Mary Roach was never especially interested in war. She didn’t come from a military family, she never served, and she hadn’t reported on war as a journalist. But the best-selling author of books on the science of sex (Bonk), eating (Gulp), and death (Stiff) specializes in, as she puts it, “turning over rocks and writing about peculiar things.” So when Roach met with researchers in India who were using ghost peppers to make a nonlethal weapon—and discovered they were also testing leech repellent for use in the military—she sensed an opportunity. The researchers were planning to send subjects into a river during peak leech season with one bare leg and the other covered in the repellent. “I had a moment where I went, ‘Whoa. That could be a very Roach-y area,’” she says.
The leech story wasn’t meant to be—the repellent research concluded before she had a chance to see it in person. (“I would have flown all the way back to India just to try,” she says.) Still, it set her on a campaign to sniff WWII stink bombs, interrogate soldiers about their bowel movements, and taste caffeinated meat for Grunt, her new book on the weird world of war. And never fear, there’s a chapter about shark repellent to make up for the unfortunate lack of leeches.
I met with Roach at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Oakland, California, just around the corner from the office she shares with 15 other writers. We ordered tacos and talked severed heads, the military’s top weather guy, and how female soldiers deal with peeing while out on convoys.
Were there things you reported on that didn’t pan out for the book?
More in this book than any other. Special ops is very macho—they were the guys sent to take out Osama. But they have weather division, and I really wanted to embed with the weather guy. The public affairs rep’s response was, “Do you have any idea how far away from reality that is? These are classified missions.” I was like, “But I’ll only go with the weather guy! I’ll only talk about the weather!”
I was also going to embed with the Chaplain Corps because I thought I should do something on PTSD. The clergy in the Chaplain Corps go along with units, are out on patrol, and experience the same things the soldiers experience, so they have a sense of empathy and can relate in an interesting way. Plus, I love that the chaplain doesn’t have a gun but has an assistant who does.
… a henchman?
Yes! But I really stepped into the very end of the Afghanistan conflict, and they weren’t doing a lot of embeds anymore.
You make it clear that this book is about staying alive, not necessarily about dying. Why was that distinction important for you?
Partly because I’ve never seen that covered. I’ve seen a lot of coverage of conflict, weapons, strategy. I think you could do a fascinating book on weapons technology, but to me that’s such a bleak thing to report on for two years. A lot of what’s happening now with weapons is making them more pinpoint-specific so you reduce collateral damage. But, ultimately, that’s the world of “How do we more effectively kill people?”—and that didn’t appeal to me.
The first chapter of your new book, Grunt, is about the high tech fashion of war. I love that, for such a stereotypically masculine topic, you start with clothes.
Originally I led with urotrauma, but my editor was like, “No, we are not leading with penises.” The clothing chapter is like getting dressed for war. I get it: You need to bring the reader in gradually and not hit them in the face with blown-up crotches right out of the gate. Every book I do, my editor is like, “This is not going to be the first chapter.” I’m always thinking, “But it’s so grabby!” Well, “grabby” is probably, uh, the wrong word here.
Do you think your subjects treated you differently as a female reporter?
The reporting challenge for me wasn’t that I was a woman but that I was a “pogue,” an outsider—I don’t come from a military background, I don’t know the lingo. It’s such a distinct culture. No one treated me like an outsider, but I didn’t have a sense, for example, of what different acronyms meant. That said, I’m always starting from zero when I’m reporting on my books, so I’m used to that.
What’s the state of military tech today?
There’s a lot of virtual-reality training. That’s always a problem: trying to train somebody in a safe way for the terror and chaos of an actual firefight so they can function in an organized way. And there’s a lot going on with human-less weapon systems like drones. Fully automated submarines are a possibility as well.
The submarine that I spent time on is basically a roaming nuclear arsenal. You’re babysitting the reactor that enables it to stay under for months on end, and you’re minding the missiles. Could that be done remotely? Probably, yeah. But it’s really weird to imagine an uninhabited submarine with 24 nuclear missiles floating around.
