Reading World War Z

In what is both a moment of procrastination (I don’t want to do homework) and an act of slight progress (I’m finally clearing out some of my blog drafts), I present an unpolished, never-quite-finished essay on the novel World War Z by Max Brooks. I started this thing almost a year ago, but don’t see myself working on it anymore. Might as well let you read it. Note that I have yet to watch the film adaptation, this is meant to be a reading of (specific parts of) the book.

World War Z is not a typical zombie story.  For one thing, the book is “written” in the aftermath of the conflict, and while some segments tell what happened during the zombie outbreak, there is a significant portion that deals with how humans were responding to the consequences of it all, after the war.  The book includes scenes of workers patrolling the arctic circle for thawing zombies and towns rebuilding after being cleared of the undead.  In addition, the novel is an effort to tell the story of the whole world rather than a region (like southern Georgia in The Walking Dead), a mall (Dawn of the Dead), or an individual (Robert Neville of I Am Legend).  It does this by framing itself as an oral history, a compendium of interviews conducted by a U.N. worker.

But oral history isn’t the same as history.  At its core, oral history isn’t so much the study of evidence but a study of memory.  World War Z isn’t a historiography of the zombie war so much as it is a glimpse at how survivors remembered the war.  Above all, since it is fictitiously compiled by an “author” (the U.N. worker) and also actually compiled by an author (Brooks), it is a collection of memories that Brooks thought best represented a history of his war – and a history of the world.  The story isn’t about the characters really (some interviewees reappear in the conclusion, but I had to go back to piece together who was who – there is little actual character development) so much as it is about the countries that deal with zombies and the notion of the global zombie war itself.

In an interview about the book, Brooks stated that “everything in World War Z (as in The Zombie Survival Guide) is based in reality… well, except the zombies. But seriously, everything else in the book is either taken from reality or 100% real.”  Adding zombies to reality, then, allowed Brooks to show what he thought of the world through its response to catastrophe, its governance, its resilience.  In another interview, Brooks called the book an effort to combat American isolationism and argued that he wanted to “break down the stereotypes Americans have about other cultures… and maybe give my fellow Americans a window into the political and cultural workings of other nations.”

But how did Brooks choose to represent the world?

Brooks’ decision to shed light on the outside world, if taken seriously as an attempt to enlighten us where our isolationism has sold us short, rests on the same old stereotypes and dangerous whitewashing that he proposes to combat.  A number of societies are portrayed in one or two short segments that are more about applying the zombie war to our preconceived notions than about opening a window to new cultures.  For example, the only two Japanese characters interviewed are a young, cyber-connected loner and an old, blind, traditional warrior.  North Korea is portrayed as an isolated and paranoid mystery.  South Africa’s role is framed solely by its apartheid history.  Iran takes the position of America’s greatest fear: the trigger-happy nuclear power.  The story’s structure doesn’t lend itself to much in terms of developing a more nuanced look at cultures or politics around the world, so this is your only glimpse at some societies.

Where foreign affairs don’t rely on stereotypes, they rest on a scary depiction of the “real world.”  The two countries that lead the world out of the zombie war are South Africa and Israel, two countries with infamous histories of dealing with actual hungry and helpless masses within their own borders.  Both countries have experienced decades of forced segregation that leave a significant part of the population isolated, oppressed, dying.  In portraying the world through the zombie war, it is implicit that these histories – of segregation, oppression, and degradation – are the reason that these countries manage to weather the storm of zombie infestation better than others.

South Africa’s apartheid history is not just one of segregation, but one of total subjugation.  The country’s Non-Whites were disenfranchised and enslaved on degraded land with poor housing and poor education while Whites reaped the rewards of the massively unequal, capitalist society.  The segregation was so complete that – in addition to the informal slums in the cities – the South African government created separate nations within its own borders – Bantustans – in which blacks were forced to live with only a faint semblance of rights, freedom, and opportunity.

In World War Z, the South African government turns to one of the architects of apartheid, the fictional Paul Redeker, who devises a plan to help the government survive the outbreak.  The plan is based on a fictional apartheid-era plan to suppress a potential mass uprising of Blacks, Indians and Coloureds, in which Redeker identified locations to be defended and regions to be abandoned, and which Afrikaners were saved and which were left to the masses.  In explaining the plan in the 1980s, Redeker argued that “the first casualty of the conflict must be our own sentimentality.”  The question of what an isolated, rump South Africa is to do after that is never explored.  But it is something that should be answered, because there is no Afrikaner South Africa without an indigenous population to exploit, and in the real history, South Africa goes on to continue oppressing blacks until – and arguably after – its transition out of apartheid.

