Weaponized ghost peppers, drone subs and FUDDs: ‘Stiff’ writer Mary Roach on the weird science of war
Having covered what happens to people when they die in Stiff and the ups and downs of sex in Bonk, science writer Mary Roach has turned her inquisitive eye to the bizarre and fascinating way researchers are trying to improve — and save — the lives of U.S. military members in her new book, Grunt.
In an interview with Wired, Roach — who prefers being called a ‘nonfiction writer’ instead of a science writer — explains how she likes turning “over rocks and writing about peculiar things” including researchers trying to weaponize ghost peppers.
When it comes to war, the author explains that she didn’t want to get into the killing side of war — which is well covered — but how the trend is towards preparing and keeping soldiers out of actual conflicts thereby lessening deaths and injuries.
“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, she explained. “And there’s a lot going on with human-less weapon systems like drones. Fully automated submarines are a possibility as well.”
“The submarine [the USS Tennessee] 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,” she added. “It’s really weird to imagine an uninhabited submarine with 24 nuclear missiles floating around.”
Roach also devotes time to new fabrics being utilized for combat uniform, the similarities between wedding gowns and bomb suits, what caffeinated meat tastes like and why diarrhea is a threat to national security.
Asked if the military is using virtual reality training for medics yet, Roach said not yet, but they are studying the effect of stress on medics and how well they perform when confronted by blood and gore.
“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!'” she said. “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 first.”
According to Roach, she left out a chapter of FUDD’s — Female Urinary Diversion Devices — used by female soldiers in the field because, “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?’”
Well known for her book on sex as well as Gulp, which looked at how our bodies process food, Roach explained that her book also has a chapter on penis transplants following serious wounds in battle and that problem with diarrhea in the field.
“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,” she explained. “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.”