The Civilizational Significance of Zombies

Worst-Case Prep
But World War Z offers something that antique apocalyptic lit did not: real strategic analysis. The heart of the novel is a virtual primer on net assessment: identifying the actual reality in the midst of hopes and fears. How do you assess something unthinkable? The real race in the story is not about defeating zombies, it is the race to adapt--to see reality as it really is.

At its most passionate, World War Z indicts the atrophy into which U.S. strategic thinking has fallen. Not having won a war since 1945, staggering from one failed enterprise after another, the fabled American war machine has nevertheless continued boasting through the decades. Brooks takes on the mindset responsible for this tortuous state of denial.

Deliciously, he does so through the vehicle of zombies, in a way George Romero never attempted once in the 40 years of his Living Dead franchise.

battle of yonkers 650.jpg
A fan illustration of the "Battle of Yonkers." (Daniel LuVisi)

So when the U.S. military tries to stop the undead onslaught at the end of the "great panic," it chooses to fight the war it likes, and make the enemy fight the way we like. The result is the extravagant debacle called the "Battle of Yonkers," where the American Way of War is crushed in open battle:

Perfect name, "Shock and Awe"! But What if the enemy can't be shocked and awed? Not just won't, but biologically can't! That's what happened that day outside New York City, that's the failure that almost lost us the whole damn war. Yonkers was supposed to be the day we restored confidence to the American people, instead we practically told them to kiss their ass goodbye.

After 9/11, our state fought the war it desired, and has since refused to face how and what it has lost. Brooks shows us how this leads to the near-extinction of humanity. His moral: Just because we choose a war, fight it the way we want, lose it, and then move on like nothing happened, does not mean that such strategic narcissism will not, someday, have terrible consequences.

The zombie virus makes us fight the war they want, and critical time is lost while we struggle to make the necessary recognition. Only the prospect of extinction opens our eyes.

What better way to get our attention? Nothing clears the mind better than fighting on Sun Tzu's "death ground." And we have been there, at Pinnacle Point, during the Black Death, and in World War II. We don't need zombies to tell us this, but zombies are there to remind us when nothing else can.

Destiny's Choice
For we "exceptional" Americans, Brooks offers a final literary service, like Tolstoy to his Russia: The gift of prospective national renewal. World War Z shows us nothing less than how a corrupted nation can find itself again and redeem humanity.

Like Tolstoy, the main purpose of World War Z is the celebration and reinforcement of collective meaning and belief. Tolstoy was building a narrative of Russian identity that would transcend the venality and ruling impoverishments of his time. He hoped it would show the way to something true and beautiful for all Russians.

Max Brooks does this for us in World War Z, offering a believable path to reclaiming ourselves. For Americans this path has always been about sacrifice and the rediscovery of civic virtue. At novel's end, those remaining Americans, whose way of life is now back to something like 1920, are yet better Americans for their privation and sacrifice.

But most important, the Americans in World War Z have cast off their former narcissism, today's it's-all-about-me mentality. The faux elective wars and their remorseless cheerleading too are over.

But how do we get there? Here Brooks reminds us that there is no escaping American altruism. Yes, nations have interests, and we can boast endlessly about being the world's last best hope. But in the end we have to really come through. America saves the world. Period. If America does not--if someday it cannot--then there will be no salvation. Truth is seldom so stark as to offer only one path:

The lies of the past were gone now and the truth was everywhere, shambling down their streets, crashing through their doors, clawing at their throats ... The truth was that we were standing at what might be the twilight of our species ...

At the decisive moment there is a United Nations conference in Honolulu, aboard the hulk of the old carrier U.S.S. Saratoga. The president of the United States rises to offer humanity its mission, and its necessary future:

The living dead had taken more from us than land and loved ones. They'd robbed us of our confidence as the planet's dominant life-form. We were a shaken, broken species, driven to the edge of extinction ... Was this the legacy we would leave to our children? What kind of world would they rebuild? Would they rebuild at all? And what if that future saw another rise of the living dead? Would our descendents rise to meet them in battle, or simply crumple in meek surrender and accept what they believe to be their inevitable extinction? For this reason alone, we had to reclaim our planet. We had prove to ourselves that we could do it, and leave that proof as this war's greatest monument.

When the final vote is taken, and when "for us, our countries, our children the choice had been made: attack"--we see clearly not only the narrative Americans yearn for, but also the nation we need to be.

Presented by

Michael Vlahos is a professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins' Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Counterterrorism, American Exceptionalism, and Retributive Justice.

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