In civilian life today, it isn’t hard to sniff out the influence of scent marketing, the subliminal commercial application of fragrance: This is why every Le Méridien hotel lobby worldwide smells the same, or how museums simulate the experience of being on the moon (astronauts liken the scent of the air there to the explosive cordite). But it isn’t limited to civilian life—one such marketing firm, ScentAir, counts the U.S. military as a regular customer on its roster.
The reason is surprising but simple: Simulating war zones stateside might seem straightforward enough—build a few rundown shacks, stash some snipers with laser guns around the encampment, then unleash the raw recruits. The problem is the absence of one battlefield staple: the smell. As any combat vet knows, war has its own stench, a visceral mishmash of bodily fluids, scorched flesh and burning buildings; it’s equal parts stress inducing and stomach churning. So to help better prepare recruits for real-life battle, the U.S. military has turned to ScentAir to replicate that odor. Think of the resulting gut-wrenching blend as Eau de War Zone.
In the last decade, ScentAir has worked with almost every wing of the military, whether the Marine Corps, the Navy or the Air Force. Many of its simulations are held at Combined Arms Collective Training Facilities, or CACTFs; better known as “shoot houses,” there’s one such facility on most major army bases, including forts Bragg, Campbell and Lewis. Akin to the X-Men’s Danger Room, each CACTF can be quickly configured to replicate any real-world setup, albeit one rigged with audio- and video-recording equipment. ScentAir simply installs its Ethernet-controlled fragrance machines alongside the AV system. After each run-through, maneuvers are replayed and troops are coached on how to better perform in what’s known as an After Action Review.
Fragrancing such an ersatz battlefield might seem frivolous, but veterans are passionate advocates of the procedure. Take John Madigan, a retired infantry colonel who now handles logistics for such simulations on behalf of the military. He explains that scenting a CACTF adds just a few thousand dollars to each multimillion-dollar facility—that’s less than 1 percent of the total cost—but the return on investment is priceless. Imagine one of the most common scenarios: Soldiers are tasked with sweeping among burning buildings for enemy combatants while also hunting for a hostage they must rescue alive. “Anything you can add to increase the stress conditions of the task better prepares the soldiers,” he says. In an unscented simulation, trainees who reengage after the first review perform 30 percent to 40 percent better on average; add a spritz of ScentAir’s blend to the setup, though, and that number more than doubles, to 85 percent. It’s high enough to be a potential lifesaving margin around live ammunition.
Such impact isn’t surprising given how humans process scent. Unlike the other four senses, smells are analyzed by the limbic system, the guttural heart of the brain that controls basic fight-or-flight responses. And the task of creating a custom blend to trigger such visceral responses falls to Mark Signorin, ScentAir’s director of fragrance development. He’ll start with a baseline, background notes that are the first unspoken hint that a landscape is no longer American: a slight hit of raw sewage, perhaps, and a bazaar-like blend of cumin, pepper and spices to suggest alfresco cooking. The aim then is to layer various featured smells over this base, perhaps “burning building,” a nose-searing fusion of wood, wires and plastic, or “burning car,” a similar recipe that more heavily features rubber. The one that helps troops the most, he says, is—and it’s difficult to dance around this—the smell of a corpse. “The first time you have that experience with an actual person is quite a shock to the system. And burned human flesh is kind of tough, because you’re working some of those burned notes into a fragrance that’s trying to be a dead body,” he says. “That took a few rounds of modifications.” Indeed, familiarity with such a smell is the cause of the so-called barbecue effect that some soldiers experience after returning home from war, whereby smells from a cookout too closely replicate those of the battlefield and make grilling too grueling to endure.
Another scent that’s an unlikely staple of these ersatz battlefields: apple pie. Madigan has found that an unexpected whiff of homey baked goods amid whirring bullets and burning buildings can stimulate soldiers in a different way. The smell of death might turn their stomachs, but pie whets their appetites. It takes them from combat to kitchen apron in an instant, the ideal distraction from the task at hand and a surefire way to train troops for the unexpected. “Fresh-baked apple pie and cinnamon?” says Madigan. “It brings these guys back to Mom cooking in the kitchen and will get a guy’s head to swivel and wonder, ‘Wow, where is that coming from?’” It’s being prepared for that kind of shock to the system that can save a soldier’s life.
Fact: We recall scents with up to 65% accuracy after a year but recall visual cues with less than 50% accuracy after a few months.