Outside of Mosul on the hill, we guarded radio towers that supposedly relayed signals clear to Baghdad. Who really knew? We were grunts with guns who didn’t need to glean the particulars. That intel was above our pay grade. We were there to point our carbines off into the distance and scan for threats, until the next guy came to relieve us.
It was a remote outpost, so remote we were tasked with disposing of our own waste. The larger forward operating bases had port-o-potties that were routinely cleaned by contractors KBR pulled from Sri Lanka and across the so-called third world, people who were ostensibly so desperate they were willing to do menial work in someone else’s warzone. They maintained great banks of port-o-johns behind the wire. We came to Mosul from such a FOB and would be dispatched to another, but for now we were responsible for our own crudely constructed wooden outhouses.
All the urine and shit and nastiness that’s expelled from the human body went into sliced-off burn barrels, which were pulled out from under the makeshift wooden latrines and set aflame for cleaning.
Burning fecal matter is more difficult than it sounds. The stench is putrid and fetid and hits you when you first approach, making you retch. You have to endure it while you prep, and it’s even more belligerently unpleasant when set ablaze.
It requires a precisely calibrated cocktail of gas and diesel. Too much gasoline, and you’ll singe your eyebrows off in a ball of flame when you light it up. Too much diesel, and it won’t catch fire, prolonging one of the most miserable things you’ll ever do.
In Iraq the heat often rages at 120 degrees, and sweat courses down your forehead. You lug the plastic gas cans and sidle up to the overwhelming reek, an oppressive stew of stale urine, curdling week-old feces, and fresh newborn turds.
Once it’s lit, you have to stir the sludge or it might not burn through. You choke down unbearably rancid fumes.
Over the years, I’ve polished brass, waxed floors, emptied trash cans, picked weeds, scrubbed bathrooms, loaded storage connexes, picked up litter, hauled brush, and laid brick. Nothing was as remotely hard as burning the foul slop of human waste.
So how does one burn shit? Well, you have to end up in the US Army at wartime. Maybe you’re economically disadvantaged or from an area with few job prospects. One soldier enlisted after getting laid off from the saw mill several times in a year and decided he couldn’t go on without steady work. Maybe you’re wild and undisciplined, maybe military service was family tradition, maybe you saw no feasible path to college without the G.I. Bill. You’re no scion of wealth and privilege.
As you stir the rotten, flaming shit, holding back the insistent vomit creeping up your throat, you pine for the comforts back home, like fast-food cheeseburgers, hot showers, the tender embrace of a mattress, the warm morphine drip of a glowing television screen. You realize you’ll be lucky not to be killed during your deployment, get your legs blown off by an IED, watch your battle buddies die, or futilely try to bandage a sucking chest wound. As the putrescent odor assaults your nostrils, you appreciate how deep you are in the shit.
All photographs courtesy of the author.
JOSEPH S. PETE is an award-winning journalist, an Iraq War veteran, an Indiana University graduate, and a frequent guest on Lakeshore Public Radio. He has done live lit on the iO Chicago stage, was a reader at the Underground Lit Fest and was named the poet laureate of Chicago BaconFest 2016–a feat that Geoffrey Chaucer chump never accomplished. His literary or photographic work has appeared or is forthcoming in New Pop Lit, The Grief Diaries, Gravel, Perch Magazine, Lit-Tapes, Synesthesia Literary Journal, Chicago Literati, Dogzplot, shufPoetry, The Roaring Muse, Prairie Winds, Blue Collar Review, Work Literary Magazine, Lumpen, Stoneboat, The Tipton Poetry Journal, Euphemism, Jenny Magazine and elsewhere. ☆ Judge Adriana Ramírez selected “How to Burn Shit” as winner of Proximity‘s 2017 Personal Essay Prize.