The Civilizational Significance of Zombies

Independent of its film adaptation, Max Brooks's 2006 novel World War Z is high literature: a case study in what mankind gains when forced to confront annihilation.
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Paramount

When large numbers of the living start dressing up as the undead, they are announcing a true cultural phenomenon. It may seem like a fad, but zombies matter--not just in the sociology of pop culture but in how we collectively orient ourselves toward the future of civilization itself.

Pondering the zombie apocalypse is a form of shared emotional preparation--a collective therapy--for facing bad things to come. It is also, ironically, society's only working pathway to real-world, worst-case strategic analysis. And as Americans, in particular, it is our clearest window into our own dark side--and at the same time, a potential key to national renewal.

The civilizational significance of zombies is there in all cultural treatments, AMC's The Walking Dead being a revelation among them. But only Max Brooks's World War Z elevates zombies to high literature. Yes, high: like Tolstoy's War and Peace, or Graves's I Claudius, or Orwell's 1984. It is a history with the full sweep of a grand narrative directly addressing every one of life's big questions.

World War Z fulfills its literary promise on all three civilizational levels. As collective therapy, it shows how we will find a way to keep hoping, and to celebrate just being alive. As worst-case strategic analysis, it reveals the human future that is coming but we still cannot yet bear to face. As a window into the soul, it offers America two paths: one into darkness and extinction, the other into greatness beyond anything we have yet achieved. Brad Pitt and Hollywood's movie of the novel may not matter in the end, and it may not sing like the book. But it should still try, because zombies do matter.

Collective Therapy
How did we humans manage to get this far? We have been on the rocks several times. Anthropologists call these events bottlenecks. The worst of these came 150,000 years ago at Pinnacle Point in South Africa. There, the last remnants of humanity, a few ragged bands of us, fought off extinction by climate change. We survived, so scientists tell, by learning to eat shellfish.

New thinking tells us that consciousness itself is an evolutionary adaptation, and it is easy to see how being self-aware helped us survive.

But consciousness also can limit what we see. It allows us, even encourages us, to live in denial of the biggest new threats. For ruling establishments especially, the pressure to keep people oblivious can be all the more acute because admitting to big danger directly threatens legitimacy. Regimes only want "threats" that keep the money coming and the people in check.

Hence, at the beginning of World War Z, the big plague is on its way but the U.S. administration is in full, on-message denial. As the thinly veiled Karl Rove tells it:

What, you would rather we told people the truth? That it wasn't a new strain of rabies but a mysterious uber-plague that reanimated the dead? Can you imagine the panic that would have happened: the protest, the riots, the billions in damage to private property? Can you imagine all those wet-pants senators who would have brought the government to a standstill ... can you imagine the damage it would have done to that administration's political capital?

Does this mean consciousness actually works against our ability to prepare for the Big One? No, because there is a safety valve that elites cannot control. It is called literature.

Literature is humankind's vehicle for collectively preparing and readying ourselves for the threat of annihilation. The genre that you could call apocalyptic lit has been with us for a long time. It really took off when civilization began to collapse in the sixth century after Justinian's plague (brought on by climate change).

People turned to literature to frame their response, to seek solace, to organize chaos into meaning. Medical science? Modern management? None of those solutions even existed. But literature did, and offered something more important: a reason to keep going. A reason to live. The Western world survived literally because a single city survived: Constantinople. But the people behind those great walls still had to keep believing.

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.

Jewish, Christian, and Muslim writers all lived through these times, and they tapped into the climate of fear and dread. But their "apocalypses" actually had a different practical utility. As Johannes Fried writes, "such rhetoric is neither hysterical nor the result of panic but rather is a discourse of action, one that urges specific kinds of action ... in response to belief in the imminent end."

Apocalyptic lit helps us conquer fear. And when we are no longer afraid, we can do. So zombie tales tell us what we have to do in the next bottleneck, no matter what form it takes or how bad it is. It is not the message here that counts but the taking onboard of the message--repeatedly--that actually preps us emotionally and intellectually.

World War Z captures the big threat: people give up hope. From those on the ships of Radio Free Earth, keeping the last world network alive, we see how that happens:

When the last broadcast came from Buenos Aires, when that famous Latin singer played that Spanish lullaby, it was too much for one of our operators. He wasn't from Buenos Aires, he wasn't even from South America. He was just an eighteen-year old Russian sailor who blew his brains out all over his instruments. He was the first, and since the end of the war, the rest of the IR operators have followed suit. Not one of them is alive today. The last was my Belgian friend, "You carry those voices with you," he told me one morning.

Here Brooks is like a great Greek or Latin Rhetor whose goal is to teach us how not to fear.

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.

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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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