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This Book Introduces You To The People Doing Your 'Dirty Work'

For his new book, Dirty Work, Eyal Press interviewed people working punishingly difficult jobs — slaughterhouse employees, correctional officers, oil rig workers, military drone operators. He writes that these workers often do jobs that many of us believe we benefit from — in the form of lower prices, safer streets or cheaper energy — but don't really want to think about.

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Other segments from the episode on August 18, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 18, 2021: Interview with Eyal Press; Review of book 'Dream Girls.'

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Years ago, when I drove a cab in Philadelphia, my taxi garage was next to a pork slaughterhouse. And one morning on my way in to work, I happened to see a guy from the slaughterhouse unloading a truck full of live squealing pigs. I watched him repeatedly rare back and kick the pigs so hard the truck bed would shudder. Decades later, I still recall that image. And I remember thinking how I'd hate that job and how cruel the man's behavior was.

My guest writer, Eyal Press, has a new book about some of the people in America who work in jobs that most of us would run from because they're punishing and difficult and are seen in some way as morally compromised. He interviewed prison mental health workers and correctional officers, oil rig workers, slaughterhouse employees and military drone operators. He writes that these workers often do jobs that many of us believe we benefit from in the form of lower prices, safer streets or cheaper energy, but don't really much want to think about. The work tends to fall to people with fewer opportunities, he writes. And when we hear about ill effects associated with these jobs, like COVID infections from poultry slaughterhouses or inhumane treatment of the incarcerated, we often condemn the workers rather than the exploitative system in which they work.

Eyal Press writes for The New Yorker and other publications. He's the author of two previous books. He joined us on FRESH AIR in 2006 to talk about one of them - "Absolute Convictions." And as of this spring, he is a sociologist with a Ph.D. from New York University. His new book is called "Dirty Work: Essential Jobs And The Hidden Toll Of Inequality in America."

Well, Eyal Press, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

EYAL PRESS: Thank you so much.

DAVIES: You write about mental health workers and correctional officers. And, you know, people who study this issue know that we have far fewer residential mental institutions than we had in this country decades ago. And there's a shortage of community mental health alternatives. So a lot of people with mental health issues, particularly poor people, end up incarcerated. You write about a woman, a mental health counselor at the Dade Correctional Institution in Florida. Just tell us a little about her and what her job was.

PRESS: So yeah, her name is Harriet Krzykowski. And Harriet got a job as a mental health aide at the Dade Correctional Institution in Florida, just south of Miami, shortly after the Great Recession. And she had never worked in corrections before, really didn't know what to expect. And as she started working the job, she began hearing stories about patients entrusted to her care in the mental health ward of the prison, which was called the transitional care unit, being mistreated. Some of them complained that they weren't getting food. Their meals were being skipped. She witnessed verbal abuse that concerned her. And gradually, she learned that this abuse was both systemic and severe. And so I wanted to kind of go into, what do you do if you're a mental health aide at a prison like that, when on the one hand, your job is to care for the patients, on the other hand, you're beholden to the security at the facility?

DAVIES: Right. She was making $12 an hour when she started. Is that right?

PRESS: That's right. She was making $12 an hour. And she really needed the job. And she went into it thinking of herself as allied with the security at the prison. But early on, Harriet noticed that she - one of her jobs, one of her responsibilities was to allow the prisoners into the rec yard. And when they weren't allowed in repeatedly, she mentioned this to her supervisor. And the supervisor proceeded to tell her, our job is to get along with security. And shortly after this incident, she started noticing that guards would leave suddenly when she was doing, say, group sessions or on one occasion when she was in the rec yard. And that was a kind of message. You know, don't cross us. Don't be on the wrong side of things.

DAVIES: So she felt like there was mistreatment or certainly concerns about mistreatment. But if she complained, she felt like she would at times be in a vulnerable position, that correctional officers would deliberately leave her with inmates in circumstances that made her fear for her safety. Did she ever have anything happen to her that - as a result of that?

