World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
New York: Broadway, 2006
The dead walk. Civilization has collapsed. Casualties are in the billions. Humanity stands upon the brink of extinction. And upon the lips of the anguished survivors there is only one question — is it good for the Jews?
Mel Brooks’ son Max’s novel World War Z is an attempt to assimilate the growing genre of zombie apocalypse fiction into the approved liberal worldview. To a typical Huffington Post reading hipster, this is a welcome development. Post-apocalyptic fiction of whatever form can be disconcertingly subversive to the Zeitgeist. Survivalist or militia books like John Wesley Rawles’ Patriots or Founders assume that once the system collapses most people will actually be better off and reclaim their dignity as free men and women rather than consumerist cogs within the Leviathan. The subgenre of white nationalist fiction including The Turner Diaries or Harold Covington’s Northwest Quintet feature an entire race rising to physically slaughter their enemies, through the use of arms becoming something greater than the degraded post-Americans of today.
Even the fantastic crises from the realm of science fiction serve as the training wheels for the apocalypse, allowing good progressives who wouldn’t be caught dead at a gun show fantasizing about the virtues of righteous genocide. Zombies are dangerous to conventional norms because they allow citizens to celebrate slaughtering their fellow countrymen with shotgun, sword, and scythe, albeit only after they are already dead. After another day of sitting around the office staring at a screen and biting your tongue because of political correctness, what white man wouldn’t fantasize about being permitted to slaughter scores of dull-eyed Untermenschen – and be congratulated for doing it!
Well, we can’t have that.
Whereas Brooks’ previous Zombie Survival Guide was a humorous take for hypothetical survivalists preparing for the undead rising, World War Z gets political. The book is framed as a fictional history, a collection of personal stories from the great war against the undead ten years before. Whereas most-post apocalyptic fiction features redemption for the gun nuts and anti-government militants who are proven right all along, World War Z flips the script. The world is warned by Israeli Jews ignored by anti-Semites, saved by anti-racist South Africans, and rebuilt by incorruptible and efficient neo-New Dealers led by a heroic black President. The villains, other than the living dead, are the individualist American gun nuts who get in the way and the evil conservatives and capitalists who screwed everything up.
World War Z is framed as a series of interviews divided into eight sections – “Warnings, Blame, The Great Panic, Turning the Tide, Home Front USA, Around the World, and Above, Total War, Goodbyes.” This narrative device allows Brooks to develop a series of characters at a different times during the crisis, including his American heroes and villains and the merry collection of ethnic stereotypes that cavort across the stage as foreigners.
The crisis begins under mysterious circumstances in China. It’s spread by the black market in organ transplants from Asia and the bungling of the Chinese government. Red China covers up the crisis by manufacturing a dispute over Taiwan, completely faking out American intelligence agencies (though not the much smarter Israelis). Desperate refugees who don’t understand what is happening to their loved ones flee to the “rich white countries” with the help of amoral smugglers (16). Mostly settling in low income areas, outbreaks slowly fester in the ghettos of the West until breaking out in The Great Panic.
The author’s take on why the American government dropped the ball is revealing. Most stories in the “zombie apocalypse” genre posit that the government will simply fall apart in the face of the living dead, with one of the most powerful portrayals of the slow motion collapse presented in the opening scenes of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Others say the government itself is behind it.Brooks has a bit more faith in the possibilities of government, but still has to explain the failure. His explanation is simple, and perhaps justifiable from the point of view of the publication date of 2006 – it’s George W. Bush’s fault.
According to the fictional CIA director, the Central Intelligence Agency is gutted by the “purges” following the last “brushfire war,” an obvious reference to Iraq. “We were ordered to justify a political agenda,” the director explains, and took the blame when it fell apart. In contrast, Israeli intelligence manages to get the bottom of the crisis, along with a rogue CIA agent. Together, they write the Warmbrunn-Knight report, which would have solved the crisis entirely. Of course, America ignores it. Why? Anti-Semitism.
The thinly veiled former Republican chief of staff is named Grover Carlson and he is introduced to us shoveling cow dung. He contemptuously refers to the report as “Knight-WarnJews,” reflecting the fierce hatred of Zionists we all remember from the George W. Bush Administration. He also compares it to the rantings of “paranoid crackpot[s]” of the sort that also believe in “global warming” (59). Mr. Carlson goes on to describe why certain outbreaks (which other witnesses say took place in poor areas) were neglected, because you “focus on the needs of your base.” This way, you don’t have to “explain to Suburban Peter why they’re fleecing him for Ghetto Paul” (61).
