Mary Roach’s absent-minded professor tangents have never been more welcome than in this book about the science of military development. I picked this up due to my long established weakness for remaindered books and a desire for a light, unchallenging read; Roach is an expert at crafting pop science reads at their most accessible, sometimes to a fault.
That said, I was nervous about the military theme as I generally don’t gravitate to media on this topic and immediately feared I was going to get something about why tank A is superior to humvee B. If that kind of book floats your aircraft carrier, no judgement, but luckily for me this had far more in common with Roach’s previous work than The History Channel (in its 24 hours of WWII incarnation rather than its bastardized “maybe aliens did it” current form).
Roach is more concerned – as always – with how individual quirks exist in systems that are unlikely hosts to them, and despite the military’s reputation for uniformity, she finds plenty of personal touches. From the surgeon conducting reconstructive phalloplasty on an IED victim using his patient’s scrotum as a wrist pillow, to acknowledging that penile reconstruction has improved significantly thanks to the transgender community (good thing our current administration is taking such good care of trans soldiers and acknowledging their sacrif…oh wait), to reviewing the role of clothing in combat, Roach finds the personal that is so often lacking in military accounts, often by design.
Clothing plays a large role in the book, from the realization that clothing has to be more than functional, it has to look good or troops won’t wear it, to the poignancy of civilian underwear at a female soldier’s autopsy (as women’s bodies don’t neatly comply with general issue undies) turning from yellow to pink from bloodstains, the book finds the details that allow a reader to feel connected to a subject often presented at a remove.