04 November 2010

"World War Z" by Max Brooks

World War Z-2007
The 2007 Paperback edition. Source
Max Brooks' World War Z is a slick tome composed of transcripts from interviews conducted for the United Nations Postwar Commission. Brooks' work includes the voices of many who were affected by the Zombie War, from soldiers, bureaucrats, health officials, pharmaceutical reps, scientists, all the way down to the everyday Joe that is you and me. With very little interruption from the interviewer, the reader gets to "hear" firsthand accounts of the war from every point of view; hence the book's subtitle, An Oral History of the Zombie War.

And let me just blurt this out: World War Z isn't really about zombies at all. Of course, there are some horrific moments with zombies in them, but the novel doesn't have as many zombie scenes in it as you would expect it to, because the fact of the matter is the book is about humans. Brooks' novel is clearly well-researched and brimming with information that makes it culturally relevant for today (this truly is global social commentary)...but I have to oversimplify this for a moment.

What is a zombie, exactly? A zombie is a corruption of man...a human rendered devoid of humanity. A zombie is a primal, basic example of this. Humans value life; a zombie is without life. Humans value the idea of control; a zombie cannot control itself or be controlled. Human appetite (literal, metaphorical) can be sated, but not the zombie's. If you strip away reason, creativity, accountability, guilt, empathy (etc) from a human, you are left with impulse, instinct, preservation, rote repetition, and a total lack of consciousness--notable characteristics of the zombie. If we go past the literal examination of the zombie infestation and what that means for humans, we can see Brooks emphasizes the dehumanizing aspects of the war (and the business of it) itself.

I'm going to cite the interview with Maria Zhuganova as a great "chapter" that illustrates this notion of dehumanization. The purpose of this interview is to understand what led to an ugly episode known as the Decimation. Zhuganova was stationed in North Ossetia, Alania when the Decimation occurred. North Ossetia is in the Caucasus region and the land is dotted with forests, the northern tip touches the Stavropol Plain, and then even if you have to get far out of the countryside and pass through the nearby republics and states, eventually you'll discover that you are surrounded by water on either side. The point I'm getting at--ISOLATION!

Zhuganova is stationed at North Ossetia as a peacekeeper; her fellow soldiers and the military police are there to keep an eye on the area, which is known for ethnic tension. Quickly everyone becomes distracted by the news of "rabid animals and rabid men" but because they are so isolated, they don't know that it's officially the Great Panic or that the rabid are in fact zombies.

When the military combs the towns for the infected, Zhuganova is horrified to see that children are among them: "There was a tiny figure, another little girl, staggering across the mud towards us..." (78). A civilian whom Zhuganova calls Rat Face, who has obviously seen the zombies before, notifies the Lieutenant of the approaching child. The Lieutenant orders Petrenko, a sharp-shooter in the platoon, to fire and kill her. And here's the test!!
  •  How do you know the girl is a zombie? She's staggering, and Rat Face is whispering something to you, and you saw another little girl run from her, terrified. But how do you know she's a zombie for certain?
  •  Before you allow the little girl to get any closer to you, you tell your sharp shooter to kill her (but no one knows exactly what's going on with the child yet). Are you really thinking about anything when you tell your gunman to do this? Are you fully aware of the consequences of your actions?
Are you still human? Did you order the death of an innocent girl, who may or may not be afflicted (through no fault of her own)? Did you order another man to do the dirty work for you, and in turn make him a murderer? What kind of person are you?

Rat Face (a CIVILIAN!) apparently has enough pull that he can manipulate the soldiers and officers around him: "Rat Face was always there, in the shadows, listening, watching, whispering into the ears of our officers" (78). Since when does the military take orders from civilians? And yet they succumb to Rat Face. The Lieutenant orders Petrenko to shoot the girl as soon as Rat Face tells him to (we don't hear the words, but it's understood). The Lieutenant therefore has obeyed Rat Face without question. What does that make him? To a certain degree, a zombie.

Is Petrenko a zombie? Petrenko, described as a "skinny little runt, not the bravest or the smallest" chooses humanity. He feels sympathy for the child. He feels an inward moral struggle about the actions of killing the child. He is ruled by emotion, he feels conflict. What does he do? He disobeys his orders. But he doesn't do this simply by lowering his weapon. He makes a very strong statement: "No, sir." Petrenko wanted to keep his humanity, and he succeeded, but not without a price (the Military Police takes Petrenko away and we don't hear of him).

It's not so lucky for everyone else. Zhuganova's friend Arkady, a machine gunner, bursts into the infirmary dragging an old woman with a bag on her head by the chain link leash she is wearing. He is screaming at the officials around him that there won't be any more civilian shootings, because "This is what they have us breaking our backs to find!" (80). You'd think for a minute that Arkady would be a "good guy" because he protests the civilian shootings, protects Zhuganova as if she was his sister, and is able to clearly distinguish a zombie from a human. The old woman he plucked out from nowhere has all the telltale signs: moaning, overall gray color of the skin and eyes, black pus, uncontrolled hunger, lack of reaction to being stabbed, etc.

