Crisis Response and Jingoism in World War Z

Max Brooks’ World War Z is a classic of the zombie genre. It explores themes that are surprisingly complex given it’s a book about a zombie plague, and one of those themes is that of governmental crisis response. The book offers an interesting take on a global response to a deadly virus. It is clear to see that the book is a criticism of isolationism and bureaucracy, and that is something I want to explore. Given the times we have lived through, parallels can be drawn between the fictional governments of World War Z and their real-life counterparts with their responses to a global pandemic.

Suppression and protectionism

The story is told from the viewpoint of several interviewees who are being interviewed by the UN years after the initial outbreak of the zombie virus. Firstly, we find out that corrupt members of China’s government delay the reporting of cases to the world, simultaneously allowing infected people to cross into neighbouring countries via the organ trade, human trafficking and through refugees. The main reason they delay their announcement is due to their want to preserve political power. To avoid appearing weak, China covers up their actions all whilst pursuing a domestic dissident crackdown on their populace to try and combat the virus. This sounds eerily like China’s real-life response to COVID, with numerous reports emerging early on in their struggle to contain the virus detailing police and security forces forcibly barricading people in their own homes to stop the spread. The fictional Chinese government and the real-life equivalent pursued these policies no doubt to not appear weak. 

Domestic jingoism

In the US, the democratic approach is no better, and their overconfidence to overcome any threat leads to a slow response. The government refuses the army’s plan due to severe expense, since their resources have been stretched thin from a disastrous Middle Eastern campaign. The populace had little faith in the military and government given their previous poor showing. Instead, they shelve the military’s plan and opt to deploy more cost effective, but dramatically less practical defence against the zombies. These include web pages and police instruction videos. All of this becomes counter-intuitive however, as advertised through these devices is a vaccine called Phalanx, rushed through the FDA, which turns out to be a placebo designed to distract the populace. This response was designed to feign action, rather than actively combatting the threat, with Secretary of State more concerned with retaining voters than doing something practical. Take Phalanx, buy a gun and you’ll be safe. 

Similar traits can be seen in all real-life governments around world, but particularly those of the UK and US, who far too often have politicized COVID for their own ends. Johnson did the usual British Prime Minster trick of appropriating World War II imagery and language to ready the populace for the incoming infections and to keep the voters on his side. Donald Trump also especially downplayed the impact and deadly nature of the virus, perhaps to appear strong and electable for the 2020 election. America’s response when the threat becomes undeniable was to deploy their armed forces in a live, televised assault on an overrun New York City, in the attempts that great display of power will restore public faith. Accordingly, ‘The Battle of Yonkers’ is an absolute disaster for the US government and military, with the unprepared and demoralized soldiers being routed on live television. The French and Russian governments also undertake extremely headstrong and costly offensives. America waited too long to take the threat seriously, and when it finally came to combatting the zombies, the threat was already too large to be contained. Sound familiar?

Although the subject matter and content is greatly inflated due to the difference in severity between Brook’s zombie apocalypse and our own world’s pandemic, the detail makes his nightmare world seem plausible, and results in a book that takes a deep dive into government ineptitude, nationalism, corporate corruption and grandeur. From the Palestinian who at first believes the zombie plague to be a Zionist trick to the American soldier who blames Middle Eastern “brushfire wars” for America’s sluggish response to the zombie threat, this is a zombie tale underpinned by contemporary geopolitical concerns that can be compared with our own world government’s handling of the COVID pandemic. 

By Cameron Phillips.