The Straight Dope 

Surviving the undead

I'm reading World War Z by Max Brooks, a fictional account of the world's response to a zombie outbreak. In the book the U.S. military fails miserably in its first real battle against the undead but later changes tactics and ultimately triumphs, as does the rest of the world. I have always wondered how the U.S. military would realistically fight the undead. I hope you can answer.

– agibson

You're absolutely right, A. – this is a situation that calls for realism. Were we realistic about Iraq? No. You see what happened. If I have anything to say about it, we won't make that mistake twice.

We need to understand the zombie threat before we can formulate a practical plan for combating it. A review of zombie movies tells us they have the following common characteristics: They're generally slow, stupid, and unaffected by bodily damage, they don't have working circulatory or respiratory tracts, they're not fazed by heat or cold, they can't drown, and their thought processes are degraded to the point that shock and awe don't have an appreciable psychological effect. This leaves you with basically three options: Immobilize them and leave them to rot, decapitate them, or destroy their brains (they apparently do still have central nervous systems, demonstrating that even a modicum of intelligence can be a fatal flaw), or obliterate them entirely.

In The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), which remains the definitive and possibly only treatment of the subject, Max Brooks recommends for hand-to-hand combat something that can efficiently slice zombies into bits, a two-handed Japanese katana (samurai sword) being ideal. (Also receiving high praise are the compact yet deadly WWI trench spike and the much larger and deadlier ancient Shaolin monk's spade.) Brooks says forget about chain saws – no matter how cool they are, they just aren't reliable enough and require fuel, which may run out at a critical juncture. Firearms are a good choice if used properly – you need to aim for the head, rather than waste ammunition on the body. Even a zombie cut in half with automatic weapon fire can still crawl toward you. An old-style combat rifle such as the M-1 Garand is perhaps your best bet. The semiautomatic action conserves bullets, and the heavy stock (useful as a bludgeon) and detachable bayonet give you options when the ammo is gone.

The living dead have no fear of fire, which makes it a great weapon. Zombies engulfed in flames will not only fail to themselves out, they'll continue to wander around, possibly setting other zombies alight. Electricity will paralyze zombies but usually not kill them outright unless it also sets them on fire and so isn't advisable as a first line of defense. You might think that nuclear weapons would be a good possibility if a city were 100 percent infected, but the downside is that any surviving zombies will be not only shambling horrors but radioactive, too.

So what would our military do? Even though the standard-issue M-16 is inferior to the Garand, we have lots of troops and bullets, assuming they're not all tied up indefinitely in the Middle East. Since zombies can't breed except by spreading their infection, containment and quarantine would be necessary to protect uninfected urban areas – typically the sort of job assigned to FEMA, which we may want to rethink. After that, the military could surround and wipe out the zombies using time-honored (and very Hollywood) tactics such as high explosives, incendiaries, and mass gunfire. The Army and Marines would likely do the heavy lifting, with Air Force and Navy fighters providing close air support. As long as the military can protect the troops from infection and isn't handcuffed by liberal politicians who really want the zombies to win, we should be able to handle things. Strategy and using the stupidity of zombies against them is key, as exemplified in Brooks' recounting of what he tells us was the largest zombie outbreak in history – 121 A.D. in Scotland. (Also the home of the Picts, who fought naked while painted blue. Combat in ancient Scotland was definitely a trip.) Using funneling trenches, flaming pitch and swords, a Roman force of 480 men was able to dispatch 9,000 zombies with only 150 casualties.

If faced with zombies controlled by a sorcerer or other evil power (as in the classic 1932 film White Zombie), you might save yourself some trouble by having Special Forces teams take out the head guy, though this approach is hardly foolproof – again, witness Iraq. The main thing is, don't underestimate zombies. So often in trying times, one thinks, these brain-dead losers can't possibly continue. Yet somehow they do.

SPEAKING OF ZOMBIES

My assistant Little Ed Zotti has a book coming out Sept. 2 titled The Barn House: Confessions of an Urban Rehabber. It has nothing to do with The Straight Dope, so don't blame me.

© 2008 Creative Loafing Media Inc. All rights reserved.

Comments, questions? Take it up with Cecil on the Straight Dope Message Board, straightdope.com, or write him at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611.

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