And someone has a button somewhere and hopes that it works.
The tech-run version is often more accurate and safer than when it’s done by humans. That seems to be where a lot of stuff is heading.
You reported on live training for medics, which tests how they function under stress. Are they doing any VR training for medics?
Not for medics so much as for field training. There are virtual-reality training centers where they look at how you prepare someone to go into battle and maintain some degree of formation and organization, instead of being like, “Aaaagh! Fuck, they’re shooting at me! Get me out of here!” They have suits that document how accurate you’re shooting and what part of the body you’re hitting. But you can’t really simulate the real chaos and terror of somebody’s first action.
In the medic simulation you observed, the team leaders were ramping up the stress by screaming at them.
Yes! They were like, “What can we do to stress them out? Oh, be as much of an asshole as possible.” I felt so bad for the medic. His adviser was like, “Really, Baker?”
Some of the funniest material in your book is about penis transplants and diarrhea, which reminds me of Bonk and Gulp. Are these just the topics you’re drawn to?
I think that if I left those things out of the book, people would be like, “What the hell? I bought a Mary Roach book and there’s no shit or dicks? I want my money back!” I mean, it’s stuff I find interesting. I think, honestly, it’s stuff a lot of people find interesting. It’s also stuff that doesn’t get covered as much because people don’t want to be perceived as the childish, sensationalistic writer who would actually cover it.
What other interesting things didn’t make it into the book?
What specifically applies to women in the military is largely pregnancy and STDs. But the one thing the military is actually putting a lot of press out about is urinary tract infections. Women who go on long convoys can’t just step out of the tank to piss because of the IED risk, and anyway you don’t want to be the one person who’s like, “Excuse meeee?” So the military has this pink funnel that women have used for years for camping. You just take it out of a pouch, open it up, and stick it in the fly of your pants. You pee, you put it back into the package, and throw it away. But they didn’t choose the pink one—I’m sure it’s all drab.
Ha! And the military gave it a new name, FUDD. Of course they gave it an acronym. It stands for Female Urinary Diversion Device. I loved that, but I didn’t want that to be the way I included women in the book. So the FUDD remains in a pile in my desk.
There’s a lot of blood and bodies in this book. And death. How do you deal with that reporting?
In Stiff, there were a lot of bodies, but they were anonymous research cadavers, so they were almost more part of the laboratory. You don’t know who they were; they don’t have a story attached to them. In this case, there were a couple people I spent time with who actually stepped on an IED and were trying to put their lives back together. It is very affecting. I had never spent any time with someone who’d been through that, and it’s hard to hear and to even know what to say.
And in terms of death, I didn’t feel like I could write a book about war and not touch on the fact that, though war is often done in the name of keeping people alive or making the world more bearable, it’s still a game of death. I couldn’t walk away from that.
What did you come away with?
A lot of respect for these people. Bonk is the other book where I came away with an admiration for the people—in that case the people who do sex research, particularly historically, like Masters and Johnson. To have done what they did in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s? To bring people into a laboratory and have them interact sexually and say, “I’m going to research this”? It was incredibly brave. And with Grunt, researchers working for the military deal with a lot of bureaucracy, and things take a lot of time. They’re really dedicated.
The age-old question with science writing is how one stays true to the subject and remain accurate while also being entertaining and accessible. What is your approach?
It’s intuitive. And my books are far more simplistic than most science writing. People call me a science writer, but it’s an uncomfortable fit. There is science in the books, and I’m spending time around scientists, but I don’t have a scientific background, and I’m not taking readers very deep into the science.
How would you classify your books, then?
Did your previous books inform how you approached the reporting for Grunt?
Because Stiff remains my most popular book, I’m always looking to throw a cadaver in the mix. It’s kind of like how Hitchcock always shows up in his movies—there’s probably a dead guy in every book. That’s my motto: Always a dead guy.
Would you say there’s a recipe for a Mary Roach book?
One whole dead guy, two cups shit, sprinkle with maggots. There’s your formula.