The Strategy of Counter-Zombie Warfare
I confess to being a latecomer to the World War Z craze—and indeed to the zombie craze, full stop. The Walking Dead, Professor Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies, and now World War Z itself have put to rights this woeful shortfall in my literacy. Rather than read Max Brooks’s book, I listened to it while meandering up and down the Narragansett Bay enroute to and from work. Lucky guess at the medium: it’s doubtless good in print, but the recorded version is more old-style radio show than audiobook. Think War of the Worlds minus the creepy sound effects.
Indeed, Brooks accomplished the previously unthinkable: he drove Imus in the Morning off my car radio for the duration of the audiobook. The conceit behind Brooks’s post-apocalyptic yarn is that a UN official is publishing his after-action interviews with protagonists in the zombie maelstrom. People you’ve heard of—Alan Alda, Jürgen Prochnow—play the parts of these eyewitnesses, delivering personal accounts of how humanity rides out a plague of ghouls, gets its act together to prosecute a new and macabre mode of warfare, and goes on to eventual victory. The chronicle alights in China, Cuba, Israel, North America, and many other quarters along the way. No region escapes this undead pandemic.
Like all good science fiction, World War Z is about people and societies, not space battles, or gee-whiz special effects, or even zombies. Those things provide spectacle, but they’re basically just plot devices. Which is why classic sci-fi epics remain compelling despite their rudimentary special effects. If the characters are wooden, on the other hand, who really cares whether they win or lose yet another battle brought to you courtesy of CGI wizardry? Not I. What such devices do is let writers or filmmakers deposit human beings in strange settings or historical epochs, plunging them into a galaxy far, far away, or the age of Crom; impose stresses on them; and explore how they navigate—or fail to navigate—topsy-turvy surroundings.
By setting this twilight struggle in the near future, Brooks creates a mechanism for commenting on our society, and in particular on its pitfalls. And indeed, he has fascinating things to say about contemporary warmaking implements, methods, and strategy—which is probably why he’s popular at military colleges.
High-tech armaments are out for this struggle. Low-tech weapons for delivering head shots against zombies en masse are in. For instance, Brooks has a U.S. Air Force fighter jock lament seeing her F-22 Raptor rendered useless for the counter-zombie fight. Stealth is meaningless in this brave new world, precision-guided arms nearly so. The U.S. Army jettisons most of its armored vehicles, recruits infantrymen in large numbers, and reinvents itself as a force of citizen groundpounders.
But the counter-zombie campaign also illustrates certain timeless themes about martial strategy. For example, the strategic canon exhorts commanders and statesmen to know themselves and the foe, the terrain where the conflict will unfurl, and the nature of the war. These are essential prerequisites to victory.
Easier said than done. Brooks has a former supreme allied commander in Europe relate how resilient a foe the undead proved. That’s counterintuitive. After all, taking down individual zombies is no big deal. They have no meaningful combat capacity, just a lethal bite should they close to knife-fight range. But what about millions upon millions of them shambling around cities and the countryside? That’s another matter. Quantity may not win wars by itself, but it does have a quality all its own. It can convert what looks like a mismatch into a damned close-run thing.
That’s doubly true since, as Brooks’s army commander points out, this is an enemy waging truly unlimited, total war. Unlimited aims mean throwing down an opponent, putting your boot on his neck, and dictating whatever terms you please. Zombies exist only to kill—and thus take the logic of unlimited ends to its extreme. Total war refers to using every means at your disposal to win. Unlike human soldiers—who have to eat, rest, and sleep, and do other things other than pursue the enemy—zombies wage war 24/7/365. Nor do they have politics to impose restraint on their war effort, modulating its impact while making a negotiated settlement thinkable.
And, unlike the living, the undead have no concept of defeat. No action of yours can break their fighting spirit. The only way to beat them is to slaughter them to the last ghoul—probably through a frontal assault. In Clausewitzian parlance, there’s zero chance that a zombie host will turn out to be a “bologna flask” that shatters from within, capitulating once struck a sharp blow. (A bologna is a glass instrument that’s rock-hard on the outside yet extraordinarily fragile on the inside. A combatant that resembles a bologna flask suffers from such internal maladies as tepid popular morale, feuding over war aims or strategy, or civil-military backbiting.) An army incapable of doubt or indecision is remorseless to the nth degree.
And consider the operational difficulties combating an undead offensive entails. Zombies have no supply lines to cut by maneuvering around their flanks. They need no food, ammunition, or other war materiel. A zombie army’s “tooth-to-tail ratio” is 1.0. It’s all tooth—a.k.a. fighting strength—and no administrative and logistical tail. It has no command-and-control arrangements to disrupt, no commanders to fool, capture, or kill, no strategy to balk or alliances to break, no cowardly troops to dishearten, scare off, or co-opt. Small wonder it takes humanity awhile—and frightful losses—to get counter-zombie strategy, operations, and tactics right.
The rise of the undead is nigh. You have been warned. Prepare now!