[Inter]Connections in World War Z

The compilation of accounts in World War Z brings out the idea of strong interconnections among peoples and places. In dealing with pressing global issues these interconnections then translate to greater power to defeat a common enemy. In his book, World War Z, Max Brooks details a variety of cases and experiences that took place during the zombie war. In drawing a connection between different regions Brooks also highlights the similarities that exist among people engaging in battles. Lastly, Brooks also creates a common vision, whether that be in the experience of fighting against zombies or in the understanding that there was a war uniting humans across the globe. Furthermore, the idea of an enveloping mission is similar to that found in the book Ender’s Game, where one sole outlook accelerates the group’s actions towards winning.

The usage of interviews allows readers to catch a glimpse of testimony otherwise not included in written documentation. Moreover, in Max Brooks World War Z, a compilation of stories adds an increased sense of participation for the readers. Indeed when reading about direct contact with zombies, it’s not difficult to picture the scenes of extreme action. In one of the interviews from Gavin Blaire, for example, we learn more about the military strategies that he used in the zombie war. He claims:

“That was another thing they taught us at Willow Creek: don’t write their eulogy, don’t try to imagine who they used to be, how they came to be here, how they came to be this.” (221)

Through his capacity as a Raptor driver, Blaire had first-hand experience with the calamities of war. In particular, he specifies that his crew was lost in one of his last battles. Additionally, the accounts of the war in individual forms help readers grasp the immensity of the zombie war.

In Ender’s Game as in World War Z, there exists a  shared mission which allows all participants to have a stated position against the enemy (though for Ender it is not initially the case). The idea of going against an enemy brings all trainees together, it pushes them to work harder in order to be better prepared to fight the war against the buggers. In Brooks book the same can be said except that all involved are preoccupied with survival first and foremost. Even so, characters in World War Z are both driven by an increased interest in saving themselves as much as to saving the rest of humanity.

By using a shared platform, that is where common experiences can be expressed and diffused, the books World War Z and Ender’s Game provide examples of how the power of the collective leads to triumphant outcomes. In Ender’s Game, for instance, the fighting of children and adults is symbolic of the accumulation of power. Ender alone could not have defeated the buggers, it took more collaboration from his colleagues to effectively end the battle with the Queen and her community. Max Brooks adds a similar element to his book due mostly to the tying together of a vision or common experience in the war.

Social, Cultural, and Political Divides in “The God of Small Things”

The theme that struck out to me the most in Arundhati Roy’s novel, “The God of Small Things”, was the social relationships and the factors that shaped and defined them, from class relations not only beyond one’s own caste, but one’s own culture. The relationships in this novel highlight the diverse nature of India—religiously, ethnically, culturally, socially, economically—but on the other side, shows how tensions and divisions arise between these differences. While India is the second most populous country in the world, it has more than two thousand different ethnic groups. The world’s major religions are all represented, with followers of Hinduism at 80.5%, Muslims at 13.4% 2.3% Christians, 1.9% Sikhs, and 0.8% Buddhists, along with four major language families exist in India, but this only translates to the complex cultural divide that faces India today. In addition to these demographics, there exist the divisions of the caste system and the influence of western culture. This tension is clearly seen within the relationships that the family members hold to western civilization in addition to their relationships with each other. For example, Baby Kochamma’s one-sided love for Father Mulligan, an Irish priest who represents Western thought, ultimately isolates and poisons her for the rest of her life as she becomes more and more spiteful. In addition, this can be seen in Chacko’s speculation of his family: “They were a whole family of Anglophiles. Pointed in the wrong direction, trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps because their footprints had been swept away” (90). This tense relationship with India’s past combined with the appreciation for British culture despite how the British makes appreciating his Indian history and heritage incompatible with his “Anglophile” side for Chacko. The complex nature of relationships across cultures is also seen within Indian caste culture between Velutha, an Untouchable and a communist, and Ammu. Velutha’s class and political background also make matters complicated when he is arrested and beaten for Baby Kochamma’s claims that he killed Sophia and tried to rape Ammu, as the Chief of Police worries about the instability this may cause among the local communists. These multifaceted characters who are immersed in their own worlds serve to emphasize not only the tragedies stemming from these social divides, but also the difficulty of navigating between cultural and political factions to establish a fair ground for the people of India equally.

