The Man Behind ‘World War Z’ Wants to Strengthen the American Homefront
Max Brooks on zombies and the future of war
Max Brooks’ World War Z is a masterwork. The oral history of the zombie war tells the story of a world recovering from the ravages of an undead plague. In Brooks’ narrative, the disaster is in the recent past. The world survived, but not without some harsh changes.
The international scope, attention to detail and focus on preparedness and response set World War Z apart. It’s more than just a horror novel about shambling hordes of monsters, but a frightening portrayal of how the world might react to a global pandemic. It’s a study in how civilization breaks down … and rebuilds.
No wonder then that the Atlantic Council think tank recently named Brooks a Nonresident Senior Fellow of its Art of Future Warfare project. In a sweeping interview, Brooks explained what worries him about the wars of the future — and how American society failed to learn from its mistakes.
“We’ve become so hyper specialized,” Brooks said. “Everybody sees everything through their specific lens.”
Which is a problem. For instance, an Army that specializes in state-on-state warfare performs terribly against an insurgency. So how does Brooks think we should prepare for the conflicts of the future? “It is really important to have conversations that make us all feel like 7th graders.”
“The biggest mistake we made … after Vietnam was to get away from what felt uncomfortable and to leap back to what made us feel like high school seniors,” he added. According to Brooks, America faced a counter-insurgency it wasn’t ready to fight and the Pentagon should have learned from it. “Instead, the Army ran screaming and crying back to what it did best and what it felt good doing,” he explained. “Which was tank warfare in West Germany.”
“That would have been great if every other war we were ever going to face was going to be Desert Storm.”
Because the Pentagon either didn’t remember or chose to forget the lessons of Vietnam, it’s had to learn them all over again in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brooks said that everyone needs to get comfortable with feeling ignorant and asking big questions. They need to get used to feeling like 7th graders.
I asked him how that’s working out, asking military men and women to think like middle schoolers. (Brooks has lectured at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.) His answer surprised me.
“I’ve found … the military [has] been going on a soul-searching nervous breakdown,” he said. “I’ve found the military to be infinitely more open to new ideas … whereas the civilian leadership has been trying to placate the people who will re-elect them.”
Brooks thinks this nervous breakdown made the military receptive, but World War Z made him believable. “I try to root all my crazy ideas in real research,” he said. “When you take away the zombies from World War Z you have a reasonably credible global disaster scenario.”
“I think what makes zombies such a great tool for learning is that the solution to a zombie plague is no different than any other large disaster,” he elaborated. For Brooks, the solution to zombies is no different from the solution to Ebola, an earthquake or even war.
“It is government coming together,” he explained. “Citizens coming together. Service. Sacrifice. Logistics. Innovation.”
But Brooks said that aspects of the American psyche run counter to this. That in times of terrible trouble, it might be hard for the United States to pull together. “We’re the weirdest thing that’s ever happened in world history,” he said. “An isolationist superpower. We’re responsible for global security. But the American populace doesn’t understand the rest of the world and doesn’t care about the rest of the world.”
I asked him if he thinks our geography has anything to do with that. Oceans flank America. It’s an enviable position. He agreed, adding, “we talk about securing the borders but not in the way Russia has to secure its borders … or China.”
But he also thinks Americans do not understand their place in the world. “[We live] in this myth that we’re self-sufficient … that’s part of our core culture, part of our Americanness.” But the rest of the world is hardly more knowledgeable.
Europeans he speaks with often tell Brooks how war-like and imperial America is. “God help you if we were,” he responded. “God help you if we were as imperialist as you think we are … if we used the 19th century European model this would be an American planet.”
But Brooks does believe willful American ignorance and arrogance is hurting the country … and the world. “So much of our blood has been spilled because we simply don’t understand what we’re getting into,” he told me. “We’re very short term people. We’re … always trying to solve everything in-between commercial breaks. That’s just not how some of these major problems are.”
He points to a campaign gaffe from Sen. John McCain during the 2008 election. McCain, then the Republican front-runner, compared the occupation of Iraq to South Korea, Japan and Germany. He said American troops may be in the country for 100 years.