In World War Z, when the zombie war comes to South Africa, Redeker is summoned to draft a response plan.  Reminiscent of his apartheid strategy, the so-called Redeker Plan is to create a safety zone for the government and determine who should be saved, leaving the rest of the country for the undead.  Beyond this, Redeker suggests rounding up the remaining South Africans in isolated sections of the country – with only a faint semblance of resources, protection, and hope.  These zombie-era Bantustans are meant to serve as bait to distract the zombies from attacking a rump South African government.  Although what remains of South Africa when most of its population is devoured is never explored.

Fun fact about Apartheid-era Bantustans: Israel was the only country besides South Africa to recognize them as legitimate. Go figure.

But the mere existence of the Redeker Plan is hardly the most preposterous part of Brooks’ story.  The proposal of the plan to the South African government goes even further to legitimize such desperate measures in the face of a zombie South Africa.  When Redeker’s plan is revealed to the government, the Prime Minister reacts with outrage.  As he tries to expel Redeker, an “elder statesman, the father of our new democracy, the man whose birth name had been Rolihlahla,” interrupts.  The scene quiets as everyone turns to Nelson Mandela, who loudly exclaims that “this plan will save our people.  This man will save our people,” before hugging the apartheid doomsday strategist.  Granted, in reality, Mandela has tended to stand on the side of forgiving South African Whites in favor of a future of equality, but I’m pretty sure he was never a big fan of leaving a majority of the country in a state of helplessness, and yet here he is, thrilled to forsake the bulk of South Africa to the undead.

To review: South Africa’s role in the book is as the country with a recent past of forcing millions of its own citizens to suffer… which enacts a policy of forcing millions of its own citizens to suffer.  The policy not only reflects on the horrors of apartheid, it is drafted by an apartheid official and actually builds on an even more frightening policy – and Mandela endorses it as countries around the world adopt their own versions of it as well.  This is how South Africa leads the world out of the zombie apocalypse.  This is our window into the culture of South Africa.

The only other scene that takes place in South Africa is when zombies descend on the township of Khayelitsha.  This is fitting because if you aren’t going to talk about South Africa’s apartheid history, the only other thing to talk about is a slum.  This book is filled with nuance, teaching Americans about the rest of the world.

Where South Africa’s role in the scenes of World War Z reflects directly on South Africa’s tragic past, and is even fixated on it, the depiction of Israel is based on a history you might not recognize.  Much like how South Africa’s Redeker Plan was the initial strategy that would be replicated around the world, a report drafted by two Israeli intelligence officers is the first to identify the zombie outbreak and should have been heeded by the world.  If South Africa’s role is to bring about a turning point in the war, the role of Israel is to be the model country: identifying the zombie threat before anyone else, making smart decisions where other countries fail, and reaching out to its former enemies as a benevolent partner.

The Israeli agents piece together information from around the world and are the first to realize that an epidemic is reanimating corpses.  With this information, they issue a report with policy recommendations that could have mitigated the disaster in its early stages, but it falls on deaf ears.  While the other nations slowly determine how to address the growing problem, Israel is the only country to take swift and decisive action.  The government announces a self-imposed quarantine to protect itself from the outbreak, calling on descendants of Israelis and foreign-born Jews, including Ethiopian Jews, to seek shelter behind their walls (which have expanded to the Sinai).

In the fictional world, before the undead appear, Israel has already elected to give the occupied territories back to Palestine, even giving Jerusalem back to the Arabs.  The Israeli government, after fighting long wars, has decided to eschew its nationalist wing in favor of peace.  Despite this effort towards peace, the young Palestinian interviewed in the story is not content and says that he is determined to see an end to Israel altogether – he’s the book’s “drive Israel into the sea” character and also the only Palestinian voice.  Yet even in the face of such blind jihadism, the Israeli government – ever the benevolent country that it is – offers haven to all Palestinians.  The young Palestinian reluctantly enters Israel at his father’s insistence and, when Israeli religious nationalists launch an attempt at revolt, he is saved by an IDF soldier, much to his surprise.

The not-fictional walls in Israeli-occupied Palestine.