World War Z’s Depiction of Truth in the Media

Max Brooks’ World War Z details the global impact of a zombie pandemic. Chronicling responses by average citizens, political leaders, soldiers and the media, the zombie war begins to feel like a reality we could encounter. Or a reality that we already experience. While zombies may be fictional, the response by the media and governments indicate the ever sensationalized and frequently falsified information delivered to the general public. Brooks provides us with a clear, concise and critical message about the way in which the general populace is given and consumes information.

Contained in a single interview with a Mr. Breckinridge “Breck” Scott in Vostok Station, Antarctica, Brooks points to the way in which fear is sensationalized. While the novel was written almost ten years ago, the conversation feel real and relevant. Not only does it reflect the reality of the Ebola outbreak coverage, it capitalizes on a theme we can see throughout history: the power the media holds in shaping our perceptions and opinions about what is happening. To sum it up, “Fear is the most basic emotion we have. Fear is primal. Fear sells. That was my mantra. “Fear sells”” (Brooks 69).

Our depiction of reality is essential to our understanding of politics and history. Brooks tells his readers that, as readers and consumers, we ought to be careful about what we accept as truth. The media is immediately and inherently biased because journalists belong to “those networks that are owned by some of the largest corporations in the world, corporations that would have taken a nosedive if another panic hit the stock market” (Brooks 77). We can understand that then perhaps it is the fault of the capitalistic system for this distortion of the facts. When sensationalized media is what draws in viewers, there is this incentive to stick with what is successful. This only supports and continues morally-questionable choices, noted by Scott’s assertion he, “made my first million on useless anti-radiation pills during the dirty bomb scares”(Brooks 71). In the past few months, Ebola has proven this point quite clearly. Gaining incredible momentum in American news platforms once a case was diagnosed in the United States, the story of Ebola has become more about why the public should fear it, than why it has affected so many in Western Africa and what is being done to stop it. When Thomas Duncan was diagnosed in Dallas a few months back, and his nurse subsequently became infected, media outlets focused on the way that the infection had spread and actions we should take to stay far out of harm. Thousands have died in Africa, but it was only when the infection was in our backyard that people took notice… and will little factual evidence to support their claims. Again, Brooks is on point when Scott comments on the “Cape Town outbreak” by saying that “only ten minutes of actual reporting then a full hour of speculating about what would happen if the virus ever made it to America. God bless the news” (Brooks 69).

Across the book, characters are challenged by what is truth and deception and what to do with that information. Brooks is direct in his message: the media cannot always be trusted. Capitalism corrupts the truth of the information so many consume and the public should be more attentive and careful in the way in which they understand what is happening around the world.

Individual’s Impact in Season of Migration to the North

There is a common theme between many of the books that we read that have also been touched during our discussion of solo. Dasgupta portrays the important theme of one’s cultural ties when going abroad and returning to ones hometown. In addition to the question of belonging that our characters portrayed, I though it was important to identify their actions and the duties they had upon arrival to their home.

The most important example that was brought to attention in class was Ike’s story. After leaving to the United States and having started work, he was expected to send back a certain amount of money, every month. This is the most immediate result of migration to the west affecting the original society. As Okey also reminded us, this also ties back to the culture. In Nigeria, it is a given that the sons – or all children, it was not clear if this changes with gender – will start assisting the family financially after the start working. And especially in cases of immigration, due to the exchange rates, whatever they can afford would be sufficient.

Another one of our characters is the narrator in Season of Migration to the North. He had English poetry, and has now come back to perhaps affect his hometown. Mustafa, who has studies economics, upon their first meeting regards that English poetry is of no use in the village, and that he should have studied engineering or agriculture in order to be useful. In most cases, immigration to the west is due to one’s life, and the immigrant does not see the necessity to come back home and make a change, whether on the small or large scale.

