In 2003, journalist Chris Hedges published a pocket-size book with a simple title and fathomless moral implications: What Every Person Should Know About War. To begin reading the book — arranged as a series of simply stated questions and their spare, emotionally unweighted answers — was to be implicated by it. Among the questions asked and forthrightly answered: “What does it feel like to get shot?” “Will I be able to withstand torture?” “What will happen to my body if I die?”
Mary Roach, a reporter, humorist and best-selling author of books that bring specialized scientific discovery to a popular audience, has, however unwittingly, produced a work that should sit beside Hedges’ on the shelf. Called Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, it is the latest in an oeuvre that includes titles such as Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. It brings the breezy, jokey, boosterish approach that fans have come to expect of her work to a dark new subject: how military scientists try to anticipate, prevent or mitigate the ravages of war — from debilitating injuries to violent death — on its combatants.
The tone is jarring, but the reporting is sound. At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, she interviews a 2011 graduate of West Point whose penis was blown off when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan. Like other forms of amputation, this sort of wound is increasingly common, as advances in battlefield medicine have made many previously fatal injuries survivable. (This type of injury may also be on the rise because enemy snipers have begun aiming for the crotch, with the intention of delivering a devastating physical and psychic wound.)
At a training facility for future corpsmen, located near Camp Pendleton, Calif., Roach slips and slides on the fake blood that pours out of fake wounds. Trainees desperately try to remember how to treat various types of trauma, while the combat soundtrack from Saving Private Ryan blares from speakers and a sergeant yells: “Who’s dying, people? Who’s most likely to die?” At one point, a corpsman confronted with a man whose fresh stump is spewing blood “like champagne in the locker room after a big win” blurts out to the man, “Are you okay?” Roach, who takes part in the exercises, undergoes a procedure called a “blood sweep,” in which a corpsman runs his hands down her back as she is lying on a gurney to make sure she is not bleeding from a wound he’s missed. “If you don’t happen to be wounded,” she tells us cheerfully, “blood sweeps feel lovely.”
Roach’s dominant attitude toward what she discovers is enthusiasm, particularly for the macho and often handsome military men she encounters. She’s aflutter at a “virile, omnipotent Special Ops man”; at a “droll and adorable” public affairs officer; at a naval officer with buzzed hair and a tattooed wedding band who looks fabulously “hydraulic” in his wetsuit; even at the “glorious pectorals” of a serviceman’s corpse. She wants us to see her as a fun gal gamely poking around the big, exciting war machine and trying not to get in anybody’s way. When a Navy SEAL in Iraq tells her she ought also to visit troops in Somalia, she invites the reader to chuckle along with her at the thought: “Let’s picture it — middle-aged American in her cork-bed comfort sandals and wheelie bag wandering the desert redoubts of the local al-Qaeda Affiliate. Yoo hoo! I’m looking for the Navy SEAL safe house?”
Trusting a reporter who “adores” military PR men and who writes a “grasping fan letter” to a source is hard. Yet her descriptions of trauma injuries and of the military’s evolving response to battlefield danger and wounds are compelling and clear-eyed. Midway through this odd book, with its crushes and cork sandals, its gaping horrors and bloodless military euphemisms, you begin to wonder: Is this what 15 years of war have done to us? Are we willing to look at our strange, ruined and ongoing enterprise only if we have a chipper tour guide and enough depth charges of gore to keep us entertained?
The final chapter recounts Roach’s visit to the morgue of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, a place she bizarrely finds less depressing than the Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, Dover Liquor Warehouse and McDonald’s she had to drive past to get to it. Every military person killed in action is autopsied, the bodies arriving in the States with any lifesaving equipment — tourniquets or breathing tubes or IVs — still attached. For this is the service member’s final duty to the state: offering his or her body for a process called “Feedback to the Field.” During an international video conference call, 80 people look at photographs of the warrior’s naked body, black bars appearing across the groin and eyes, to talk about what went wrong and what might be improved upon the next time corpsmen and surgeons confront such an injury. Only then, when the military is fully and completely done with him, is his body wheeled out of the morgue, through the locked doors that lead to the mortuary and his waiting family. “They don’t look real,” says a statistician who has a stack of photographs of the corpses; “they’re like dolls.”
The chief pathologist is tired of answering reporters’ questions about the psychic toll of his job. “We’re doctors,” he tells Roach with perfect military logic, “and these are our patients.”
Caitlin Flanagan reviewed this book for The Washington Post.