“Americans lost their minds when he said that,” Brooks said. “But I think he was right … if you mess with another country and you kick it over and you mess with all the systems that keep it running then you have to take it over. Then it becomes the 51st state. You’re going to be there, maybe not 100 years, but certainly long enough to train up an entirely new generation of young people [who] have to be educated … to run this country.”
“We used to be really good at that,” Brooks lamented. “The day after Pearl Harbor there were committees forming in Washington about how to build the post-war world.” He explained that the United States had two armies during World War II. Both equally important. “One was an army to win the war, the other was an army to win the peace.”
America sent bureaucrats, diplomats, social workers and engineers to Europe and Japan after the wars ended. But it seems as if Americans aren’t interested in winning the peace anymore. I asked Brooks if he thinks this has anything to do with the growing divide between the civilian and the military.
He sounded excited. I could hear in his voice that I touched on a topic he’s concerned about.
“There is now a Grand Canyon-sized chasm between the American people and those tasked with protecting them,” he said. “On Sept. 12, George W. Bush made that famous speech. ‘Hug your kids and go to the mall.’”
For Brooks, that speech was “the final nail in the coffin,” for the American homefront. Before 1950, Americans felt it when the country went to war. Then during the Korean War, Washington stopped issuing war bonds.
“After Vietnam we got rid of the draft,” he continued. “Which was a good idea. These kids don’t want to fight anymore. A leaner, meaner, more professional force sounded good, but at the same time it created a warrior class completely divorced from the rest of the populace.”
He worries that class is quickly becoming a warrior caste. “The people who understand what soldiers have gone through are other soldiers. Now soldiers are marrying other soldiers and living this military life.”
World War II-era propaganda aimed at strengthening the home front. U.S. Office of Emergency Management poster
Brooks doesn’t blame the soldiers for this. He sees the separation between soldiers and civilians as part of a broader ideological shift, one where the government is always the problem and never the solution.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “We’re a government by, of and for the people. How can government be the problem when we’re the government?” According to Brooks, this divide grew during the ’90s as spending cuts and turning jobs over to the private sector became mainstream political ideology.
“You had this slow retreat to the point where now we’re the culture of the Yellow Ribbon,” he explained. “Which is the culture of the empty gesture. So when people say, ‘I support our troops.’ I ask, well what do you mean? Have you bought a war bond? Do you do war work? Do you keep a victory garden? What do you do in any material, physical capacity to support our troops other than saying that wonderfully hollow phrase — ‘thank you for your service.’”
“Civilization is really hard and complicated,” he said. “It’s also really expensive. In my lifetime, we’ve grown up in the retreat from that. Where you don’t have to pay your taxes because we don’t need it.”
Brooks thinks this separation between the people and government is a national security issue. “The divorce is becoming dangerous now. There are enemies around the world who can do us some real damage.”
“We’ve gotten lazy,” he continued. “We’ve gotten complacent. We’ve gotten greedy.” He pointed to the generation who fought World War II, noting they were still new enough to the United States to feel their immigrant roots. They were grateful to be here.
“Now, the people running the country were raised on television, T.V. Dinners and getting a car at 18, and their attitude is ‘what’s in it for me?’” Brooks said. “It was as if the greatest generation made a better world for their kids, but their kids take it for granted. The consequences were worse than we could possibly imagine.”
The military may be the tip of the spear but the shaft represents the homefront. “What makes a spear a spear is the shaft. Without a long, sturdy shaft then a spear is just a tiny, little, teeny pointy thing.”
Awareness isn’t activism. Ildar Sagdejev photo via Wikimedia
To win the wars of the future, America needs a strong homefront to support its military. But it also needs to reckon with the ideological battle. Beating back groups such as the Islamic State involves more than just a ground war. The terrorist group’s ideology must be defeated, but the United States is uncomfortable or unwilling to fight those kinds of wars.
I asked Brooks about this. “We are uncomfortable,” he agreed. “Which is ironic. I have a whole library in my house of old Disney cartoons my son watches of Hollywood going to war. We’re the number one producer of entertainment and on Sept. 11 we never harnessed that.”
“I am shocked and ashamed that we have not flooded the Middle East with movies designed for them,” Brooks continued. “We could have partnered with local film industries after 9/11. We could have recruited Hollywood talent and we could have won the propaganda war.”
