Despite the questionable conclusions of Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature[i], the Anthropocene world remains a very violent place. This fact seems to be unintentionally supported by thinkers like Ian Morris, who notes that humans now stand a 1% chance of dying violently at another human’s hands, compared with the 10-20% rates associated with Stone Age life (Morris’s caveat to that fact is that war on a massive scale has been necessary to bring about these improvements, along with a subsequent period of constant, ‘low-intensity’ intimidation by states like the U.S. and E.U.) In this supposedly less violent world that we now inhabit, the mainstreaming of militarized violence into popular culture also remains as strong as it ever has, and along with that comes a steady downpour of new literature dealing with all particulars of historical and contemporary warfare.
Within this deluge, it’s rare these days to find a book on the military’s deployment of science that doesn’t either read as an apologia for this activity, or as an esoteric record of the terrors that the military establishment supposedly keeps occluded from our sight (e.g. the Montauk Project, HAARP weapons and the like). I feel that both these genres of writing make the mistake of treating the modern military as immune to the shortsightedness and tactical failures of other institutions that have a weaker hold on the public imagination. Therefore, middle ground in this field is a welcome thing, and so I rush into books like Mary Roach’s new Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War with the hopes that they will deliver a story more interesting than the shopworn one about the unassailable power of the death industry. This book, structured as a series of investigative and informative episodes with no real thesis to string them together, isn’t a dispassionate study by any means, and this lack of a clear agenda can be an asset rather than a weakness.
Mary Roach has worked her way up the New York Times bestseller list as an author who uses quirky humor and little-known (or mostly forgotten) scientific facts to defuse the tensions surrounding taboo or unpleasant topics. With modern warfare, she couldn’t have picked a more unpleasant topic, and yet this book’s wide-ranging popularity may have more to do with the American reading public’s acceptance of its armed forces’ permanent deployment than it does with an acceptance of Roach as either a uniquely exploratory scientist or talented humorist (the degree to which you find Hudson funny can probably be ascertained by whether or not you laugh at her description of an experimental air force program as a “pilot pilot program”). Her joking asides about topics like genital injury, sympathetic as they may be with the victims of these miseries, aren’t memorably funny, and whatever humor there is in the book comes from the brutal absurdity of situations that don’t require Hudson to step in and deliver a punchline.
The truly interesting feature of Hudson’s book, then, is not the quirky humor, the equally quirky ‘gee whiz’ factor of weird science facts, or even the way in which it uses all this as a vehicle to implicitly valorize or demean the military (more on this in a moment). Rather, it is its exposure of the 21st-century army as one that has still not succeeded in removing the intensely corporeal, sensory character of combat operations, even as it attempts to give remote-controlled drones and cyborg appendages a much increased battlefield presence. Roach uncovers a world where maggots are still seriously considered as a means of debriding wounds, where frequent bird collisions with fighter planes inspire simulations involving cannon-launched chickens, and where laboriously constructed concoctions meant to irritate the olfactory glands are as useful as any “psy-op” campaign (and more cost-effective).
All of this comes together to paint a portrait of a military-industrial-scientific complex that remains at war with the fragility of the human organism just as much as it is at war with any officially declared enemy state or enemy ideology. Roach’s survey of an all-too-human military seems a world removed from the erotic slickness of supersonic bombers that use multi-spectral camouflage to evade detection. In fact, unless you’re a scatologist, there’s nothing that exudes less sexiness than Roach’s chapter about the ongoing efforts to prevent diarrhea among combatants in the field. Along the same lines, many episodes in this book shore up the extreme banality of modern war-making - those “long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror” - as opposed to its more marketable “shock and awe” characteristics. When one of Hudson’s guides, referring to the impracticality of regularly wearing hearing protection in the field, mentions that the military has a “quiet problem” rather than a “noise problem,” it unambiguously drives this point home.
This isn’t to say that the cold and covert scientific menace of DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] isn’t invoked in the book from time to time. Here they are not depicted as trying to unlock the secrets of unihemispheric slow-wave sleep, which allows dolphins to keep one half of their brain devoted to rest while the other allows it to surface for air intake, or allows for some bird species to navigate flight and rest simultaneously. A successful approximation of this habit would supposedly allow for soldiers to “stay awake, alert and effective for up to seven consecutive days without suffering any deleterious mental or physical effects.” Within the same space that this is mentioned, Hudson also cites research into ocular implants that will grant both infrared and ultraviolet vision.
These brief, tantalizing glimpses into the clandestine development of future war are highly intriguing, if only for the fact that they reveal a military establishment that is still very much interested in “Human Performance Optimization” (as the NATO symposium on military medical technology is called). The rise of drone-based assassination campaigns has led more pessimistic observers - myself included - to believe that the end game of research titans like DARPA is the development of a fully automated, “post-human” fighting force that will be conveniently stripped of human empathy. So the experiments into refinement of the human organism, rather than the outright disposal of the “meat” (as cyberpunks used to call it), are a fascinating subject that I wish Hudson would have been granted permissions to delve into more eagerly. I suppose that’s very wishful thinking indeed, but - as mentioned before - it would be nice to see this subject tackled by observers outside the ‘professional paranoiac’ ambit of InfoWars and company.
Once Roach’s virtual tour is concluded, though, there is too much about her book that prevents it from being a reliable commentary on “swords-into-ploughshares” developments or even “weird militaria” in general. For one, the account is more or less completely focused on the United States’ armed forces: while this is certainly a good starting point, given the U.S. military’s greater entanglement in domestic civilian life and international conflict than any other national army, it is still not the complete story of modern military research and development. Meanwhile, Roach’s affinity for her military hosts is expressed quite strongly. She spends a good deal of time on amplifying the charismatic qualities of her hosts, lauding the virtues of being “courteous and respectful to the end” as “so Navy” or insisting that “if everyone in the world did a stint in the Navy, we wouldn’t need a Navy.” This gives the distinct impression of a writer too besotted with her subject to be thoroughly investigative, and that leads to a book that is ultimately more about developing a generalized appreciation for hard work and innovation than a speculation on the consequences of this kind of research. For appreciation of those qualities, we have more than enough other places to look.
[i] One of the better dissections of Pinker’s flawed data comes courtesy of John Gray, who concludes that “deaths on the battlefield have declined and continue to decline. From one angle this can be seen as an advancing condition of peace. From another point of view that looks at the variety and intensity with which violence is being deployed, the long peace can be described as a condition of perpetual war.” The Soul Of The Marionette: A Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom, p. 96. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, 2015.