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     | |      c   o   m   m   u   n   i   c   a   t   i   o   n   s     | |
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  ...presents...                 Shit-Burnin'
                                                         by Cal Jacobson

             __///////\ -cDc- CULT OF THE DEAD COW -cDc- /\\\\\\\__
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...I guess I should tell the "shit-burning" story. A lot of veterans out
there probably know what this sort of thing is all about, but if you've
never served in the military you may have been kept in the dark about what
could possibly be the real cause of the mysterious "Gulf War Syndrome."
I swear to God I'm not making this story up.

When you're stuck out in the middle of nowhere (whether camping or on a
military operation), one of the most important things is keeping clean.
Keeping clean means keeping the chance of illness down. Makes sense, right?
The Army calls this field hygiene, amongst other things, and it covers more
than just making sure soldiers get a shower every 2 weeks at the minimum (I
can't recall the actual regulations, but I know that it's a different
amount of time for men and women; shorter for the women). It also covers
where you're going to throw your dirty water and...yes, human waste.

If you're in one place for a really short amount of time, the Army says you
can just dig a 1'x1'x1' "cat hole" and take a dump in it there. There are
three disadvantages to this:

   1.  You need to dig your hole before you really need to shit.
   2.  You're going to be squatting above a hole in the ground.
   3.  If there are a lot of people in your group, you're eventually going
       to run out of places to dig.

When we got to Saudi and rolled out into the desert in October 1990, we
stayed in the same spot for about three months (during the big build-up of
forces in the region). Digging holes wasn't a practical solution for a
battalion of 350+ people because we'd eventually have to walk all the way
to Syria to find a place to dig a hole. Thus was revived the grand
tradition of the "Latrine burn", more commonly known as the "shit-burning
detail" (a "detail" is military-speak for a job or task given to
low-ranking people who haven't found a way to get out of it). I believe it
originated in Vietnam or perhaps the Korean War, but I may be mistaken.

The government (either ours or the Saudis) contracted the local labor
(usually Pakistani) to make hundreds of cheap wooden 4-seater outhouses,
under the holes of which halved oil drums were placed. Theoretically, the
"cans" would be removed daily and the contents would be burned, thus
eliminating tons of American shit that would otherwise have to go somewhere
and would probably result in a major ecological disaster.

Note that I said "theoretically." You see, shit doesn't burn well. Even the
Army knew this, so we were told to douse the contents of the shit-cans with

Unfortunately, I think shit ranks right up there with asbestos in terms of
non-flammable materials. We would pour at least five gallons of gas for
every two cans' worth of shit, and the stuff would only partly burn. What
was worse, it was often hard to get the fire started because most of what
we had was diesel fuel. If you've never worked with diesel gas, let me give
you a brief summary: diesel burns hot, but takes a lot of heat to get it
going. I have seen lit matches drowned in diesel. So we usually had to mix
regular gas (used in the Humvees) with the diesel...the regular gas would
ignite and in turn ignite the diesel, which would burn hot enough to
incinerate some of the shit.

While it was burning (and it would usually take a couple of hours for the
stuff that was going to burn, to burn out) you would occasionally have to
stir it...usually with a metal pole used for holding up camouflage netting
(we had plenty of these poles so we didn't have to replace them at the end
of the day -- thank God). Now if you think regular shit is pushing the
extreme limit of foul, you've never seen, smelt, or heard burning shit. It
produces black smoke that doesn't rise very high but drifts for miles and
smells like...well, burning shit. It sounds like a deep-fat fryer...you
know, what they put french fries in at Burger King. But like I said, shit
doesn't burn. And even after burning the contents twice, you often had as
much as 50% of the original material left. So...what the hell do you do
with the rest?

That's right, you bury it. In a hole. Sound familiar?

So after doing all of that, you would still have to dig a hole and pour the
pudding-like remains in there (which made a "blorp" sound), then burn the
can again to get rid of anything that refused to be poured out.

As awful as it sounded, shit-burning detail was actually one of the more
popular jobs to be "stuck" with, once the benefits were actually realized.
I know, I know, you're wondering "what the hell is good about burning

Well for one thing, because they didn't want you burning shit in the middle
of camp, you had to load the cans up in a Humvee or a truck and drive a
mile or so away. This meant that you were able to get away from the
officer-induced, gearing-up-for-war bullshit that was taking place.
Instead, you could just light the cans and relax with a book or headphones
for a few hours. As long as you were upwind, in the shade and had plenty of
water (remember, we're in a desert) you were set. Other than a few
disgusting minutes, it was the closest thing to a day off we had over

The rituals of other Army units differed, but this was the norm for
Headquarters company, 312th Military Intelligence Battalion, 1st Cavalry
Division. I hope you've enjoyed being grossed out almost as much as
I've enjoyed grossing you out.

Cal Jacobson

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