Insomnia, panic attacks and death by drone – inside the ‘dirty work’ powering America

Early on, Press decided not to go undercover. Recently, there has been a spate of books in which writers have embedded themselves in unlovely areas of society. In the UK, James Bloodworth’s Hired (2018) saw the journalist spend six months undercover in, among other places, an Amazon delivery plant and a call centre. In France, Valentin Gendrot’s Flic (2020) exposed the racism and corruption of the Parisian police force, while Joseph Ponthus’s À la ligne (2019) was a striking poetic account of life inside Brittany’s abattoirs and fish-processing plants. Meanwhile, Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River (2018) was a wrenching memoir of his time as a Latino Border Patrol agent on the US-Mexico border. 

Press, though, wanted to write “a more panoramic book, a book which looks at the nature of inequality in America, and how inequality determines who does this work”. Still, his book is troublingly immersive. You smell the rank ooze of a slaughterhouse; you feel the jitters which come right before a drone strike.

He spends months, for instance, with the wife of a young oil-rig worker, Stephen Stone, who survived the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In 2010, a BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men on board and devastating the local ecosystem. Press records how the guilt Stone felt at the destruction weighed upon him, triggering panic attacks and paranoia, until he began to self-medicate with cannabis and alcohol. Eventually, his marriage broke down, his wife unable to deal with his erratic behaviour. The costs of the dirty work he had done metastasised, surfacing years after he quit.  

In fact, one of Press’s strongest insights is into the “moral injury” of dirty work. Only some forms of dirty work, such as hacking up carcasses or guarding prisoners, carry physical risk; all, however, seem to traumatise workers in ways which linger, spilling over into their relationships and communities. Press meets a retired prison guard who reflectively sits facing the door so he can pre-empt attack. Aaron, the young drone operator, dreams of dismembered bodies and anguished faces. The work inscribes itself into the workers’ minds as much as their bodies – and its scars do not heal. 

“One of the things that made me want to write about drone operators is that they defy our initial assumptions,” Press explains. “You assume that it’s a distant form of warfare, so it doesn’t trouble the conscience of the people who do it. [In fact] the military itself has done studies, and found levels of stress and burnout are very high, because these operators are exposed to extreme violence on a regular basis.”

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