What are the numerous movies, novels, TV series and video games declining the implacable struggle between human survivors and proliferating populations of zombies really about? These “chronicles” of the worldwide zombie invasion are so pervasive in our twenty-first century global culture, and they have reached a status of such importance that they have even inspired an actual training plan by the US Department of Defence in 2014, as well as a very real military training session in 2012.
What is the strategic issue played out through the very complex zombie charade in our contemporary framework, when socio-environmental changes are also strategic changes? In other terms, what are the existential, political, geopolitical and military dimensions of the zombie invasion?
Furthermore, is it possible to use the “zombie chronicles” in order to anticipate near future strategic scenarios?
Chronicles of invasion Z
It could be said that the complex of movies, books, comic books, and video-games about the zombie invasion composes a strange but vivid counterfactual or alternate history of the world. This vast political “thought experiment” interrogates the contemporary societies, governments and varied political, military and security authorities and individuals: “What if” a massive threat emerged and had the means to rapidly saturate defense capabilities?
The zombie invasion first struck the United States in 1968, with “The Night of the Living dead”, followed in 1978 by “Zombie-Dawn of the Dead” and in 1985 “Day of the Dead”, as well as “Land of the dead” (2005) and “Diary of the dead” (2007), one after the other having been realized by George A. Romero, the godfather of the American zombie culture. This “first wave” of “zombie proliferation”, from the sixties to the eighties, was largely directed by George R. Romero and followed the codes of horror movies, with an undercurrent of social critic.
The current invasion really started in 2002 with the powerful “28 Days Later” (Danny Boyle), and its impressive sequel “28 weeks later” (Fresnadillo), in 2008. In the same time “Dawn of the dead”, the remake of the 1978 movie, (Snyder) is released in 2004. This “second wave”, started at the beginning of this century, is post “9/11” then post wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is also “post Romero”, and is permeated by the will to have a “realistic” treatment of their object, especially regarding the way the destruction of societies goes hand in hand with new extremes of violence (Jared Diamond, Collapse, 2005), which brutalize people and communities, while degrading politics.
These movies tell stories of whole communities and cities, even of whole countries, such as Great Britain and France that are overwhelmed by the zombie plague. Alas, very soon, the zombie invasion widens into a worldwide war, which different human, military and political aspects are chronicled by Max Brooks in its novel “World War Z”, a global success (e.g. Michael Vlahos, “The civilizational significance of Zombies“, The Atlantic, June 18, 2013) and adapted by Hollywood (Forster) in 2013.
Meanwhile, zombies are not only colonizing the alternate present and future, but also our alternate past: immense armies of living dead are surging from the North, “Beyond the Wall”, when “winter is coming”, according to Game of Thrones, the huge best seller book series by George R.R. Martin, turned into an extremely successful TV series by HBO.
Some of these chronicles are following the rules of “micro-history”, as The Walking Dead, the terribly impressive comic books series by Robert Kirkman, adapted into a TV series by AMC, which follows the grueling struggle for survival of the little community led by Rick Grimes, a former cop turned survivalist strategist. A long list of movies, cable movies, books and comics could be added to these, but these works are forming the current major references of the “Z history”.
The real meaning of the zombie invasion
To understand the strategic meaning of the proliferating zombie culture, it must be noted that all of these stories involve characters emerging from the military or security forces, which are involved in survival or counter-attacking the ever-growing mass of living dead.
It seems that zombies are able of only two forms of actions: feeding on living humans and, through biting, contaminating humans, which are then turned into zombies. This form of reproduction gives zombies the advantage of number, because it allows their population to grow very quickly exponentially, and thus turning the majority of the human population into zombies or into food, while contaminating indiscriminately, and, in particular, members of the defence and security community.
And so, as in the darkest periods of war, civil war and plague, human life is again “poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short”, as defined in The Leviathan, when the political and social order promoted by the legitimate political authority (in this case the state) collapses, which unleashes the “war of all against all” (Hobbes, The Leviathan, 1651).
