The whistle is followed by an explosion and the scatter of dust. There is rifle fire, the ricochet of bullets and the unmistakable screams of panicked soldiers.
A man screams. “OOOOH, F–K! AAAAAOHH HELP ME!!!”
A medic rushes in and sees the cause of his screams. It’s his stump of a leg, “bone and mangled flesh” protruding, blood “flying like champagne in the locker room after the big win.”
The scene is horrifying and very real, except that it’s mostly not. The bullets are blanks, the blood and bone designed by special-effects artists, the sounds, audio from “Saving Private Ryan.” The amputee actor’s pain is fake as well. Only the medic is real.
Marine reservists train while under “attack” in a simulated Iraqi town at Stu Segall Production Studios in San Deigo.Photo: Getty ImagesThe set is a combat trauma management course near Southern California’s Camp Pendleton, designed to train Marines to provide medical assistance under the extreme pressure of war. And if it sounds like the US Marines have ventured into Spielberg territory, the entire endeavor was produced by a Hollywood veteran who previously directed films like, according to IMDb, “Teen-Age Jail Bait” and “Saddle Tramp Women.”
Mary Roach has made her name exposing the science behind various unpleasantries of the world — cadavers (“Stiff”), for one — while injecting them with uncharacteristic humor. In her new book “Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War” (Norton, out Tuesday), she does so for the human element of combat. Some of the topics may seem light by military standards. But Roach shows how every consideration, even soldiers’ underwear, could potentially save lives.
The method a soldier uses to keep his clothing fastened can make the difference in getting him home alive.
“I have heard stories of Special Operations guys whose Velcro put them in danger by revealing their position,” writes Roach, noting that “a stealthier model is on the [military’s] hook-and-loop fastener agenda.”
Zippers, Roach explains, don’t work, for numerous reasons. If a sniper is on his belly, sand and dirt can jam the zipper. Buttons — for which there are 22 pages of government regulations — are also a problem, as they’re uncomfortable to lie on.
Because of this, alternative fastener technology is such an Army priority it has a Hook and Loop Task Group, “a sub-subcommittee of the Combat Clothing Utility Subcommittee.”
The military aims to have clothing optimized for every situation servicemen and women could conceivably find themselves in. Roach points out even Army chaplains have outfits for different conditions: “flame-resistant, insect-repellent rayon-nylon with 25 percent Kevlar” in the field, for durability; flame-resistant (but more expensive) Nomex when in tanks; and basic 50/50 nylon-cotton on the base.
Roach introduces us to textile technologist Margaret Auerbach, also known as “flame goddess,” as it’s her job to test flame-resistant fabrics. She starts by heating a single strand to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit to test for chemicals, “to see what our guys might be inhaling.”
The military spends a huge amount of effort testing every aspect of their uniforms.Photo: Getty ImagesIf the fabric is nontoxic, it then gets tested, often with a device actually called the Big Scary Laser. Along with the device holding the swatch, the laser replicates the effects of “a teacup IED” in the field, including how a blast “forces clothing flush against the skin, which can heighten the heat transfer and worsen the burn.”
(Materials testing in the military has always been creative. In the early ’50s, the military conducted nuclear tests in Nevada. While testing building materials and other Army hardware, they allowed military clothing designers to outfit 111 Chester White swine in uniforms of various fabrics, and include them in the tests.)
The current material for flame-resistant Army uniforms is known as Defender M. Mostly rayon, it “balloons away from the body as it burns.” This lessens the possibility of scorched skin, but the material tears easily. The search for more effective materials is ongoing.
We also meet Annette LaFleur, a swimsuit designer before bringing her expertise to the Army, who describes flame-resistant uniforms as one of the “things that are hot right now.” She is designing the new “sniper base suit” and settled on a material called Cordura because, in addition to its flame-retardant properties, “the coated backing keeps moisture from seeping through. And that’s important,” writes Roach, “if you’re lying someplace damp waiting to kill someone.”
Scent as a weapon
During World War II, the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, spent two years trying to produce a weapon they felt could play an important role in the war: a substance with “the revolting odor of a very loose bowel movement.”
Officially named SAC-23 — but known informally as “Who, Me?” — the scent was intended for use by the Chinese resistance to humiliate Japanese soldiers, as, the Americans believed, bowel movements were regarded as shameful by the Japanese.
‘It’s no simple task to make a man smell like s–t.’Directives for the odor included it having “a range of at least 10 feet without backfire,” and for it to be “silent in operation.”
They brought in a chemical engineer named Ernest Crocker, known as the “Million Dollar Nose,” who noted that most smells occurred in context. Butyric acid, for example, can smell like Parmesan cheese in certain circumstances, and like vomit in others. The OSS needed a smell that was repulsive in any circumstance.
This made the overall task far more difficult than it sounds.
“It’s no simple task to make a man smell like s–t,” notes Roach. “The smell of human feces is, like any in nature, staggeringly complex, comprising dozens if not hundreds of chemical compounds.”
For this reason, Crocker felt that a complex mixture of scents would work better than a strong, obviously nauseating one. In the latter case, the first whiff would make someone run for the hills. In the former, ideally, the initial scent would incite curiosity, encouraging the smeller to sniff further. Then they would be hit with the truly horrific.
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Ernest CrockerPhoto: Smithsonian archivesCrocker’s final concoction was a blend, combining awful odors like “smelly feet,” “rotten egg,” “goat,” and worse. Available in a squirtable liquid or a more intense paste for smearing, the final result, said Crocker, would render a target “highly objectionable for not less than two hours at 70 degrees F,” causing “complete ostracism.”
Alas, the Army never did get to use “Who, Me?” on the Japanese. Several weeks before the final report on the scent was complete, we dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Worse odors have emerged since. Developed in 1988 for the purpose of clearing out buildings or dispersing rioting crowds, Stench Soup, which fools its victim with a “fruity top note” before dropping the odorous bomb, smelled to Roach like “Satan sitting on a throne of rotten onions.”
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