Although the narrator has been exposed to other ways of thinking, and is now working in Khartoum, when it comes to making a change, he is quite passive. Towards the end of the novel, after Mustafa’s wife and children have been put under his care, he reveals that there is a problem at work. He does not intervene with corruption at work, and neither does he intervene in the case of Hosna’s forced marriage, even though he had all the power to do so.

Although we have to also keep in mind that this is a character specific trait, and that passivity is not a general theme between all of our characters. As in the case of our narrator he is even passive when it comes to his own life. As we observed, the only instance when he took control of his life, was when in fact he decided not to commit suicide and made his mind to live.

Rationality vs. Compassion in “Ender’s Game”

One recurring theme in Ender’s Game that struck me was the game-theory aspect to the decisions made and the justifications for them. This is seen early on in the book when Ender fights with Stilson and injures him more than necessary. “Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too. So they’d leave me alone” (14). Ender hurt Stilson to send a signal to others that he was not vulnerable, and it was this rationale that won over Colonel Graff and earned Ender a position in Battle School.

This theme of choice and rationality also ties in with the exploration of humanity and compassion. Ender is singled-out and isolated from other students his age so he feels he has no one to rely on but himself. The working of the Battle School to make Ender into this ideal soldier and take away his humanity is filled with tension as Ender does not want to be like his brother Peter, but also just simply wants to be loved by him. There is also the element of making Ender’s training seem like a game, as there is always a detached element to things if one feels like they are simply playing a game rather than destroying creatures with a life. The games that Ender would play would seem to support this rational approach where the ends justify the means, despite the costs incurred. Even as he continues to win his training simulations with Mazer Rackham even as they become more difficult, he loses more ships. However, maybe in a rational point of view it is only the end result of winning the battles that is recognized. This is, of course, tempered with the compassionate side of Ender who seeks to understand his enemy to truly win over them. “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him… and then, in that very moment when I love them…I destroy them” (168). That is why they made the Third Invasion seem like another challenge to Ender – so that he would not be deterred by the moral questions of destroying a species. This, of course, plagues him afterwards, as he asks “I killed them all, didn’t I?… I killed all their children, all of everything.” His empathy is the key to his ability to understand the buggers, and yet someone with such empathy would be unable to have carried out this mission. This relationship between empathy and rationality in a soldier makes one question what to prioritize in such battle situations, and thus it is understandable why “Ender’s Game is on the U.S. Marine Corps Professional Reading List.

It is interesting to see this aspect of humanity and compassion equally questioned by the bugger species as well. “We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again. We thought we were the only thinking beings in the universe” (224). The fact that this was the criterion that made the buggers stop their attacks on humans poses questions about war across countries as well. However, it is interesting to consider Orson Scott Card’s own answer to this question about his work:

“I’m trying to tell people that it’s a very hard decision, but that a species has a right to do what is necessary to protect its own survival. In human history, however, the decision to commit genocide has usually come, not because it was actually necessary to destroy the enemy utterly in order to survive, but because the rhetoric of dehumanization got so heated that there was nowhere for it to go except murder. That was the rhetoric of Nazis and most present-day Islamic nations about Jews, it was the rhetoric of Hutus about Tutsis, and it was the rhetoric of Christian Serbs about Muslim Serbs. The challenge to decent people is to recognize when the danger is real and there is no alternative but destruction.” (source)

“The Opiate of the Masses”: Co-opted Religion

Religion and politics are inextricably linked. States often use religion to mask ulterior motives or appeal to religion to unify the public, and religious institutions often use their clout to influence and steer the political arena. Foreign Gods Inc. and World War Z provide two examples of religion being co-opted by the state, in order to maximize economic gain in the first case, and to ensure totalitarian rule in the second.

In his talk Professor Ndibe made it clear that the alliance of local and national elected officials and Christian prosperity gospel preachers has led to corruption resulting in vast intracommunity wealth inequality. As was the case with Ike’s mother, parishioners are pressured into donating by pastors who assure them that it is what God wants and needs them to do. Pastor Uka entices congregants by claiming he has direct contact with God, who chose him to deliver the message of future prosperity for the faithful. During a service he exclaims, “God told me to tell his people that his abundant anointing will flow for believers. He told me that this is the week of double portions and triple blessings” and the community cheers (149). He goes on to include, however, that “God said only those who tithe will be blessed”, thereby pressuring the already destitute worshipers to contribute amounts they cannot realistically afford (151). Readers learn that the collection is not used to serve the many critical needs of the community, but rather feeds into Pastor Uka’s personal wealth.

