On Class and Corruption
By Kerry Candeale

Ruby, South Carolina, Silver City, New Mexico, and Manistee, Michigan form a geographical triangle on the map of the United States. Deep South, southwest, and upper mid west respectively, each town possesses its own micro-environment, Manistee on the shores of lake Michigan, Silver City within site of the tail end of the Rocky Mountains as they trail off into Mexico, and Ruby, a paradise of green for those who live in the single-family homes, the trailers and shacks that are still as ever present part of the rural South. Each of these towns is part of working-class America, a slice of the country that most of my friends and colleagues--most Americans, in fact--don't know or see, as we fly coast to coast, major city to major city. Each of these towns is home to a person, a character in Iraq For Sale. Shane Ratliff in Ruby, Edward Sanchez in Silver City, and Hollie Hulett in Manistee. All of them working-class Americans with a story to tell about war profiteering in Iraq, and the role that class plays in American life.

Ruby is lush, up country and piney woods South Carolina, distant from any major city, with narrow roads that take people from place to place, where the pace of life is as drawn out as the speech patterns of most residents. Stock cars are the only things that seem to run fast around Ruby, and the races are the most powerful draw for self-identified and proud "country folk." To talk stock cars with local residents is to enter into a passionate world of intense connoisseurship, with heroes and villains, intricate details about pit crews and driving strategies, and racing-family blood lines that would have made William Faulkner marvel at the dramatic possibilities.

 
Shane Ratliff with his son
 

Shane Ratliff lives in Ruby with his four children and wife, and has lived there all his life. Ruby is not really a town, but rather one of those mirages where the standard joke about blinking and missing the place applies. Shane was a driver too, but took to the 18 wheeler along America's languorous roads rather than the quick-banked oval. Shane is stocky and ruddy-faced, with a dramatic, crisp flat top that makes you think military, perhaps Marines if the extra pounds were reapportioned a bit. When he spoke to me he always said "yes sir" after a question, a polite and sure way to acknowledge my superior age. When he told his story about driving for Halliburton/KBR in Iraq, the words and sentences were sure and sincere, seductive even, as when he described, in his cautious but open manner, that since driving in Iraq he always kept his left fist clenched, the one where he held his knife at all times while driving. He can't help it. The trauma and fear from those roads had literally taken control of part of his body, a corporeal insult carried home courtesy of KBR and a reckless war.

As with almost all of our principle characters in Iraq For Sale, Shane signed on to go to Iraq mostly "for the money." He's a working class guy, like Edward Sanchez, like Hollie Hulett's husband Steve who was killed in Iraq in a criminally botched convoy run by KBR. And going to Iraq "for the money" means something different for America's working class, whether soldier or contract worker, than it does for corporate executives who make their bulky share from the comfort of enormous homes in the suburbs of Houston or Washington D.C. Shane wanted to "look out for his kids," Steve Hulett to work toward a decent, anxiety-free retirement, Edward Sanchez to just get a "cushion" for, perhaps, a future economic free fall. To be a member of America's working class today is to be constantly aware of "incoming" from all directions at once, a constant and nagging fear of falling as a way of life. The promises made by Halliburton and friends, easy money, tax-free, learn deep things from the bang-bang, probably looked good from the lower half of our nation's social pyramid.

 
Kerry Candeale
 

This is part of the dirty little secret of American life, namely, that we live in a country where class counts, where the politicians who demanded this war, or executives of Halliburton, Caci, Blackwater who are the war's enablers, will never, ever, worry about paying a bill, losing a home, taking care of a family health catastrophe, or have to believe that a much better life is just around the corner, perhaps in the bad bet of a lottery ticket or in another glorious world beyond this one. The wealthy, those with class position and purse, have different concerns than most of us, properly diversifying a stock portfolio perhaps, or what skid to grease to allow for a son or daughter's matriculation at Yale, Harvard, or Princeton. Those who have little patience for such talk about class in America might shrug contemptuously and mutter "free to choose," and point out that these men and women who signed on "for the money" and found that they also went "for the troops," possess free will, an opportunity to say yeah or nay, and that nothing more needs to be said.

But that is a tale half told, and told badly. The military itself is largely a job agency for the poor and working poor in the United States, a place to go when there is no place else to go. Some major corporations like Halliburton, those openly and grotesquely robbing the till in Iraq, have served the same purpose for those working people on the bad side of luck and circumstance; their siren call was sweet, provided one did not open one's eyes or ears and agreed to remain lashed to the mast.

Shane Ratliff opened both. What he saw was shocking at first, but approached the banal by the time his stay ended in Iraq. He saw $80,000 dollar trucks left to rot for lack of an oil filter or spare tire. He saw new commercial heaters and air conditioners, thousands of dollars at a shot, thrown into the "burn pit": "They [Halliburton/KBR] just took a lot of nice reusable stuff and just threw it away is what they done. Wasting government money and property" He saw padding time cards, people paid to play, a usable car buried in the ground. Halliburton in Wonderland. Mad. "That don't make sense either, just to take stuff that costs that much and bury it and do away with it… It don't make sense to me just wasting government money, but that's Halliburton." "But that's Halliburton", a new commercial jingle, that is if there was truth in advertising.

And again, "there's not a value, a dollar amount you can put on your life. And big companies will lie to you. Just like some individuals will lie to you. Anything that sounds too good to be true, usually is."

Shane says he was more compassionate, more loving, before he left for Iraq. I suppose a year in the land of grab, in the culture of greed and grin, with the likes of Halliburton as a model for virtue and good service, would make anyone slightly jaundiced, slightly whacked in one's angle on the world, especially when one is told that crooked lines are really straight, and that the "fog of war" can explain all mistakes and failures.

The rhetoric coming out of the White House that the war, contrary to the common street wisdom, is actually going well is an absolute truism. The war is going well for Halliburton/KBR, for Caci, for Blackwater, for a host of other companies and their CEO's whose salaries are based on quarterly earnings and bullish stocks. The war is going well. But, as his saying goes, "anything that sounds too good to be true, usually is."

Shane Ratliff is now, in Ruby, fighting to win back his good cheer, trying to settle back in with the normal ebb and flow of baseball games, lake swimming, work and just passing time with the time that is left to him. There are some things that are constant in life, some things that are profoundly disruptive. Three strikes and you're out is one of the former. War is of the latter. Then there are some things that are guaranteed to break your heart. To see your own people robbed under the cover of patriotic service- that counts as a heart breaker. To have people see the robbery, report it, and have nothing done about it, that counts as a heart breaker. To have traveled to fifteen states, and heard similar stories as those above, told over and over by people who worked for Caci, Halliburton, Titan, from soldiers who saw, up close, how petty pilfering and grand theft go down, that counts as heart-rending, also.

Bad heartbreaks never heal completely, I don't think, but can only be patched and puttied, and carried on with. But time--history is probably the correct term--can sometimes do good work, that is if people, in unison, push for a redress of wrongs, a recalibrating of justice, fairness. Iraq, to this point, has been for sale. There is no need to let this go on much longer.

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