PRESS: She did indeed. I recount an incident in the book where she was in the yard alone. And a prisoner came up to her. He was quite psychotic. And he touched her inappropriately. And she froze, not knowing what to do and really feared anything could happen at that point because she was alone. She ended up leaving and sort of backing away quickly. And nothing happened. But as she later told me, she was deeply, deeply shaken, as one would expect, and felt, you know, anything could have happened there. I could have been sexually assaulted. I could have been - I could have lost my life. And so that really shaped how she proceeded to react to other things she would learn.

DAVIES: So the correctional officers didn't tell her this. They didn't threaten her, right? It was simply delivered by - the message was delivered directly by leaving her alone at times.

PRESS: That's right. And it was a sort of, you know, message of what we say goes. Don't cross us. Don't, you know, do something that gets us in trouble. Your job here is to adhere to our rules, not to try to alter the way we do things, including with your patients.

DAVIES: So there were cases of prisoners not getting meals, not getting exercise that was required. There were some really much more serious cases of abuse, too, weren't there?

PRESS: That's right. And this all kind of unfolded in real time for Harriet. She didn't know how bad it was. So one day at work, Harriet came in. And she heard that a prisoner in the mental health ward named Darren Rainey had defecated in his cell and was refusing to clean it up. And when she asked one of the guards, oh, what's going on with Rainey, the guard assured her, don't worry about him. We're going to take him to a shower to clean him up. And Harriet actually found that reassuring. The next day she came in, and she heard from a nurse that Rainey had indeed been taken to a shower, but that he had not made it out of the shower alive.

And when Harriet first heard this, she thought he must have had a heart attack. Maybe it was a suicide. And the nurse told her, no, he was taken to a shower and deliberately locked inside of it. And in this particular shower, both the water flow and temperature of the water was controlled from the outside by the guards. And that water temperature was 180 degrees, which is hot enough to brew a cup of tea. And Rainey collapsed in that shower and died. Autopsy reports later showed that he suffered burns on 90% of his body. And indeed, other prisoners have testified and recalled that they heard Rainey screaming that night that he couldn't take this.

And so Harriet learns all of this. She's in shock. She feels, as she told me, that someone has to report this. But she doesn't want to be the person to report it because she feared that will get her in trouble with the guards. And indeed, she doesn't report it. And no one on the mental health staff reports it.

DAVIES: I should note that one reason that we know a lot of details about this is that a Miami Herald reporter, Julie K. Brown, who covered a lot of stuff in prisons, wrote about this case and exposed a lot of this. So how did Harriet Krzykowski deal with this? What effect did it have on her?

PRESS: She was shocked. She was horrified. But she was also scared. And she, on the one hand, wanted to say something and to report what she learned because no one who hears that, who has, you know, any concern for suffering is going to want to stay silent. But she did stay silent. And she stayed silent because she had learned from those earlier experiences that you don't cross the guards at this facility without paying a price for it.

And so suddenly, Harriet is in this position where, as she put it to me, the lesson was, don't be a witness, and don't say anything. And in fact, no one on the mental health staff did say anything. The only reason that we know about this case and that Julie Brown at the Miami Herald reported on it was that a prisoner at the prison named Harold Hempstead, he spoke out about it. But the staff did not.

DAVIES: So Harriet Krzykowski comes in and wants to help people, right? And she clearly sees people who have mental health issues - a lot of them - who need help. She can't (ph) do this, and she learns of these abuses. She feels, you know, hamstrung from doing anything. What was the effect on her emotionally?

PRESS: It was pretty drastic. And I should say that at the very beginning, Harriet did want to help people, but she also just needed a job. And she was frank with me about the fact that if she could have gotten another job, she would have. And that's kind of a theme in the book that these are sort of jobs of last resort. They're not aspirational positions, and it wasn't for Harriet. But she came to see the humanity in the people she was entrusted to care for.

