figure out a way to build a solar panel into a shirt,” so you don’t have to carry a big, heavy charger. Maybe you can wear it. So there’s all of this miniaturization and solarization and GPS. The technology has really become the focus, but I think it really started in World War II.
What do you hope your civilian audience is going to take away from this book?
I think my civilian audience, like myself, had no clue about the scope of the work that goes on in this realm. So I think it’s just sort of educating them. But, also, generating some respect, which definitely happened with me. I know that there are problems with the VA, and there are definitely things that don’t go right, but the dedication of the people who are trying to keep service members alive and then, basically, help put them back together afterwards is impressive. And I hope that civilians realize — most of my readers are civilians — that this is a much more nuanced world than they might think, and that there’s a tremendous amount of work that goes on that’s never seen. It’s really interesting and pretty impressive.
What do you hope your military audience gets out of this?
I just hope that they read it and enjoy it and don’t think, “Oh my God, what a stupid POG.” I think that they themselves might not be aware of this side of the military. It’s so huge and sprawling and complicated. The fact that there’s more than two different military entomology facilities. I never knew there was such a thing as military entomology. So, I guess I just hope that they would find it fascinating and interesting, and, yeah, basically that. I hope it’s of interest, because it’s a part of their world, but maybe a part that they never really explored.
When you would show up to these labs and research facilities, were people like, “What are you doing here?” As you write in the introduction, this isn’t the sexy part of the military, and I imagine some of them were excited that you were there to shed light on the work they do…
Yes, a lot of them were surprised and grateful that somebody wanted to tell their story. A few of them were bewildered. Occasionally, there was some concern that they were going to get in trouble. There’s a very firm hierarchy. It’s not a freewheeling kind of place, the military. But for the most part, people were really psyched, because there are so many more compelling stories about combat — whether it’s actual missions or the things that veterans have to deal with afterwards, like PTSD and other major issues that deserve a lot of coverage. So I’m sort of covering the stuff that falls through the cracks. Yeah, the people were surprised and grateful that someone wanted to acknowledge what they do.
You spent a good deal of time with special operations guys when you were researching the book. Were you surprised by the different personalities you found in that space? I’m sure you were expecting a lot of Rambo types.
Yes, totally. One of the guys was like a regional sales manager in Scottsdale. He was like a really nice, ordinary — although, very physically fit — guy. You would never look at him and think, “Marine Corps special operations.” But on the other side of it: Some of the guys in Djibouti totally fit absolutely 100% my stereotype of the stony, keeps to himself, sexy, incredibly strong, has seen it all kind of guy. Totally fit that stereotype, which made it an interesting stereotype for me, because I’m there to talk about diarrhea. I can’t even walk up to that man and say, “hello,” let alone ask him about diarrhea. I purposefully picked out the most special operations-y, Hollywood version, and was like, “That’s the dude I want to talk to.” So, yes and no, some of them completely turned that stereotype inside-out, and others lived it down to the finest detail.
Why did you decide to call the book “Grunt”?
I know it’s more of a Marine Corps term, but to the general population it just suggests enlisted man dealing with a lot of shit. The book is about the shit that you deal with and how you make that shit a little more bearable. So it seemed to fit as a word to suggest that person is humping a hundred pounds of fear and being overheated and exhausted.
I think the book cover is a pretty accurate representation of my experience in Afghanistan — carrying all of that gear and ammunition, like a one-man Army. We would always joke that we’d rather be in Vietnam with nothing but a boonie cap, a rifle, and maybe a flak vest.
Yeah, exactly, and you’re expected to be agile, able to respond, and quick on your feet. I talked to a guy in the Army Rangers for the chapter about heat, and he was like, “People on high are making decisions, and they’re well-intentioned, but they don’t know what it’s like to be carrying this load in the 100-degree heat, running across a courtyard with a machine gun.” Like, no don’t give me more body armor. I don’t want it. It’s slowing me down. But, of course, you’re trying to keep them alive, so where do you draw the line?
It’s a really interesting and baffling conundrum. How much do you compromise someone’s ability to do their job in the name of keeping them safe and alive? I feel for people on both sides of it. The people who are trying to create the policies to do the right thing, but just don’t get the reality of it. And the reality changes for every conflict. What worked in Iraq doesn’t necessarily work in Afghanistan. What worked in World War II definitely didn’t work in Vietnam. And everything moves so slowly. Like with the MRAPS — whatever you do, the insurgents are two steps ahead of you. Then the military responds, but how do you do that quickly? You can’t. You’re talking about how many millions of dollars for each vehicle and you have to test them. There are just so many factors.
What’s one of the surprising things that you came across in your research? Was there anything that really blew your mind?
I think that as somebody who’s never served and who’s never had a family member in the military, I was just kind of blown away — like, there was this guy, Gavin White, whose surgery I saw at Walter Reed. Just hearing his story, the first thing that crossed his mind after he got blown up was, “Where are my buddies? Where is everybody? Who’s hit?” Like, nevermind that your leg is missing, and your other leg is mangled, and you’ve got an injury to your penis. You’re trying to stand up and see who’s hit. I don’t know. That’s something you read about parents — parents running into a burning building to save their child. That’s how I define love. That’s an extraordinary thing. That’s not about country or cause. That’s a really strong bond. That really blew me away. I emailed Gavin the next day and wrote that: “You really blew me away.” And then I thought, “Wow, that’s a really bad metaphor.” But, yeah, that was really the most memorable day of all the research I did, because I’ve never been through that, and there’s no way to experience that without living it.
Did your perception of the military change over the course of writing this book?
Yes, absolutely, because I had a very Hollywood perception. I had the perception that somebody has as an outsider. You have this perception of high drama, and fear, and excitement, and drudgery. It’s a caricature of what it’s actually like. And then also a sense of the aftermath, of PTSD and the very real things that you go through when you’re injured either physically or emotionally — again, I had the Hollywood version. I’d seen “Coming Home” and “Band of Brothers” and “The Hurt Locker.” So I had that, but I didn’t have all the shades of gray. There’s nothing that makes it more real than sitting down and talking to somebody one-on-one who’s experienced it. I wanted to embed. That was my original plan. I think that would’ve been good because it would’ve put me in touch with the everyday reality. I was supported by the Army but ISAF turned me down because it was during the drawdown. It would’ve made me less of a POG. Freakin’ ISAF!