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The secret plan to win World War II with stink bombs, and more weird facts from Grunt

Grunt W. W. Norton & Company
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

You want to learn some fun facts about how to fight off sharks? Turn to Mary Roach.

Roach writes journalistic popular science books that take deep dives into single topics, all of them with evocative monosyllabic titles. Stiff was about the history of corpses. Spook was about the science of the afterlife.

Her latest book, Grunt, covers military science. It’s not about the science of weaponry — there are no guns or bombs here — but the science that goes into developing military uniforms and teaching soldiers how to survive in a submarine and putting genitalia back together.

It’s a treasure trove of weird, obscure military science trivia; every chapter has at least one line that will make you sit up and say, "Huh. Who knew?"

Below are some of the best facts from Roach’s book:

Military uniform designers have more decorative backgrounds than you might think

Specifically, Roach cites Annette LaFleur, the US Army’s top staff fashion designer, and her colleague Dalila Fernandez.

LaFleur started off designing swimwear, which means, as Roach points out, that she has "expertise with high-performance active-wear fabrics and an understanding of the specialized activity they’re needed for."

Fernandez, meanwhile, comes from the world of high-end wedding dresses. That one might seem like more of a stretch, but Roach makes a compelling case:

A wedding gown entails multilayering of expensive specialty fabrics for an outfit whose useful lifespan may come and go in a single afternoon. Much like a bomb suit.

But there is no good reason for the Army’s obsession with berets

The Army has a lot of knowledgeable experts working on designing uniforms, but now and then someone further up in the chain of command will pull rank.

That’s what happened with berets. Although field data showed that visored cloth caps would be the best headwear for the Army — they’re cool, light, easy to stuff in a pocket, and they shade your eyes — an Army chief of staff decided on black wool berets instead. Why? Well, Roach explains, "he dug the look."

The same thing happened with the Universal Camouflage Pattern the Army developed in 2005:

The idea had been to develop a single camo pattern that would provide concealment for troops in desert, urban, and woodsy settings. The Natick Camouflage Evaluation Facility came up with thirteen pattern and color combinations, duly sent overseas for field tests and feedback. Before the data was in and the study completed, a highly placed general went ahead and picked a pattern. It was not even one of the ones being tested. The new camouflage performed so poorly in Afghanistan that in 2009, the Army spent $3.4 million developing a new and safer pattern for troops deployed there.

Don’t even mention NASCAR to the people who make armored combat vehicles

A general made that mistake once with Nicole Brockhoff of the Army Research Laboratory. Her job is to protect people in fast-moving vehicles from crashes, and surely, the good general reasoned, the folks at NASCAR must know something about that.

But as Roach points out, "the bottom of a personnel carrier is traveling many, many times faster than a NASCAR race car." Plus, NASCAR drivers are strapped in and braced with their heads facing straight ahead to prevent damage to their spines. You can’t do that in military vehicles, because the drivers need to be able to scan the road in all directions. "General, with all due respect," Brockhoff said, and then trailed off, unable to finish the sentence.

You get the impression Brockhoff is pretty sure NASCAR is filled with wimps.

The Army got really into a plan to basically turn soldiers into cyborgs

The Army’s solution to every problem is to throw equipment at it, to the point that soldiers complain they have too much equipment. So the Army started figuring out what kind of equipment it needed to solve that problem.

Their favorite solution? A wearable hydraulic exoskeleton known as the Human Universal Load Carrier, or HULC. It attaches to your legs with braces, leaving you free to bound around while it carries your equipment for you.

But so far, no one’s come up with a solution for the problem that inevitably arises when you run around in leg braces for a few hours: shin splints. Plus, the thing’s battery life sucks: It’s good for "five hours, presuming you’re moving slowly (2.5 mph) and on a level terrain." So the army’s dream of turning its soldiers into super-strong cyborgs remains currently unworkable.

There was a secret plan to win World War II with stink bombs

The military devoted significant resources to developing a smell that it could "distribute among Chinese resistance elements for the purpose of humiliating Japanese officers." The result was called Who, Me?, and it is, Roach reports, bad but not that bad: "It’s sulfury, but not in a jokey-farty rotten egg way. It’s got a meaner, spikier disposition."

It failed to humiliate the Japanese, and although the military quickly formulated a Who Me? II — "with skunkiness substituted for fecal odor" — it was never used. By the time it was ready for the field, the bomb had already dropped on Hiroshima.

Sharks are not actually that interested in attacking shipwrecked humans

The Navy has looked into creating shark repellant (unsuccessfully), but not because sailors are often attacked by sharks (they’re not). It’s a morale thing. The Navy is concerned that those who would otherwise enlist are put off by the idea that they might get eaten by sharks.

Well, worry not, says Roach. Sharks will sometimes eat human corpses, but it’s rare they’ll go after something that’s alive and kicking:

A floating sailor could dispatch a curious shark by hitting it or churning the water with his legs. ([A statistical analyst who specializes in shark attacks, David] Baldridge observed that even a kick to a shark’s nose from the rear leg of a swimming rat was enough to cause a "startled response and rapid departure from the vicinity.")

Getting six hours of sleep a night for two weeks is just as bad as staying up for two days straight

Actually, it’s worse, according to the Submarine Force's Force Operational Notes Newsletter (Special Crew Rest Edition). When you don’t get enough sleep, your ability to function keeps going down until you’re basically drunk — and two weeks of six-hour sleep has the same effect as two days of no sleep. But, Roach points out, "unlike the up-all-nighters, routine six-hours-a-nighters see no need for caution. They’ve felt mildly exhausted for so long it’s become their normal."

This is obviously important information for submarine crews, who routinely handle heavy machinery and weaponry in an environment where disrupted sleep is the norm.

But let it be a lesson to us all, particularly those of us who are used to cheerfully getting by on six hours of sleep a night and then wonder why we always feel a little bit drunk.