The Curious Science of Humans at War

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Mary Roach has been dubbed "America's funniest science writer". A couple years ago, I read her book on the human digestive system, Gulp, finding it to be gross, disgusting, icky, and just plain hilarious.

This book, about the intersection of science and (mostly) American armed forces is also (to be honest) equally graphic, and somewhat hilarious. But Ms. Roach never flinches from the basic reality that her subject matter involves real people engaged in some very dangerous work in remote places. And many come back damaged or dead. Her hilarity is tinged with respect and somberness. (It helps that many of the service members she interviews are equally dark-humored.)

If you run out of water in the desert, and are dying of thirst, should you resort to drinking your own urine? Ms. Roach answers no: "The proteins and salts are by that point so concentrated that the body needs to pull fluid from the tissues to dilute tham, which puts you back where you began, only worse, because now you are saddled with the memory of drinking your own murky, stinking pee."

Fun facts revealed in a footnote about mixing up food for sandfly larvae (for some reason Purina doesn't sell Sandfly Larvae Chow): it involves rabbit feces. And: "Rabbit turds are more expensive than rabbits." $35/gallon. (Although they don't sell rabbits by the gallon,)

In fact, Ms. Roach devotes an entire chapter to maggots. They can show up in some pretty nasty places, like genitalia. The technical term is "myiasis". (Yes, Google it if you don't believe Mary.) And:

Here again, some words from the Armed Forces Pest Management Board: "Vaginal myiasis is a concern of increased importance because of the larger numbers of women serving in deployed units. . . . Egg laying may be stimulated by discharges from diseased genitals." In a hot climate, there might be a temptation to sleep outside uncovered, the board points out. And the kind of soldier who sleeps outside with no underpants would also, I suppose, be the kind of soldier with a genital disease. The kind headed for "dishonorable discharge" of one kind or another.

Moan. But also: Ha.

The book covers a lot of disparate topics, but the reader will notice the overall theme: the armed services devote a lot of their resources into keeping their members alive and healthy. And, failing that, devoting a lot of their resources into finding out what went wrong, and (if possible) putting things back together. (Like penises.)

Last Modified 2024-01-11 2:59 PM EDT