The situation frustrates Brooks. “America is the perfect country to win the war of ideals,” he said. “We’re founded on ideals. The only thing that keeps us together as a nation is ideals. We’re the ideal factory. That’s what we do. Call it propaganda. Call it whatever you want, but these ideals are what keep America going.”
“These are the ideals that forced us to free our own slaves, that gave the vote to women, that gave the right to gay people to get married. This is the place you go to for ideals. How are we not using that as a weapon in our arsenal?”
He blames the politicians for this as much as the people, then quickly steers the conversation back to strengthening the national will and shaking up the homefront. I could tell the topic worried him because, over the course of our hour-long conversation, he kept returning to it.
He chided his liberal friends. Many felt electing Barack Obama was akin to appointing a liberal king. That’s not how America works, he said. “Representational government comes with a lot of extra homework. We don’t just get to go home every night and watch T.V.”
“Our grandparents used to remember how hard civilization was,” he continued. “How hard it was to keep the lights on, the water running … We’ve gotten away from that. We take it for granted. So now we’re letting our politicians dismantle it.”
Brooks chastised conservatives like Rand and Ron Paul who don’t think we need the Food and Drug Administration. But on the liberal side, “You’ve got people who live a few doors down from me who don’t believe in vaccinating their kids.”
For Brooks, these issues are national security concerns. “A lot of the wars of the future are going to be counter-insurgencies in megacities,” he explained. “But a lot of the fuel for these counter-insurgencies are basic questions of civilization like, ‘Who’s gonna clean up my garbage and who’s gonna pipe the poop out of my house and … who’s going to vaccinate my kid?’ Whoever does that gets the loyalty of the people.”
Hugo Chavez — the late Venezuelan strongman — rose to power by answering these basic questions of civilization. The Chavistas went door to door through the poor neighborhoods, listening to grievances and promising to fix them in exchange for votes. It worked.
Brooks thinks we should focus on rebuilding the countries we enter — and not repeat the disastrous, wasteful messes in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We used to be good at that,” he sighed. “But how are we going do that in other countries when we’re starting to retreat from it at home?”
Every piece of civilization contributes to national security. Education, nutrition and civic engagement are as important as having the best weapons. Brooks said the military leaders he’s spoken with are equally worried..
“They say most of the kids who volunteer for the military are either too fat or too sick because they haven’t had good nutrition growing up,” he explained. “The military is getting so technically advanced [and] our high schools are failing our kids so we have to spend half of their term of service just getting them up to speed.”
This retreat from the homefront and unwillingness for America to do the proper work of reconstruction frustrates Brooks all the more because the U.S. should know better.
“We screwed the pooch tremendously at the end of the Cold War … I remember going to Russia right afterwards. They thought we were going to come in and help them rebuild and restructure the way West Germany helped East Germany and the way we rebuilt Europe and Japan. We turned our backs on them and said, ‘go on about your business.’ There was a vacuum and Putin filled it.”
According to Brooks, this reinforced the Russian people’s view of themselves as an abused child. “They’ve had such a horrible and bloody history which is so incomprehensible to us.”
“When the Cold War ended, we saw it was a big, happy party,” he continued. “They saw it as a crushing defeat. And they saw the encroachment of other countries joining NATO as … a step to an invasion.”
The failure of America to help Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union was, for Brooks, a precursor to the ideological and political failures that would dog the U.S. for the next 30 years. The world could be so much better if only everyone were willing to pitch in. “Where would Europe and Japan be right now if we had thought the way we think now? Which is ‘I don’t wanna pay for that.’”
“I worry about it so much because I’ve watched what happened during 9/11 and I watch what happened during the Iraq War, and I have a kid,” he said. “I want him to grow up in an enthusiastic, vibrant America. Not a cynical, shrinking, knee-jerk America.”
“I also want my son to go around the world and for people to welcome him. The way they welcomed my dad. I want us to still be seen as the dreamers. Sometimes when you’re dreaming, you walk into a door. And that’s OK.”
“I’d rather us make mistakes out of optimism, because sometimes we do get it right.”