Book review

“Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War” by Mary Roach (W.W. Norton), $26.95, Canada, 285 pages

Thank you for your service.

You’ve said that many times recently, and meant every word to every soldier. Thank you for keeping us protected. Thank you for your bravery. Thank you for your sacrifice.

And after you’ve read “Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War” by Mary Roach, you’ll also thank those who serve our servicemen and women.

Chicken carcasses are what the U.S. military uses to test its equipment to ensure that it’s safe from “birdstrike,” which describes those instances when a flying bird (duck, goose, even starling) meets flying machine. Birdstrike kills more than just birds, so the military needs to know its equipment can handle feathered foe; therefore, it uses a “chicken gun” to shoot pullets, not bullets.

And that, says Roach, “is most of what I have to say about guns.” Instead of focusing on artillery and battles in “Grunt,” she focuses on the fight to keep our troops comfortable, hydrated, healthy and alive.

The U.S. government hires fashion designers to develop uniforms that are weather-appropriate, as fireproof as possible, and that can repel chemicals. Even the buttons are tested extensively: “specifications,” says Roach, “run to twenty-two pages.”

As for the vehicles troops use for transport, Roach says that engineers must constantly modify them for the safety of our soldiers. That often means that Strykers carry up to five tons of extra protection on their frames, much of it tested on the cadavers of people who serve “without actually enlisting.”

Military scientists know how to protect the soldiers’ hearing, and other, um, equipment farther below on the body. “Thanks ... to the transgender community,” Roach says, military scientists know how to fix injuries there.

Other scientists strive to teach medics to think in the midst of chaos. They study diarrhea, sweat, bugs, stinky smells and sharks.

Camouflage is a familiar sight these days, and it’s usually worn by someone you thank for their service. For different reasons, the creators of camouflage deserve appreciation, too, as do others who keep soldiers safe.

Now, mind you, there are no vivid re-creations of battles in this book, but Roach tells readers about the aftermath of battle. You won’t get specs on equipment, but she’ll tell you about how science has improved the gear soldiers use.

What you will get, however, is a curious-minded tour through the science of war and real, sometimes gruesome but always fascinating peeks far beyond the barracks. And Roach does it with a delightfully lighthearted-yet-serious approach. Salute!

Supporting our troops is more than a “thank you.” The surprise is that support also comes from laboratories, volunteers, manufacturers and exhaustive research, and this book tells you how. If you love — or were — a soldier, you’ll want to read this book; not reading “Grunt” would be a disservice to yourself.

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was 3, and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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