And because she stayed silent, she stopped eating. She lost her appetite. She started losing her hair. She became depressed. She didn't tell anyone what she was going through. In fact, even her family members didn't know much of what was going on, her husband and - but she just really fell into a psychic malaise and later, much later, would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from the kind of psychic and emotional toll that this took on her.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Eyal Press. He's a writer for The New Yorker and other publications. He has a new book about jobs that many Americans would prefer not to think about. It's called "Dirty Work: Essential Jobs And The Hidden Toll Of Inequality In America." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACORN'S "LOW GRAVITY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with Eyal Press. He's a journalist and writer. He contributes to The New Yorker and other publications. His new book is "Dirty Work: Essential Jobs And The Hidden Toll Of Inequality In America."

You spoke to some prison guards, one of them in particular, a guy named Bill Curtis. He worked at a different prison. He came in. He wasn't young. He was a veteran, and he actually had been a boxer, you note. What was - what did his experience lead him to conclude about the conduct of guards in prisons?

PRESS: Well, Bill Curtis, indeed, is someone I spoke to at length. And his story is described in the book. And you know, I think like a lot of corrections officers, he felt the system is tilted in favor of the prisoners, not the prison guards - that we always get the blame and we don't deserve it and, you know, to some extent, the kind of sentiment you would expect to hear from someone in this position. But he also had some other views that would surprise readers, I think. Bill actually kept a diary while he worked. And in it, he would describe what he called serial bullies. And these were fellow officers who he watched abuse prisoners viciously - I mean, you know, with just real, real cruelty. He did not mince words about that. He, you know, sees this as deplorable, and he said so to me.

But then, again, he complicated things as well because he says, you know, the people of Florida get what they pay for from their corrections officers. And what he meant was, you know, here you have officers who have received very little training or no training in how to deal with people with severe mental illnesses who are working in institutions where the budgets are pared down. There are fewer and fewer services. There's fewer and fewer staff members and - in many facilities working longer hours. And so how do you enforce order in such an institution? - he asked me. He said, well, it's very simple. What an officer learns is you do it through force. You do it through brute force. And I learned that lesson, and others learned that lesson.

And so, in a sense, what he's saying is, you know, everybody wants to blame us. And yet, what we do is, if not quietly condoned, all but inevitable given the conditions in so many jails and prisons in the state of Florida, which has, at the time of Rainey's death, had the third-largest prison system in the country and spent next to last on mental health services per capita.

DAVIES: How do - I mean, based on your interviews as well as, you know, other research you've done, how do correctional officers feel about their occupation? How does it make them feel about themselves?

PRESS: Well, I think that in my interviews and in the literature on corrections officers, what you find in many places is that they feel, you know, boy, I wish I could have been a cop or, you know, a firefighter. I'm doing this job because I get benefits, and that's the only reason. Or I'm doing this job because, you know, I don't want to do a job that is temporary and I can't support my family.

But certainly, the studies suggest this is, again, not a career that people aspire to have. It's a job they end up doing after a kind of period of occupational drift or because they have few other better choices. And I should say that the geography of prisons and jails in this country sort of helps reinforce that. Many of the prisons and jails in the United States have been built in more low-income, rural areas where the good jobs that used to exist, the mills and factories shut down. So what replaced them? Jails and prisons.

DAVIES: And it's one of the points you make in the book that in correctional institutions and some of the other jobs that you talk about, they tend to be isolated from population centers, which can also lead to a lack of accountability.

PRESS: Absolutely. And I think a running theme in the book - and, really, in all the jobs that I looked at - was that there's an element of hiding. So, you know, what I mean when I say dirty work is work that society in a sense depends on and tacitly condones but doesn't want to hear too much about and certainly doesn't want to see. And on one level, the walls around jails and prisons achieve that. And those walls exist in every society. So you're not getting daily information about what goes on inside. But the geography also reinforces that. And I think the class dimension. So we push these facilities out of sight, out of mind.

