27 Sep 2016

The curious science of war

From Afternoons, 3:09 pm on 27 September 2016
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Photo: AFP

Today, the US military spends hundreds of millions of dollars on researching not only things that can kill, but also on measures to combat (and sometimes cause in the enemy) panic, exhaustion, heat, noise and bacteria.

Writer (and self-described ‘loose canon’) Mary Roach talks with Jesse Mulligan about horse sweat, defrosted chickens and maggots.

Mary first became interested in this subject when on a visit to India she discovered that both a chilli pepper and leeches had been weaponised the Indian Defence Ministry.

"It planted the seed that possibly military science was a little more esoteric and fascinating and broad than I had assumed.”

In her new book Grunt Mary looks at fledgling products such as a portable ‘shark repellant’ developed by the US Navy in WWII. Tobacco, urine and horse sweat were thrown into shark tanks as part of the research.

A heavy artillery weapon known as a 'chicken gun' – which shoots defrosted chickens into the engines of planes – is still in use, Mary says. Artificial and wild birds were also considered as missiles, but the cheap, easy to standardise (and otherwise-flightless) chicken proved the best bird for the job.

Mary wrangled her way into a lot of interesting places while researching the book, including a former movie studio in California where ex-action movie producer Stu Segall creates Hyper-Realistic© battle situations that train medics to deliver care under stress.

"Not only do you have the very convincing loud pyrotechnics… they were playing the soundtrack to Saving Private Ryan. On top of that, there's a series of actors – some of whom are amputees – who are wearing amazingly detailed, lovingly rendered gore sleeves over their stumps and they've got a backpack of stage blood that is pumping at a realistic rate."

Some of the actors also wear ‘cut suits’ which include simulated flesh, organs and a collar that allows for practise cutting an airway.

Mary also investigated an unusual flesh treatment first discovered by a surgeon in WWI – maggot therapy.

When maggots are put on to a large wound they perform a 'natural debridement', eating the dead tissue and thereby supporting the live tissue.

Maggots are now an FDA-approved medical device, but maggot therapy remains a hard sell, Mary says.

"The nurses have to come in and change the maggots every couple of days, because they get bigger and then they want to go off and become flies – which you don't want in a hospital setting."

Mary Roach is the author of Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

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