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In Grunt, Mary Roach takes a different look at our modern military through an investigation through the kind of research being done on how to keep soldiers alive.

The enemies they’re fighting aren’t the ones you’re thinking of, either: it’s heat and diarrhea and hearing loss, preventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, surviving sharks when dumped in the ocean, and getting out of a sunken submarine alive.

It’s an interesting look at the reality of today’s soldier and how their leaders are attempting to protect them. The opening chapter is about fabrics, which may seem like a simple thing, but the many requirements for fabric to build a uniform out of are complicated: not only must it be comfortable and durable, you don’t want it to melt onto the skin in an explosion, or fray and embed itself in a wound. Detailing the complicated tradeoffs needed to make a uniform was a fun and interesting way to open a discussion about just how hard it is to field an army and keep it alive.

The chapter I found most fascinating was about the work being done to protect soldiers from the explosion of IEDs (Improvised explosion devices), a nemesis of the military in the Middle East. Explosions that come from underneath the vehicle can destroy the legs, but even worse, it’s a key factor in creating head damage that leads to PTSD and hearing loss.

The chapters on heatstroke and dysentary bring home just how unpleasant it is for soldiers out in an active deployment, and the work being done to identify and prevent these problems.

Other chapters look into dealing with flies, some of the history of trying to make the nastiest smells possible, the research into making and testing shark repellents (and that the research seems to indicate the sharks aren’t really that interested in the first place), what happens when a submarine sinks and how you get your people out and the history of devices built to help people survive escaping a submarine.

It’s all quite unexpected, rather weird and wildly fascinating. It touches on aspects of being a soldier that I don’t think we typically think of; yet these are the kind of problems that can mean the difference between surviving or dying on campaign, or making living in the field a bit more tolerable.

All in all, I found this a well-written, wonderfully researched and fun book to read. Roach has a very informal style and it makes this book very accessible. Not all of the topics discussed are easy to dig into, but are fascinating as you learn about the people taking them seriously and trying to solve them.

If you want to understand what soldiers deal with that doesn’t make most media reporting of their activities, it’s a great glimpse into what goes on inside a military operation — and the people attempting to keep our soldiers alive.

Highly recommended.