And indeed, in Florida, I had to drive around a lot to find the prisons that that I wanted to see and to visit and to talk to people. They're not near the golf resorts and the beach, you know, the oceanfront estates and all of that. And that division, I think, is deliberate.

DAVIES: We spend a lot of time at the jobs that we work at, and we often talk about our work, you know, among co-workers and to others. It's, you know, it's an important part of your experience. If you work in a place that you feel bad about or you feel unsafe in, you're probably a lot less likely to talk about it. Did you find this among prison guards?

PRESS: I mean, I think that's certainly true. I think it's really hard to get people to talk. And I should say that in the case of Dade, I didn't just talk to Harriet. I talked to several other people, many of whom were had had gone through equally difficult experiences. One woman who witnessed a stomping incident where a group of guards stomped on a prisoner who was badly, badly injured. And she said to me, you know, I wanted to scream. I wanted to do something. But I didn't even report it. And I said nothing about it because I needed my job. And this was, you know, a Puerto Rican woman who was surviving as a consequence of the work she did.

So yeah, I think there's reluctance, which is compounded by a kind of dependence, you know, that - if this is your livelihood. But I should also say that there are plenty of people, both guards and mental health aides, who would probably tell you, you know, I have no trouble at all with my job. I don't see it as troubled. I don't see it as troubling. I'm not stressed out by it. And what I find really interesting about that - I took a tour of a jail in Colorado at one point when I was researching this subject. And the warden said to me, you know, the guys I worry about are not the guys who tell me this is a really hard and stressful job. It's the guys who never say that and who say they're totally fine with it.

DAVIES: Explain that. What do you mean? I mean, what's - what do the ones who don't complain do?

PRESS: Well, I mean, so, again, if you look at if you look at the occupational health literature on prison guards, you have alarming rates of hypertension, of divorce, depression, substance abuse, suicide. One study that found - I think the suicide risk among corrections workers was 39% higher than for the rest of the working-age population. So somewhere that stress and that - some kind of emotional and psychic toll is playing out. It may not be verbalized as, oh, I'm distressed by this job, but I don't think that means it's not there.

And indeed, in the chapter on corrections officers, I also talked to a woman who ended up setting up a mental health hotline and then a kind of outreach center. It's called the Desert Waters Correctional Outreach Center. And - because she kept getting calls from the partners of corrections officers in this area of Colorado that is just full of prisons and jails saying, you know, I'm concerned about my partner. And she got so many of these calls, and her own background was in treating trauma victims, that she thought, you know, this is a traumatic job. This is a really high risk, potentially traumatizing job. So, you know, I think what's really difficult is to measure and quantify the kinds of psychic and emotional wounds that doing a job like this has. But that doesn't mean those wounds are not there, and it doesn't mean they're not debilitating.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Eyal Press. He writes for The New Yorker and other publications and is the author of two previous books. His new book is "Dirty Work: Essential Jobs And The Hidden Toll Of Inequality In America." He'll be back to talk more after this break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER AND LEON PARKER'S "THE LAST TIME")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest is journalist and author Eyal Press. His new book is about jobs in America that many of us benefit from, but most of us wouldn't want because they're difficult and in some way morally compromised. He interviewed prison mental health workers and correctional officers, oil rig workers, slaughterhouse employees and military drone operators. The book is called "Dirty Work: Essential Jobs And The Hidden Toll Of Inequality In America."

How did you get into this subject? What made you want to write about it?

PRESS: Well, my last book, "Beautiful Souls," was about individuals who, when faced with really morally difficult situations, ended up heeding the voice of conscience and, in a sense, keeping their hands clean. So I wrote about, you know, soldiers who refused unjust orders. I wrote about a police captain in Switzerland who was told to keep Jews from crossing into Switzerland who were trying to escape Nazism, and he let them in. And so it was sort of stories of moral courage and how people find the courage to act that way in the face of all this risk.