Professor Ndibe explained that the exaltation of and trust in prosperity gospel pastors has influenced the Nigerian social structure. This manifests in the phenomenon of elected officials, business moguls, and other people in positions of power to consult the pastors in order to seek legitimation or, perversely put, ‘forgiveness of sins’. That is, the pastors claim that these people have power because God wants it to be so. This is accepted without any regard for how the person obtained the money (however violent, immoral, etc.) and pardons them from reckoning with the obvious injustice of corruption.

In World War Z, Father Sergei Ryzhkov declares, “God was speaking to me, I could feel his words ringing in my head” after killing an infected Russian army solider before the boy could shoot himself (365). He reasoned, “soldiers killing themselves had cost the Lord too many good souls. Suicide was a sin, and we, his servants were the only ones who should bear the cross of releasing trapped souls from infected bodies!” (365). This assumption of responsibility for life and belief that he was a direct vehicle of god’s wishes, which happened to be murder, is remarkably similar to Pastor Uka’s self understanding. The supposed “chosen-ness” positions both religious leaders as invincible and legitimized in their action, no matter how immoral in a general context.

Ryzhkov goes on to describe “What later became known as the act of “Final Purification” was only the first step of a religious fervor that would surpass even the Iranian revolution of the 1980s. God knew his children had been denied his love for too long. They needed direction, courage, hope! You could say that it is the reason we emerged from that war as a nation of faith, and have continued to rebuild our state on the basis of that faith” (366). The readers then learn from the interviewer that the president of Russia declared himself the head of the Church (reminiscent of Henry VIII, Anglican Church, supreme rule) and organized the priesthood into a KGB -esque “death squads” and they were “assassinating people under the premise of “purifying infected victims” (366). Former Russian army solider Maria Zhuganova describes Russian leadership’s positioning as a strategic means to unify the nation and keep them focused on piety, and distracted from the actions of the state. She tells the interviewer, “All that religious dogma, that’s for the masses. Give them their opium and keep them pacified. I don’t think anyone in the leadership, or even the Church, really believes what they’re preaching” (406). This shows how Ryzhkov’s (potentially) genuine (perhaps perverted) expression of faith was grabbed by the state and transformed to satiate political ends.

Displacement and Identity in “Season of Migration to the North”

What I found most interesting and compelling about “Season of Migration to the North” was Tayeb Salih’s exploration of migration and the displacement and change of identity that occurs. This theme is also seen in a similar vein to “Foreign Gods, Inc.”, in which the Nigerian-born New York cab driver Ike is seen as an outsider both in the United States, where he is unable to get a job in finance due to his accent, and in Nigeria, where he is seen as too American to fit in with the other Nigerians.

In “Season of Migration”, we learn the story of the newest villager, Mustafa Sa’eed, in the narrator’s town. Mustafa Sa’eed’s complicated relationship with Western culture is one of tension and disdain. This tension comes from how he is exotified by those in London and also how he uses that for his own gains as well. “It seems he was a show-piece exhibited by members of the aristocracy who in the twenties and early thirties were affecting liberalism” (58). For the people of London who loved or befriended Mustafa, their relationship with him was revolved around what this image that he represented, whether it was one of exotic lands or progress. “It was as though they wanted to say: Look how tolerant and liberal we are! This African is just like one of us!” (59). As for his relationship with women, he used this image that they portrayed onto him and exaggerated it to make women fall in love with him: “There came a moment when I felt I had been transformed in her eyes into a naked, primitive creature, a spear in one hand and arrows in the other, hunting elephants and lions in the jungles. That was fine” (38). He used this to seduce three women whom he led to believe he would marry.

