When most people consider the hardships of war, they focus on the fear and the fighting, the noble cause and the selfless sacrifice.
When best-selling science writer Mary Roach tackled the topic, she focused on maggots, stink bombs and diarrhea.
But that’s to be expected from Roach, the author known for her funny, unflinching books about the nitty-gritty research behind subjects as diverse as death, sex and space travel.
“I’m a little bit of a loose cannon,” Roach, 57, admitted in a recent phone interview about her sixth book, “Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War.”
Roach said she came up with the idea for the new book while on assignment in India, researching a story about the world’s hottest chili pepper. She learned that the Indian defense ministry had actually manufactured a nonlethal weapon from the pepper, so she headed to the lab to check it out.
“Not only was there that,” explained Roach, speaking from Washington, D.C., while on her book tour. “They were working on a leech repellent, and that was right up my alley.”
“It planted in my head this idea that military science is a whole hidden world related to the day-to-day hardships of being a warrior,” she added.
The book, published by W.W. Norton & Co., takes a close look at how scientists are working to help soldiers cope with the other enemies in a war zone, including sweltering heat, cacophonous noise and what Roach describes as “ill-timed gastrointestinal urgency.”
As in her other books, Roach goes straight to the sources, whether it’s to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, East Africa, or under the sea in the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee. Seeing the places in person is vital, she said.
“Otherwise, I don’t have a narrative,” she explained. “You can have quotes from talking heads on the phone, but the reader isn’t led into details with conversations and character.”
Access is everything, explained Roach. For this book, she wanted to cover an Army medevac operation, but she couldn’t get approval. Instead, she covers the training in a chapter on realistic military simulations.
“It has everything to do with whether I can go somewhere and observe something that will be fresh and surprising,” Roach said.
Roach approaches her subjects as an outsider, someone with no formal scientific training – she has a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She simply asks the sometimes-gross questions everybody wonders about.
Hence a chapter in “Grunt” on work to perfect penis transplants for soldiers whose genitals are mutilated in battle. And, yes, a chapter on why diarrhea can be a threat to national security.
Roach takes two to three years to research and write a book, and she said she’s divided about which part of the process is most enjoyable.
“The reporting is amazing,” she said. “If it isn’t fun, I don’t include it. I’m a very self-indulgent writer.”
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