The ever-repeating pattern of zombie stories is that the zombie proliferation triggers a rapid and extremely violent collapse of any kind of political authority and large social structures. What is left are small, fortified or semi-nomadic communities, under constant threat, fighting for access to the rare vital resources left – food, water, and drugs – to insure their “sustainable survival”. In the same time, those last few remains of the human species are themselves turned into “resources” by the zombies, or by other groups, which survive through predation.
These stories show us what could happen if a brutal shortage of resources were to happen: the obliteration of the social contract, and the collapse of the state and government, through the destruction of police and military forces.
Decoding this pattern leads us to understand that “zombie wars” are, in fact, nothing but extrapolations of what resource wars (Klare, Resource wars, 2002) could be, or become, at a very large-scale for our industrial-consumerist economics and societies (Benjamin Barber, Consumed, 2008), which rely on constant flows of raw commodities, fuel, electricity, functioning infrastructures, drugs, and on the legitimate use of force through minutely defined social control (Kunstler, The Long emergency, 2005).
So, the zombie invasion culture condenses three powerful strategic features that have deeply traumatized past and present societies: epidemic surge, civil war and large-scale slaughter through mass destruction.
From “Zombie wars” to the future of strategy?
It must be noted that in 2012, the US Army has conducted the training exercise “Zombie Apocalypse” in an island near San Diego. The scenario was urban combat against a zombie invasion (Mulrine, No prank: on Halloween US military forces train for zombie apocalypse,The Christian Science Monitor, October 31, 2012).
In 2014, the Strategic Command, in charge of nuclear deterrence and space power, has published the “CONOP 8888” to “counter zombie dominance”, which, in fact, is “a training tool used in an in-house training exercise, where students learn about the basic concepts of military plans and order development, through a fictional training scenario. The document is not a U.S. Strategic Command plan” (Stratcom, 2014, cited by Lubold, Exclusive: the Pentagon has a plan to stop the zombie apocalypse. Seriously, Foreign Policy, May 13, 2014).
This convergence between the zombie culture and military training reveals a profound and complicated difficulty known these days by the US national security establishment (Valantin, Hollywood, The Pentagon and Washington, 2003): the extreme struggle to establish a united strategic definition of “the” threat. If, during the Cold War, the threat was the Soviet Union, this definition evolved during the 1990s and became centered on the dire effects of failing states and on globalization, before the emergence of the terrorist threat after 9/11.
Nowadays, strategically defining the threat necessitates to take into account new ecological parameters and risks, such as new epidemics threatening to become pandemics (e.g. the current Ebola epidemic), global warming, economic vulnerability throughout the poor, the emergent and, also, the developed world, new forms of social unrest, from the worldwide new hunger urban riots to the Arab springs, as well as new cycles of ideological radicalization (John Gray, Black Mass, Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, 2007).
Here, we shall call this the “coming strategic singularity”, which could install entire countries into a state of deep and violent disruption, and pit communities against each other in unending resource wars.
The “Zombie figure” appears thus as a powerful semantic tool to express the need to understand the emerging strategic monsters that are going to be the systems created by the potential convergences of different categories and scales of contingencies. This new breed of monsters has already started to spawn.
For example, the Fukushima catastrophe emerged from the meeting of a Tsunami, which is a well-known natural risk, with a nuclear plant (Union of Concerned scientists, Fukushima: history of a nuclear disaster, 2014). Prior to the Japanese tragedy, such a situation had simply never occurred in the history of mankind and of the Earth. Other strategic singularities may very well be created.
The zombie narrative symbolizes this current state of political and strategic anguish, and, as such, is a powerful warning signal regarding the way the convergence of complex tensions and built-in vulnerabilities may well threaten nations in their very fabric.
Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.
Featured image: Call of Duty XP 2011 – Zombies challenge By The Community – Pop Culture Geek from Los Angeles, CA, USA [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.