The effects of displacement are twofold, first due to a feeling of not fitting in to the location one is headed to, and second upon the return to the homeland after these changes in identity and experience have occurred. After Mustafa’s seven-year sentence of murdering his manipulative wife Jean Morris, he returns to his homeland and tries to start a new, simple life in Sudan. However, although he is physically in Sudan, he cannot assimilate back into his culture. “Mysterious things in my soul and in my blood impel me towards faraway parts that loom up before me and cannot be ignored” (67). There is an aspect of displacement in his own culture for the narrator as well. For example, he does not talk about his life in Europe to his family because he feels that they will not be able to understand him. “I did not say this to Mahjoub, though I wish I had done so, for he was intelligent; in my conceit I was afraid he would not understand” (4). In addition, his displacement is also clear when he becomes angry that Hosna Bint Mahmoud may have to marry Wad Rayyes, while the others in the village view it as perfectly normal. I feel that the Mustafa Sa’eed and the narrator both struggle with this issue of displacement – it is just a matter of each character figuring out what that means for their identity, and their place in the society and environment they are in.

The Power of Macro and Micro in World War Z

Max Brooks’ World War Z is an exercise in the contrasting impacts between large and small phenomena. What is most fascinating about the novel as a whole is the characters’ eerie complacency in the face of global catastrophe. Taken collectively, the sentiments and responses documented are a mirror of our own societal structures, save for the respective presence and absence of zombies. One person bluntly states, “big news is big business, and you gotta stay fresh if you want to stay successful” (62). Brooks’ examples with both big news and big pharmaceuticals demonstrate the human proclivity to react only when things have become totally catastrophic – the behavioral patterns reflect larger trends of how individuals and governments are responding (just barely, it seems) to threats of climate change, and it is unfortunately likely that major changes probably won’t be made until devastating consequences have already occurred.

The other parallel that intrigued me only became apparent after contemplating the book for some time. In discussing the mechanical differences between humans and zombies, one individual postulates, “but what if the enemy can’t be shocked and awed? Not just won’t, but biologically can’t!” (104). Interestingly enough, this statement of fear almost directly reflects the current uproar over the potential dangers of developing Artificial Intelligence, which could have the capacity to surpass human intellect and develop to the point of destroying human life and extinguishing our species. When I went into reading the book, I was highly skeptical of the symbolic value of zombies within the plot’s context, but after contextualizing by reading about the debates over artificial intelligence and the purported good/evil it provides for society, the rising paranoia and the conceptual distancing between humans and non-humans has become somewhat more tenable and realistic as a threat.

Finally, in light of recent events involving systemic violence and the role of surveillance in the United States, Brooks’ discussions about the shifts in the penal code due to the zombie uprising became especially salient for me. Someone states, “…why remove the punished from society when they could serve as such a valuable deterrent? Yes, there was the fear of pain…but all of that paled when compared to public humiliation” (149). The last piece of this statement stuck out to me, as the recent discussions of police brutality and the inefficiency of film as a means of provoking shame in perpetrators of violence led me back to Thomas Keenan’s theoretical essay “Mobilizing Shame.” Distilled to its essence, Keenan states that the increased opportunities for capture and dissemination of visual proof of unsavory acts has not decreased the incentives for committing such crimes – rather, the incentives and stakes for committing salacious acts have increased because of the chance of being documented and shown widely on visual media outlets. Keenan observes, “looters out of house waving to cameras.” He then writes, “The wave announces—it performs, it enacts—that there’s no hiding here, nothing in the dark, nothing to be ashamed of. And it demonstrates this for the very instruments that are known for their revelatory abilities—the wave says, ‘expose this, this that I am exposing for you.’ ”

Thus, my most troubling takeaway from the milieu of World War Z is that in the face of widespread catastrophes, whether it is widespread disease, global warming and climate change, or unjust violent crime, contemporary society has reduced the influence and efficacy of shame-inducing tactics more so than in the novel. As a result, this move has arguably weakened our ability to play off human emotional vulnerabilities to create behaviors promoting justice and the common good.