The cynical chief of staff gloats that the corporate media covered up the outbreaks for them, and that the only people who listen to “alternative media outlets” are “some PBS-NPR fringe minority that’s out of touch with the mainstream. The more those elitist eggheads shouted ‘The Dead Are Walking,’ the more most real Americans tuned them out.” The only thing the Administration does do besides a token military effort is fast track a phony cure for infection, “Phalanx,” which allows a nefarious corporate overlord to profiteer off the crisis before running off (62). Thus, the “Great Panic” begins in America and around the world. If only the peasants would listen to the hosts on NPR!
Brooks does get some telling shots in at media-driven celebrity obsessed post-American culture, such as it is. One woman, “Mary Jo Miller,” admits ruefully that it “was a lot more fun to rehash last night’s episode of Celebrity Fat Camp” than seek out news about the emerging threat (65). She used the Internet for shopping and her husband, the protector, used it for “stuff he kept swearing he’d never look at again” (65), She only wakes up to the threat when it bursts through her door. American military incompetence is satirized in the Battle of Yonkers, where a survivor describes how the high-tech American way of war collapsed in the face of an undead onslaught because the higher ups focused more on public relations than on logistics and supply. Another story features a wealthy businessman who builds a reality show around his celebrity friends “surviving” in his massively fortified bunker. Brooks wryly describes the characters without giving names but it’s easy enough to figure out who he’s referring to. There’s the “rich, spoiled, tired-looking whore who was famous for just being a rich, spoiled, tired looking whore” to the “political comedy guy . . . the one with the show” and finally, the “leathery blonde” who is “supposed to be his political enemy” that he ruts with in extremis when the desperate masses raid the compound.
While this typically American mindset can’t really be denied, it’s worth noting the Brooks must also feature the enlightened non-white who gets it before everyone else, wisely relocating to Alaska before the crisis hits. Miller moans, “I thought that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, especially from someone like Inez. She wasn’t one of the ignorant ones, she was a ‘clean’ Mexican. I’m sorry to use that term, but that was how I thought back then, that was who I was” (65). Brooks also describes how outbreaks began in other nations around the world, notably in one poor South African neighborhood. A ghetto resident describing his poor neighborhood bemoans that it’s slogan might as well have been “one man, one bullet” – with Brooks indecently neglecting to mention that his source can only be the real life South African ANC slogan “one Boer, one bullet” (29). Still, numinous Mexicans and Negroes notwithstanding, America and other nations around the world plunge into anarchy, with vast hordes of people desperately migrating to unknown destinations or even into the sea.
In contrast, Israel saves the day, though not without cost. The country seals its borders and bulls back behind its security fence (or “apartheid wall” to the anti-Israel left) but also allows the right of return for Palestinians. Though most Arabs consider the entire thing a Jewish plot, one Arab narrator is unwillingly dragged to the Zionist entity by his father, only to discover that they were right. However, Israel encounters opposition from “its own religious Right,” who are furious the government has abandoned settlements and even East Jerusalem in order to create a defensible frontier. The Israeli Civil War erupts when ultra-Orthodox and religious Jews try to overthrow the government, but are defeated because most of them do not serve in the IDF. Thus, modern secular Jews in Israel and on NPR are the only people who put everything together.
The only thing which saves the non-Jewish world is a plan by an Afrikaner named Paul Redeker that calls for the deliberate sacrifice of certain civilian populations to be used as lures for the zombie hordes, while the government pulls back to defensible boundaries. One Xolelwa Azania tells us about Redeker, a man seemingly devoid of sentiment or emotion who had been commissioned by the old apartheid South African government to create a strategy for an all-out black uprising. The resulting scheme was brilliant but horrifying, and required the deliberate sacrifice of parts of the white population to draw away black guerillas from a designated safe zone. Redeker simply adapts his old plan to the new situation when the zombies rise. It’s worth noting that while it is obviously unmentioned, the lifesaving role of Israel’s security fence and the Afrikaner Redeker Plan both put nonwhites in the role of the zombie hordes.