But as I was doing the research on that book, I kept reading about and meeting people who hadn't, you know, stopped and kept their hands clean in these situations, who had gone along. And I was struck both by the power of their stories, the wounds that seemed apparent in just the way they spoke about what they'd been through - and they didn't always do so freely - and also just the fact that in a way, that's the more common story. You know, I wrote about the exceptional people who do find their courage in these situations. And I felt, you know, there's another story and maybe a larger story about the people who go along, the kind of conflicted insiders, or what Primo Levi called the gray ambiguous persons, who are really all of us who go along in these situations. And then I also started thinking about who in our society is put in those positions.

DAVIES: You know, as I read the book, it struck me that in any industrial society where there is a division of labor, there will certainly be jobs that nobody wants. And I did a lot of blue-collar employment when I was earlier on. And it struck me that friends I had who, you know, had kind of grown up in more affluent circumstances and - had no idea where all the stuff that they use in their lives comes from. I don't mean they literally had no idea, but what it takes to actually make, you know, our clothes and the homes and businesses that we work in and appliances and all that stuff. That blue-collar work - factory work is dirty and hard and physically demanding and often unsafe. But we generally don't know about it. I mean, I think that's sort of true generally. I mean, we don't think about a lot of jobs that we don't spend time with.

PRESS: Absolutely, no. And I think that, you know, to some extent, that's inevitable in any society and a society as large as ours. On the other hand, I think, to me at least, there's something unsettling about that, about the ease with which those who rely on and use and burn fossil fuels and fill up their gas tanks can do all of that and at the same time not feel implicated in the, you know, dirty work of fracking and drilling and dirty and dangerous - that if we think about the industrial food system, you know, as folks like Michael Pollan have said, we're, as a society, more removed perhaps than any other people in history from the industrial food system that churns out the cheap meat we consume and eat. And so at a certain point, you can say it's inevitable. But there are also questions about what that does to us and what it means on a moral level.

DAVIES: One of the occupations you look at is kind of different from the others. You talk to people who were military drone operators or who analyzed intelligence from drones. Now, they're involved, you say, in what can be called remote killing. First of all, where do these people do this? What are their shifts like?

PRESS: So they do this at places like the Creech Air Force Base. And again, to go back to the theme of not easy places for the public to access, you know, the drone program is swathed in secrecy and takes place on military bases in our country, but accessed only by those who work inside.

DAVIES: You write about a guy named Christopher Aaron who had done this work. Tell us a little bit about it.

PRESS: Yeah, Chris Aaron, who's one of the former drone operators I write about at length - you know, he was someone who, after 9/11, felt a streak of idealism, kind of derived from his grandfather, who had served in World War II. He said, you know, I want to go serve my country. He ends up, very early on, helping out and working on the drone program. And in the beginning, he doesn't feel very conflicted about what he's doing. What he remembered and what he described was this sort of exhilaration in a sense of, you know, oh, we got a high target - you know, high-five. There's just this sense that we're getting the bad guys.

And then after a couple of sort of - they're not really tours, but I would say just serving in the drone program and doing a couple of stints, Chris is sort of mulling a career of doing this. And he starts to have a physical breakdown. And this is - you know, he's a very fit guy, never - you know, was a wrestler in high school. And he starts to develop skin welts and feel sick and just feel weak. He can't get out of bed. That leads into a kind of set of emotional problems that are equally intense. He becomes depressed, lifeless. And he was this, you know, incredibly, you know, strikingly vigorous person. And it's at this point as he's sort of going through all of this that he's realizing he's starting to question what he's doing.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. I'm going to reintroduce you. We're speaking with Eyal Press. He writes for The New Yorker and other publications. His new book is "Dirty Work: Essential Jobs And The Hidden Toll Of Inequality In America." We'll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE'S "WEARY (INSTRUMENTAL)")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with journalist and author Eyal Press. He writes for The New Yorker and other publications. His new book is "Dirty Work: Essential Jobs And The Hidden Toll Of Inequality In America."