But is Arkady a human or a zombie? He transforms rather quickly. He initially stabs the old woman seven or eight times, shouting hysterically to his audience of bystanders and officials. The first stab with the knife, right in the heart, was more demonstrative--she's undead, and everybody needs to know the enemy. As all crime dramas tell you, multiple stab wounds = crimes of passion. Heat of the moment, without thought or awareness, uncontrollable. Arkady stabbed the old woman several times. At this point, I would call it blood lust. Even if it's towards a creature you don't understand or like or find evil, when you stab something that many times and with so much unhinged violence, you're just not a person anymore. And is blood lust really that far away from a zombie's lust for brains, or flesh?

 Zombie Stock Art COPYRIGHTED
Going Scary Zombie (c) by Bronya. Source
What immediately occurs came as no surprise to me. Arkady turned into a metaphorical zombie, so literally was bound to happen sooner or later. The old lady bites him when he stops paying attention, and wham! Infected. Arkady retaliates by smashing her head in with his boots. But we don't see Arkady physically turn into a zombie. After he kills the old woman, he keeps riling up the crowd, demanding they should be free to go home, that they have rights, and then Arkady gets shot in the eye and killed.

What happened here? Arkady turned into a "zombie." His words and ideas "infected" the people around him to generate a mob of people shouting with him to be freed. The "mob" is now a horde, and to prevent further "infection" they had to stifle it, kill it, defeat it. Arkady was the first to go, since he was the one who planted the virus and caused the army unit to rebel. He had to be killed because he was infected with the idea to protest, and technically, when the old woman bit him, be became infected with the zombie virus.

But the rest of the unit that protested with him--these people weren't physically bit or infected; they were overtaken by ideals and feelings. A new commanding officer is sent to the unit for punishment, and they are punished on the same grounds for which they rebelled. "You spoiled children think democracy is a God-given right. You expect it, you demand it! Well, now you're going to get your chance to practice it" (82). The soldiers are divided into groups of ten, and they voted on who would be executed next for their role in the revolt. Once the victim is selected for punishment, his fellow soldier kills him by smashing his head in with a rock.

What happened here? They're all zombies, every last one of them. They've killed ceaselessly, and in the same, repetitive fashion (choose victim, then kill him, choose, then kill). They kill their fellow soldiers by stoning them to death (specifically the head and face mentioned. How do you kill a zombie? Get the head!). Did the soldiers ever think about what they have done? There's a good question. Zhuganova never tells the interviewer the agonizing process of how they voted to murder their compatriots. We don't hear of a moral struggle, or even a vague stab at logic, when they chose their own friends to die. We don't hear of how Zhuganova felt when she stones her friend Baburin to death (in the face! Yikes!), only that she did it: "Brilliance. Sheer fucking brilliance. [...] We could have said no, could have refused and been shot ourselves, but we didn't. We went right along with it" (83). Going right along with it--accepting their fate without protest, in total obedience... sounds like zombies.

And yet here's where it gets tricky. I've mentioned above several times that zombies lack consciousness and a sense of accountability for their actions. Zhuganova goes on to tell us, "We all made a conscious choice and because that choice carried such a high price, I don't think anyone ever wanted to make another one again. [...] From that moment on we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and say 'They told me to do it! It's their fault, not mine.' The freedom, God help us, to say 'I was only following orders'" (83).

Zhuganova is now human again, and it's easy to return to your humanity now that the worst for her, and World War Z itself, has ended. She has claimed her role in the Decimation: "We all made a conscious choice." But I don't know how conscious her unit's decision-making was during the actual events. We aren't given all the details, and hindsight is 20/20. It's a lot easier to look back on the past and say, "I was a monster," instead of looking at yourself in the present and saying it.

I think the unit made no conscious decision whatsoever to murder their own people. I think they let survival instinct take over. I think they were motivated by the base need of every human, which is to preserve your own life. I think the brains shut down for these soldiers when they voted and killed over and over again...you'd have to, in order to survive! They gave into a primal part of themselves, and turned their humanity off to perform these horrible deeds....so they became zombies. It's just the perfect added touch that they all denied their role in it by "just following orders, sir."

This book isn't for everyone. I found myself struggling with parts of the multiple voices and characters. The book is a challenge, and was hard for me to read, but I'm glad I read it. World War Z makes some important claims about humanity. And yes, when the zombies do show up, it's pretty creepy. 

Work Cited

 Brooks, Max. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. New York: Crown, 2006. Print.


  1. Do you think the whole zombie thing is overused? I'm kinda thinking the world is ready for a new sort of monster.

  2. I can't decide which is worse right now, zombies or vampires.

  3. I would say Vampires are worse in a Media stand point because the frightening has been romanticized, now if the Movies and Books turn to Romantic Zombies....well....we will have hit a terrible crossroads that should not be tread!


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