Another intricately described but unnamed notable makes an appearance at the critical meeting where South Africa adopts the plan. The black government is understandably upset at the idea of utilizing an “apartheid war criminal” but they are convinced by “the elder statesman, father of our new democracy . . . with that warm squint so famous the world over” (110). Mandela embraces the white Afrikaner to signify that they must use the plan to save the country. We are told that Redeker was actually “a deeply sensitive man, too sensitive . . . for life in South Africa . . . the hatred and brutality he witnessed on a daily basis” (110). Thus, when he is given a hug, “the embrace by our nation’s father, this genuine emotion piercing his impenetrable shell,” he cracks. It’s revealed that the interviewer is actually speaking to Redeker, who apparently suffers from dual personality disorder and became Xolelwa Azania when Mandela hugged him. Thus, just as South Africa became redefined from a white settler state into a black state founded by liberation from racism, the fight against the zombies will not be Western militaries crushing the undead but a “Rainbow Fist.”
The American safe zone is consolidated behind the Rockies. It is led by a black President who is said to have relatives from Jamaica, suggesting strongly it is Colin Powell. His vice-President of a different party is “The Whacko,” a politician who is supposed to have self-destructed after a passionate speech (Howard Dean). The book having been written in ’06, Bizarro Dean recognizes he was not the most popular politician in his party (an obvious reference to Obama), but the “stupid, ignorant, and infuriatingly Neolithic Americans” couldn’t handle a President and Vice-President who are both “those people” (147). (I pause to note the Vice-President is voiced by Rob Reiner in the audiobook.)
The government behind the safe zone manages the economy through the Department of Strategic Resources (DeStRes) headed by one Arthur Sinclair, Jr., the “picture of an old world patrician” with an “affected Harvard accent” (137). He describes how he imitated his father, “a staunch New Dealer” who “used methods that were almost Marxist in nature, the kind of collectivization that would make Ayn Rand leap from her grave and join the ranks of the living dead” (138). He joyfully recounts how the government retrains the (white) corporate professionals to be janitors or plumbers under the tutelage of more useful people like “Mrs. Magda Antonova” (140). Together, the alliance of WASP technocrats from Harvard, black political leaders, and non-white blue collar workers drag the useless American whites to victory.
To be fair, there is some valid and even valuable criticism of the American way of life here. Sinclair describes the prewar economic segregation of American life, an entire economy dependent on cheap labor, cheap energy, and the inability or refusal of wealthy Americans to do manual labor. One bright side to the new America is a more localized economy, where people actually see the output of their labor, from making shoes, growing corn, or keeping their neighbors warm by being a chimney sweep. The result is a more organic culture with a greater supply of social capital.
Of course, in the real world, it is precisely the political and economic American elite, those from Harvard, NPR, and all the rest, who have systematically eliminated such an America from being built by fanatically pursuing mass immigration, outsourcing jobs, and mandating official multiculturalism. Thus, we get portraits like World War Z where the shallowness and consumerism of (white) American life is criticized, but the cure offered (more tolerance, diversity, and obedience to our rulers) is the same thing that caused the disease. It’s a fictional presentation of the old tactic of the multicultural Left serving as both the system and its opposition.
Around the world, the reaction to the outbreak and the emerging grand strategy fits with certain national stereotypes. In India, we’re presented with the story of the heroic General Raj-Singh, the “Lion of Delhi,” who reinvents the reinforced square as a tactic for fighting ghouls and later sacrifices his life to blow up a bridge to a secure a retreat. In Japan, the population evacuates, leaving a blind hibakusha (atomic bombing survivor) and former Internet shut-in as two of the only people left. They war on the living dead using nonlethal techniques, and after the war their “Shield Society” becomes part of the Japanese Self Defense Forces. Though the old man dispatches zombies with a shout of “Ten Thousand Years!,” there’s no evidence that he pulls a Yukio Mishima and tries to use his relationship with the JSDF to launch a coup.
North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom, remains a mystery even at the time of the book, as all the people have vanished, presumably underground. It’s unknown whether they are still laboring on war projects or whether something horrible has gone wrong. China is almost destroyed by the incompetence of its leadership, as the Three Gorges Dam collapses and only a military rebellion against the Politburo starves off complete disaster. Pakistan and Iran suffer even worse fates, as disputes over refugees and border clashes escalate into an unexpected catastrophic nuclear exchange that affects the climate of the whole world. We’ll just note in passing that in Brooks’s world, while Israel emerges intact, the Islamic Republic is presumably destroyed.