So help us understand, either through Chris Aaron's experiences or others - I mean, these guys sit at these terminals, and then sometimes they're analyzing visual images. In some cases, they're actually piloting drones. But what sorts of images do they see? What do they see about the impact of military strikes that can be troubling?

PRESS: What we're learning is that intelligence analysts and officers who are involved and sitting at - in what are called remote combat operations are actually seeing graphic violence, homes destroyed, villages bombed, bodies burned more than even, you know, special forces on the ground. You know, I think in the beginning, there was this sort of assumption that folks in those situations, because they're sitting at a desk and they're distant and - that this is like playing a video game. And what's the big deal, right? It would foster what one person called a PlayStation mentality to killing, which is its own concern and indeed was the concern among critics of drones.

But what the military is finding - and in part because of the burnout rates and the sort of surveys and studies that I cite in the book - is that a lot of folks are experiencing grief and sadness and what are called negative disruptive emotions really intensely. And to get back to Chris, you know, he was really overwhelmed by those feelings. And he started wondering, you know, wait a minute, were those high-fives - am I sure we got the bad guys in those strikes? And I should say that those questions arose very specifically after he was in Afghanistan and felt like not only was the war not going the way he'd been told, things were getting worse on the ground, and we're talking in a week when Afghanistan is obviously very much in the news.

And you know, one of the things I talk about in the book is moral injury. And Jonathan Shay, the psychologist who coined the term, says that moral injury begins with betrayal, that the people who do the killing and the fighting and the sacrificing feel betrayed by the society and the commanders who told them, your mission is this. And then they start to question that and wonder.

DAVIES: You mentioned Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Is that the one where there are 900 drone pilots and sensor and analysts?

PRESS: That's right. That's right. And when I visited Creech, you know, one of the things that struck me is that although, as a society, you often hear kind of flippant, you know, yeah, it's the PlayStation mentality, that's not the approach there at all. And in fact, you know, the team of sort of therapists and psychologists that I spoke to at Creech were very frank about the fact that this is, in its own way, a stressful and difficult and morally difficult kind of combat because the people doing it - one former Marine in particular struck me when he said, you know, when you're on the ground, there's esprit de corps. You know, you're with - you're fighting for your fellow soldiers, and you feel that camaraderie.

Here, the operators are getting in their cars afterwards and driving home, often alone, to a society that has kind of forgotten that we are fighting these wars. You know, so they get text messages - you know, pick up the milk on the way home, or pick up someone from soccer practice. That's an incredibly jarring difference. And it speaks to how, you know, disengaged as a society we've become from the wars that are fought in our name. But I think that for people at places like Creech, it's particularly intense.

DAVIES: And it's just so odd that someone who does this work - I mean, it's secret. I mean, people who are uniformed servicemen and women, when we see them, regardless of how we might feel about the particular war or conflict they're involved in, we respect their service. And that's sort of generally acknowledged in society. I mean, in the case of drone war, I mean, it's essentially unacknowledged by the government a lot of the time. You know, the victims, you know, are never publicized. And so they really have to carry this around themselves sort of anonymously.

PRESS: Yeah, I think the anonymous part of it is a big piece of what could make it difficult. I think there's another piece. You know, people who serve in combat missions on the ground, there's a valor to that. That's the traditional heroic narrative we tell about war - people risking and sacrificing, facing the enemy. What happens when you kill but you're not facing those risks and danger? And I don't think it's an accident that when the military tried to introduce a kind of valor medal for drone operators, some within the military mocked it as a kind of Nintendo medal, which, you know, suggests, you know, hey, why should we give a medal to people who haven't even done this kind of - you know, haven't put their lives on the line?