Religion and State

The use of spirituality in order to make people confer to certain state laws has always been used to some degree in state affairs. As we have seen in A Case of Exploding Mangoes, General Zia was the person who was known to “by Allah’s mercy (…) have saved the country when the politicians were about to push it over the edge of precipice” (41). There always remains a question of whether General Zia, did in fact practice the religion that he was promoting, and whether religion in turn becomes just a tool of running the country. There are certain passages that assure us that General Zia did in fact practice the daily prayers of Islam, but “like people who pray five times a day general Zia was finding it difficult to concentrate on the actual prayer” (36).

The themes of the religion that are being dealt with in the book are complemented by the themes in Foreign Gods, Inc. The fact that Ike decides to sell the God of war – or a god in general – is sending a message. Although Okey in his talk referred it back to complications of translation, this passage is representative of what he stands for. “It is through sacrifice that gods are deceived” (100). Okey focused on the word “deceived” and emphasized that by this he meant to say, “trade with gods”. Even so, the theme of religion in the state is blatant to the reader and the questions it brings to mind. Religious figures, especially in Nigeria have been using their influence to promote a certain political branch as reminded to us by Okey.

This is customary in many countries, and does not depend on any certain religion or country. The same is true about “raising awareness” against a particular widespread faith. Current media have been focusing on one particular faith as opposed to others in the sense of the threats the pose on the rest of the world. Some questions I would like to raise are regarding the use of religion in the broad IR field. Why is it that “militant Islam” is being emphasized more than before? Why are we disregarding countries like Nigeria or Myanmar in our discussions?
At the end, I would want us to consider these two videos taken from a CNN interview with Reza Aslan, and sequel interview regarding that without his presence – that are great for constructive procrastination – that were also the topic of every discussion about a month ago.

Transnationalism in “World War Z”

As I was reading World War Z, I couldn’t help but focus on the impact of transnational flows and globalization—of objects, people, and information/ideas. Brooks captured the interconnectedness of the world on so many factors that we can easily take for granted, to the point where I was genuinely worried about safety on an individual and international level.

The first and less noticeable aspect of transnational flows was illustrated by organ trafficking and transplants across borders. Due to the black-market nature of such activities in addition to the fact that those who would seek such organs were usually richer internationals, such activities are hard to regulate. People would also be smuggled by land, air, and sea.

Then there is the more visible movement of people across borders and the implications and consequences of these movements. Due to the interconnected nature of migration, countries with a large number of refugees or people passing through were easily affected and became “White Zones”. The most adversely affected state was Iceland, who received many refugees who fled there due to its cold weather and island location. However, due to a lack of a military, it was unable to effectively screen out those who were infected, and in combination with the dense population of refugees, ended up being the country in the worst position. Iran and Pakistan are also affected—they end up in a nuclear battle due to the influx of refugees. The countries that are safer have closed off their borders, such as Israel and North Korea. The spread of infection through people and migration is, of course, facilitated through those who may not know they are infected (e.g. organ transplants), or those who are trying to smuggle their loved ones to find potential medical help.

Another commentary in Brooks’ novel can be seen in the nature of globalization and the spread of information and ideas across space. The effects of the spread of false information on “African rabies” and the popularity and financial success of the placebo drug Phalanx are compounded due to the pervasiveness of the media, leading to grave ramifications as people believe they’re protected from the disease. This results in the necessity of “Radio Free Earth”: “Ignorance was the enemy. Lies and superstition, misinformation, disinformation. Sometimes, no information at all. Ignorance killed billions of people. Ignorance caused the Zombie War” (194). At the same time, the migration of people also spread ideas, thus leading to change. One example of this is Cuba: “You couldn’t see this infection at first, not when we were still under siege… Over the next several years what occurred was not so much a revolution as an evolution, an economic reform here, a legalized, privately owned newspaper there. People began to think more boldly, talk more boldly. Slowly, quietly, the seeds began to take root” (232). Although Brooks’ imagined future for the global South has been debated in class, it is important to recognize the transnational aspect of migration is not solely limited to the people that move, but also the ideas they carry.

While “World War Z” is characterized as an apocalyptic horror novel, it can also be read as an examination and critique on the interconnected nature of society and the failure of countries to manage certain issues and responsibilities that come with such a world.