Brooks posits that Cuba becomes the real “victor” of the Zombie War, as the high ratio of doctors, strategic location, and authoritarian government allow the island to discover and contain the virus quickly. American refugees and wartime spending in the safe haven create a booming middle class overnight, and a wiry Fidel Castro (again described but unnamed) actually sponsors and takes credit for the transition to democracy in the new Caribbean superpower. In contrast, Argentina is seemingly totally consumed, as several characters make reference to the tragic “last broadcast from Buenos Aires.” Interestingly, Mexico becomes “Aztlan,” showing how far what the Southern Poverty Law Center still furiously insists is just a “conspiracy theory” has penetrated pop culture, though an American soldier’s references to the “clean and sweep operations in LA” and the government’s hard line on secession suggest postwar America still extends from sea to shining sea. Nonetheless, we await Max Brooks’s listing on “Hatewatch” any day for giving credence to extremists.
One Chilean recounting a meeting of the new United Nations (much reduced, as might be expected) says in passing that many of the colder countries, where the zombies would last longer unless humans went on the offensive to eliminate them, were from “what you used to call the ‘First World.’” This is similar to the phenomenon noted with the Day After Tomorrow, when liberal audiences ecstatically applauded scenes of Americans fleeing cross the Rio Grande into Mexico and a Cheney-like Vice President prostrating before “what we used to call the Third World.” The Chilean delegate rejects the idea that the zombie invasion is good because it humbled the West, suggesting that human unity is what is needed. Nonetheless, with Cuba the new superpower, America humbled, South Africa and Israel the world saving heroes, and the most populous city in the world now in (independent) Tibet, World War Z shares with 2012 the motif that disaster would be a necessary readjustment of Western power, forcing subservience on arrogant whites.
The reaction of Western countries is different, a medium between the triumph of Cuba and the catastrophe of China and North Korea. In Germany, heroism takes a more modern, post-Western form when a soldier (ignorant of the general strategy at the time) almost refuses to obey orders to abandon civilians because “I am a good soldier, but I am also a West German . . . in the East, they were told they were not responsible for the atrocities of the Second World War . . . they did not feel the responsibility of the past, not like we did in the West. We were taught since birth to bear the burden of our grandfathers’ shame” (113). He prepares to shoot his commanding officer, only to find the man has already committed suicide.
In Britain, the Queen stays in Windsor “for the duration,” and uses her castle to shelter refugees, thus fulfilling her role as “forever an example to the rest of us, the strongest, and bravest, and absolute best of us. In a sense, it is they who are ruled by us, instead of the other way around, and they must sacrifice everything, everything, to shoulder the weight of this godlike burden” (194). Monarchy is justified, but only as long as it serves democracy’s ends. France, as might be expected, pursues la gloire with an utterly unnecessary and gruesome, but heroic, battle in the catacombs of Paris. Iceland is utterly overrun with refugees and infected, still a “white zone” occupied by zombie hordes at the writing of the book.
Russia is by far the most interesting. Their military breaks early in the war, but order is restored by “the Decimation.” Russian officers and special forces tell mutinous troops that as they are spoiled children who want to practice democracy, they will choose and kill 1/10th of their own number as punishment. As the war goes on, an Orthodox priest eventually begins accepting the burden of executing those in uniform who become infected, relieving soldiers of the sin of murder or suicide. The result is a religious revival which Brooks suggests is cynically manipulated by the head of the state, who also becomes the head of the Church. By the end of the war, Russia has become the Holy Russian Empire and even after suffering horrific casualties, is looking to extend its rule west. One Russian woman, under state detention but still fiercely nationalist and about to bear her eighth child “for the motherland,” defiantly proclaims Russians feel warm “in the protective fist of a Caesar, and I’m sure you know the word for Caesar in Russian” (331). The take on Russia in World War Z is only slightly less fanciful than what you what get from a typical editorial in Commentary.
The American experience is the most revealing. The Powell president is portrayed as a Lincoln-like figure, a “great man” slowly worn down by the challenges of governance. His top priority is preventing the country from splintering apart, especially from “Rebs.” He says, “They must be eliminated swiftly, decisively, and by any means necessary” (150). The faux Dean explains the administration’s use of the death penalty “only in extreme cases: sedition, sabotage, attempted political secession. Zombies weren’t the only enemies” (149). Separatists were “the enemies of our country” (149).