And yet as a society, we have come to fight a lot of - you know, to do a lot of this drone warfare because we don't want the sacrifice, right? We don't want more casualties piling up in these what have become very unpopular wars. So to get back to that thing of you're doing exactly what society has asked you to do, for the drone operators, you know, distance killing without risk to our side, zero risk to our side at least in terms of getting shelled in return, that seem - that's exactly what they're being asked to do. That seemed like a good thing. But, you know, if it's stripped of valor and it's anonymous and you have to live with the uncertainty of what it's all doing, it can be, I think, extremely stressful and troubling.

DAVIES: You know, you describe a remarkable service that you witnessed at a VA medical center in Philadelphia involving, you know, a former combatant. Can you just share this with us?

PRESS: Sure. So I went down to the VA medical center and one evening, attended this amazing ceremony - it took place in a chapel inside the VA medical center - where veterans who have experienced moral injury and who have fought in America's recent wars came forward to talk about their experiences. But they didn't just come forward to talk among themselves, they each had invited members of the community to listen. And so in the particular ceremony I attended, there was a veteran named Andy (ph) who spoke. And he began by talking about how he went into the military to protect the defenseless. He had kind of grown up in a violent home.

And he's in Iraq one night in the Sunni Triangle, and there's a burst of gunfire from a window. He calls in - he calls air, which means delivering the strike. And the strike is delivered. And when the smoke clears, he sees the bodies of civilians. There's no target inside. There are men, women and children. And I believe there were 36 in all. So the ceremony could have ended there. And it would have been haunting and powerful just on its own. But there was a next step. And the next step was the folks in the audience came forward. And they formed a circle around the veterans who had just spoken, including Andy, who's sobbing as he tells us what he's seen. And they link arms. And they say in unison, we sent you into harm's way. We put you into situations where atrocities were possible. We share responsibility with you for all that you have seen, for all that you have done, for all that you have failed to do.

DAVIES: That's powerful. Do you know whether - how Andy or the other ex-combatants felt about it? Did it make a difference?

PRESS: I think that it did make a difference. In fact, I was recently in touch with the minister who runs that program at the VA Medical Center. And he told me Andy's doing well. And, you know, I have no firsthand knowledge of that. But if it is indeed the case, it tells you something about what the difference is between keeping all of this dirty work hidden and having the people who do it sort through it on their own and the opposite approach, which is to communalize is it - in a sense, to all take responsibility for it and look it in the face and say, OK, this is what is being done in our name.

DAVIES: You know, I'm wondering how the COVID pandemic, which has, I think, for a lot of us, made us more aware of how we rely on certain people to come to their jobs at a time when there may be risk, how that's affected this, affected your thinking about this, affected our awareness of people doing dirty work.

PRESS: I think that we're halfway there. I think the pandemic has definitely made all of us aware of how much we depend - when I say we, I mean anyone who's been sheltering in place or getting groceries delivered to their door - of what, you know, the delivery drivers do and the grocery clerks and the people who had to go to work at the height of the pandemic, risking their safety and their physical safety. Where I don't think we've gotten a similar awareness - and this is why I wrote the book - is in terms of the moral division of labor, how we also have an even more hidden class of workers who do these morally troubling things that are pretty central to our society.

You know, you talked about - I talked about slaughterhouses and, you know, pumping oil into the gas tank. There's also the gadgets in our hands, where - there's a chapter in the book called "Dirty Tech" where I go into, you know, some of the morally compromising things that happen to make - to put cobalt into ion batteries that charge these devices. I don't think we have a similar awareness of that. But I do think that this is a moment where we're all thinking about how workers who are hidden and who pay the price, both physically and emotionally and in other ways, how we depend on them.

DAVIES: Well, Eyal Press, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PRESS: Thank you so much for having me on the program.

DAVIES: Eyal Press writes for The New Yorker and other publications and is the author of two previous books. His new book is "Dirty Work: Essential Jobs And The Hidden Toll Of Inequality In America." Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Laura Lippman's new thriller, which deals with the issue of literary theft. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATTI SMITH SONG, "WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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