Israel’s recent history is, of course, not that much kinder than South Africa’s.  Palestinians living in Israel proper are treated as second-class citizens, and those living in the occupied territories live a life under oppression.  Those in Gaza languish in an economy broken by a blockade and frequently face the specter of rocket attacks.  Israeli settlements encroach on Palestinian territory while movement becomes more and more difficult with a multitude of checkpoints and permits.  Just last November, Israel launched a series of air strikes on Gaza.  There have been a number of instances in which Israelis have attacked African immigrants and set fire to their homes.  And let’s remember that the Ethiopian Jews that live in Israel have been forced to take birth control.  This is the Israel of today, but the Israel of World War Z welcomes African immigrants (as long as they’re Jewish) and gives the Palestinians their land before offering them protection from the zombie masses.  But this depiction of Israel hardly seems plausible given the current state of affairs.  As Gastón Gordillo has pointed out, the trailer for the film adaptation of World War Z was released at a particularly salient moment:

In the final scenes, Israeli soldiers shoot at massive avalanches of bodies that charge against them as if forming a flood of indistinct physical forms. The zombie multitude becomes particularly ominous in the trailer’s closing images, when it forms a protuberance that steadily climbs up the Wall of Separation protecting Fortress Israel. Yet what makes the trailer particularly eerie, and revealing, was the timing of its online release. At the exact time the gripping images of Israeli troops murdering crowds of zombies was going viral on YouTube in mid-November, the Israeli military was murdering and mutilating men, women, and children in Gaza and treating them, as in World War Z, as if they were part of a not-fully-human, dangerous horde that ought to be crushed at all costs.

Brooks’ depictions of the world in this novel are anything but real.  If the interviews in World War Z are supposed to open our eyes to the world around us, we are only seeing a world of cultures at their most simplified and stereotypical, surrounded by an endorsement of apartheid in South Africa and a misleading portrayal of a benevolent, rather than militant, Israel.    The only messages that seem to ring with any truth appear when the reader turns her eye toward America, but even there it’s hackneyed and overdone.

In the United States, Brooks levels his criticisms at the usual suspects. The lack of foresight saw the military fighting the last war, like France in WWII or America in Vietnam and Afghanistan.  American bureaucracy prevents a comprehensive response from coalescing.  Brooks manages to poke a finger in the eye of government, showing the former U.S. Chief of Staff literally shoveling shit for fuel as he criticizes the troops and rambles about the administration’s zombie response.  “You can’t stop the rain,” he says.  “All you can do is just build a roof that you hope won’t leak, or at least won’t leak on the people who are gonna vote for you.”  Public service at its finest.

Even the most repulsive form of capitalistic greed, an opportunist who promotes a fake vaccine during the outbreak, frames his success around the government’s failure to stop him.  Following the mantra of “fear sells,” he sold a litany of cures that didn’t work and made millions of dollars – and took credit for ending the recession by giving the medical industry a comeback.  When pressed on his culpability in people’s deaths, he passes the blame to others.  “You wanna blame someone, why not start with all the sheep who forked over their greenbacks without bothering to do a little responsible research.  I never held a gun to their heads.”  After giving people the choice between a potential cure and turning into a walking hungry corpse, he absolves himself of forcing them to choose – like the ruthless boss who says his employees are free to quit or the bank that says you have the option of foreclosing.

Meanwhile, a high-profile celebrity invites other celebrity friends to ride out the storm with him in a super-secure mansion, streaming his shindig online as the comfy celebs watch less fortunate Americans fight zombies in the streets of New York on the news.  This scene culminates in New Yorkers storming the mansion in an effort to get in, attacking the celebrities and their body guards.  The rich and the famous, the capitalists and the bureaucrats – they’re the bad guys as much as the zombies are.  And maybe this is true, but a potential critique on capitalism isn’t the focal point. Without much time to ponder the culpability of economic systems, most of America flees west of the Rockies and secures a line from which they can retake the country slowly.  While the government and military manage to protect what’s left of their citizens, it isn’t until the bureaucracy is abandoned (except elections – you’ve got to have elections) that order is restored by force and the tide is turned.

America’s woes are portrayed as bureaucratic failure and unchecked greed.  Like North Korea’s paranoia and Iran’s nuclear tendencies, the country is painted with the most obvious criticisms with no nuance.  Beyond the borders, everything that occurs is rooted in stereotypes – except the whitewashing of Israel and South Africa.  Instead of using the well-studied history of both countries, Brooks embarks on an effort of historical revisionism, upholding apartheid as the basis for a world-saving strategy and erasing the darker side of Israel’s occupation in the Middle East.  The result is a new world where zombies are on the decline, civilization is back on the mend, and oppressive governments lead the way.


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