America. The land of the free. This country’s foundation was built on individuality, on autonomy, and on the ability to “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps” and begin again. Today, however, this individualistic spirit has manifested itself as selfishness and egocentricity in many North Americans. Max Brooks’ World War Z is about combating the loss of individuality; when the American characters fight the zombies, they are also indirectly fighting the mindless consumers they themselves have become. In order to fight both the real zombies and the “zombie within”, the citizens of America have to abandon their materialistic lifestyle, acclimate to the global reversal of social order, adapt to their new world, and accept that their lives will never be the same again.
Many North Americans today can be defined as mindless consumers. Every obscure self-definition fits into a category that can be easily marketed. Whether you are a punk or a nerd or a princess, that label can be bought and sold. Our identity is defined by purchases: whether one has a Macintosh computer or a PC, a Blackberry or an iPhone. In this culture, opportunities for distinction are rare. It is not hard to see the resemblance this definition has to a zombie. Many American’s lives can be equated with that of Mary Jo Miller’s prewar experience (63 – 66). Married with two children and living in suburbia, her main concerns included car payments, celebrity gossip, the retirement portfolio, and the general stress of family life (64). This kind of materialistic existence is an example of how the individuality supported by America can turn into self-centeredness. That is, until America collapses with the zombie war. Civilians learn quickly that they have to work together in order to survive. This means that across America, people have to abandon their “comfortable, disposable consumer lifestyle” (140), and to learn new trades, grow their own food, and make their own supplies. “No one needs a contract reviewed or a deal brokered [anymore]. What it does need is toilets fixed…. For some, this was scarier than the living dead” (140). Once this new way of life was accepted, many civilians discovered that they were more satisfied than they had been, and perhaps how shallow their lifestyles were before (141).
‘You see those shoes, I made them,’ ‘That sweater, that’s my sheep’s wool,’ ‘Like the corn? My garden.’ That was the upshot of a more localized system. It gave people the opportunity to see the fruits of their labour, it gave them a sense of individual pride to know they were making a clear, concrete contribution to victory (141).
Brooks is making a statement about western culture: perhaps we all need to reduce our amount of consuming and give something back to our countries.
As the zombies begin to control most of the globe, there is a reversal of social order around the world. Refugees from America try to float to Cuba on whatever makeshift rafts they can find (229). While living in Cuba, the refugees “would do the jobs Cubanos no longer wanted – day labourers, dish washers, and street cleaners” (231). Eventually Cuba becomes a “thriving, capitalist economy” (232). Post-war Tibet has not only been freed, but is the most populous city in the world and is celebrating a free election (12). As the situations of many other counties are inverted, Brooks implies that perhaps the zombies produce a kind of geopolitical justice. One UN delegate went so far as to suggest that “by keeping the ‘white hegemony’ distracted with their own problems, the undead invasion might allow the rest of the world to develop ‘without imperialist intervention’” (266). A similar class-inversion occurs inside America on a smaller scale with regard to the job market. In the old world the highest paid jobs included casting directors, stock traders and advertising agencies (140-1). During the war, however, the services needed the most were hands-on labour, including plumbing, farming, manufacturing clothes, and building tools (141). This situation induces a reversal of social order. Former corporate billionaires are now being instructed by their ex-maids, mechanics and plumbers, which was hard for many to adjust to (140-1). A similar reversal occurs in the reality TV compound described by bodyguard T. Sean Collins. The celebrities broadcasting their experiences in their war shelters are no longer revered and respected but trampled and beaten by others, desperate for the protection of their bunkers (86-8). The zombies may bring about more than devastation. They may also bring about a leveling, or even a reversal, of our accepted class structure.
The main reason that the humans win World War Z is their ability to adapt to a new life, however reluctant they may be to embrace it. As mentioned above, supplies and food must be manufactured within a country’s own borders, forcing many North Americans to remodel their consumeristic lives; however, the need for adaptation goes beyond that. For example, the suburbs occupied by Mary Jo Miller and others like her are far different after the war than before it began. Brooks describes a fortress; the neighbourhood is surrounded by a “reinforced concrete wall,” and each house is built on stilts with a “retractable staircase” and “solar cell roofs” (64). This is the new suburbia, where safety is the main goal, not luxury or comfort. Similar changes are evident in the military. Look at The Battle of Yonkers, one of the earliest battles of the war (92). The infantrymen are dressed in hot, heavy radioactive-protectant suits that only hindered their fighting. The army relies heavily on technology, such as bombs, machine guns, air missiles, tanks and radar, all of which are useless against the living dead (94-5). Much of it appears to be a show for the press. “…There must have been at least one reporter for every two or three uniforms…. I don’t know how many new choppers must have been circling… you’d think with so many they’d spare a few to try and rescue people from Manhattan” (95). The leaders who assumed they would win this battle were incompetent to say the least. Yonkers is a cataclysmic failure of everything the American military knows to be effective in war for one reason: they are up against a new enemy, one who is not slowed by injury or scared of death. The army has to rethink all their strategies before attempting another offense. Their adaptation to the new kind of battlefield is evident in the Battle of Hope. Elaborate technology is forgone. Replacing them are ‘lobotomizers’, a “double-bladed battle-axe” (146), and Standard Infantry Rifles, a simple gun with wood furniture that never jammed (274). Light, comfortable, bite-proof suits replace the heavy rubber uniforms of Yonkers (274). The soldiers form a basic square formation, firing on ‘Zack’ from all sides. One of the biggest differences is in how the military picks their soldiers. Physical build and stamina is put aside for psychological fitness. Todd Wainios explains how the new soldiers “could have been from anywhere: your neighbour, your aunt, that geeky substitute teacher, or that fat, lazy slob at the DMV” (275). All that mattered was whether they could stand the test of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The ability to adapt to their surroundings in the name of survival is something the zombies will never be able to do, and it was the humans’ most effective weapon against the living dead, ensuring their victory.
Max Brooks’ zombie war teaches the American characters many lessons. First, they must stop senselessly consuming and instead learn to give back to their country. Second, they must relinquish their pride and work with their ex-servants.Third, they must adapt to their new world to survive. They must accept that the old world is lost forever. In doing these things, they are fighting the zombies, and indirectly fighting the mindless consumers they themselves had become.
Brooks, Max. World War Z. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006. Print.