Even those outside the safe zone, who were “really and truly abandoned” by the government, were only offered “a chance for peaceful reintegration,” suggesting that some didn’t want it and were essentially conquered as the Army marched east (151). Some leaders of isolated zones that managed to survive are even put on trial for using “questionable tactics.” The military commander, Travis D’Ambrosia, is a soft-spoken technocrat, not a warrior, one who can’t keep eye contact with the interviewer and mocks the warrior mentality of a Patton. This is the military hero for the modern world.
Similarly, the American soldier (one Todd Wainio) interviewed saves his scorn for the LaMOE’s (Last Man on Earth), the people who managed to survive the living dead but who didn’t want to be reabsorbed back by the country that abandoned them. He notes that the United States had the highest rate of them, a product of our individualistic nature. Wainio saves his admiration for one of his comrades accidentally killed by one of the booby traps left behind by fleeing Americans.
He was born in El Salvador but grew up in Cali. You ever heard of the Boyle Heights Boyz? They were these hard core-core LA bangers who were deported back to El Salvador because they were technically illegal. My buddy was plopped there right before the war. He fought his way back up through Mexico, all during the worst days of the Panic, all on foot with nothing but a machete. He didn’t have any family left, no friends, just his adopted home. He loved this country so much. Reminded me of my grandpa, you know the whole immigrant thing. And then to catch a twelve-gauge in the face, probably set by a LaMOE who’d stopped breathing years before (324).
One can’t ask for a better portrayal of the progressive mindset. Let’s read what is actually being said here – we’re presented with a “banger” with a heart of gold who is tougher and better than most Americans. He’s unjustly deported because he’s “technically” illegal, the gang membership not even worth mentioning. He hearkens back to the immigrant roots of other Americans, and actually has a greater moral claim to this country than those who are here. Unfortunately, he’s unjustly killed by some paranoid survivalist he never met, probably one of those annoying gun nuts causing all the problems with the government’s program to reconquer the people they abandoned.
In the end, America is reconquered, with New York City being renamed the Hero City. Zombies are a fact of life, still roaming random Pacific islands, the ocean floor, and some far northern countries, and occasionally popping up in areas thought cleared. However, the danger of extinction has passed. The world is less wealthy, but wiser, and more humble.
But is it? World War Z is a great read despite its bias, and is one of the few examples of the genre that gives the kind of God’s-eye view to the world situation that so many “End of the world” type books ignore in favor of focusing on a small group. It’s refreshing to see a book that incorporates geopolitics, economics, and military strategy, and Max Brooks has even been featured as a lecturer at the Naval War College. However, the underlying message is actually the last thing that we need to hear – there might be some bad people in power, especially Republicans, but in the end, government is the one thing that we all belong to. As can be seen with some of the undercurrents of the gun control debate, modern progressivism has all but abandoned its classical liberal roots and now fully embraces the iron heel.
In the event of catastrophe, what is most probable is not “The Collapse” of fable or the swift imposition of imperial order, but a kind of anarcho-tyranny of the sort that manifested in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. When government recovers, it targets the white, conservative, and law-abiding, never so much as apologizing for allowing the breakdown in the first place. Even in this fanciful tale of zombie uprisings, the bad guys are the ones who want to live outside the System, even after it failed to uphold its end of the social contract. Unfortunately, as anyone who has dealt with the courts know, the social contract is designed to just go one way.
World War Z tries to echo World War II in its rhetoric of shared struggle and society and government working together, but the America of the 1940s was still a real nation. The post-nation of today isn’t capable of such an effort because there’s no longer a united people. At the slightest pressure, the whole thing can turn into a Great Panic that never ends. Zombies are simply a way to advance the story – what the book is really about is creating a shared sense of destiny for the country around a kind of benevolent liberal technocracy, just as in the postwar era. Unfortunately, as with Battle: Los Angeles, World War Z is its own way a hopelessly reactionary work appealing to a common American past that was lost when our elites abolished the common American people and elected a new one.
Instead, what we are left with is an entertaining read, but one that tells us in the end that the government’s real goal is to prevent any of us from breaking away from their system. More horrifying than even the rise of the living dead is someone showing up at the door and saying, “I’m from the government – and I’m here to help.”