World War Z | Study Guide

Max Brooks

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World War Z | Home Front USA | Summary



Interview 1: Taos, New Mexico

Arthur Sinclair, Jr., comes from a line of politicians and led the Department of Strategic Resources (DeStRes) during the war. He feigns a Harvard accent and addresses the air, or some imagined audience, more than he does the investigator.

Sinclair began working with DeStRes at a time when the acronym seemed appropriate. East of the Rockies was what another interviewee calls "the Sea of Zack," zombie-infested states. The Rocky Line was still shaky, and west of it lay destroyed cities with millions of hungry civilians and refugees. Sinclair and his team spent time in intense study and then adopted some of the same policies his father had helped Franklin D. Roosevelt implement during the Great Depression. He focused on talent and tools needed to supply the military efforts and home front survival.

Talent posed problems: nearly two thirds of civilians were classified F-6, trained for creative work, investing, consulting, and so on—useless during wartime. Most of the A-1 civilians, whose skills could help rebuild the nation, were living in refugee camps and inner cities. They'd been those in the lower class, first-generation immigrants, looked down on by F-6 types but capable of making do with little. Now the A-1s formed the Civilian Self-Sufficiency Program (CSSP) to teach "sedentary, overeducated, desk-bound, cubicle mice" to farm, build, cart rubble, and dig a lot of graves. The National Reeducation Act (NRA) changed America's workforce radically, but not easily. The classism of some of the former upper class made the thought of being taught by former underlings scarier than the zombie threat. But they adapted, and many, Sinclair noted, found great satisfaction in helping feed their communities or building for the war effort.

Tools included, as in any war, "bullets, beans, and bandages." With very little fuel available, DeStRes had to find resources, move them to rebuilt factories, and get the finished products to their destinations. Repurposing was the rule. California had good farmland, but much was devoted to specialty crops, and farmers and ranchers had to be persuaded (or threatened, when persuasion failed) to grow the needed crops. All over the west, people turned in household appliances and cars, now useless, to be disassembled into mountains of raw materials. Even the military had to rethink its arsenal, and some projects sucked in resources but failed as the nation made its way, by trial and error, back to work. When Travis D'Ambrosia became chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he established the resource-to-kill ratio, which guided decisions going forward and encouraged innovation. Marines, Sinclair mentions, came up with the Lobotomizer out of recycled automobile steel. The government made 23 million Lobos during the war.

Interview 2: Burlington, Vermont

The Whacko is the nickname people gave the energetic, driven vice president just before the war, and he has embraced it. He talks to the investigator as they walk briskly in the snow. His admiration of the president with whom he served, whose name readers never learn, is boundless.

The Whacko became part of a coalition government during the government's flight west. The president had been sworn in on Air Force Two because his former president was incapacitated, and the Whacko, given his impassioned public presence, was surprised to be nominated for VP, likely because he's white and the president was dark-skinned. They made a good team: "he was the light, I was the heat." Once the government was set up in Honolulu, the president called for elections, though he could have had Congress extend his term through emergency powers. Americans were terrified; they'd accept a strongman as leader, but then the nation would have abandoned its foundations. The president had a cool head and military discipline. Logic and love of the nation motivated his actions, including the laws about public punishment, which included putting looters and other offenders in public stocks and public whippings. The nation couldn't spare anyone to guard and feed idle prisoners, so shame was pressed into effective service. No one wanted, in this time of crisis, to wear a sign reading "I Stole My Neighbor's Firewood." Real criminals were forced into work gangs—a controversial move. Some people wanted to dump them in the infested east, but there they might survive to become petty warlords, as happened in other countries. The death penalty was reserved for the worst crimes, such as sabotage and secession, often the work of reactionary groups. A religious fundamentalist group tried to assassinate the president and carried out so-called mercy killings of children; an ecoterrorism group thought the Divine Goddess was clearing the world for plant life only and tried to undermine war efforts. But antigovernment groups, especially out west, that had for decades wanted to establish their own little nations were the toughest problem. They were dealt with harshly. Similar groups to the east of the Rocky Line, holding out in their self-made fortresses, were given the option of reintegration. Some terrible standoffs happened, and each was a body blow to the president, who focused so tightly on the nation's survival he never took time to try to learn the fate of family in Jamaica. Difficult times may not create great men, the Whacko thinks, "but I know they can kill them."

Interview 3: Wenatchee, Washington

Joe Muhammad's day job is bike repair—a skill in demand in a nation with far fewer cars than before the war. But his calling is sculpture, and one of his statues, of two armed citizens standing next to another in a wheelchair, is on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

When Muhammad applied to join his area's Neighborhood Security Team, the recruiter tried to talk him out of it while nervously not looking at his wheelchair. He could roll faster than a zombie could shuffle, but not till he started to yell for a superior did the recruiter give him the orange vest and sign him up for training. Each team patrolled an area of a neighborhood, mopping up the remaining zombies. They went house to house, making sure all was well. Joe shares his own spacious house with the Shannons, a family from Alabama assigned to his address by the Department of Housing. In each house everyone had duties, including night watch. Security teams dispatched any zombies they found. Only once, when Muhammad got distracted, did a dragger (a zombie with no legs) manage to grab a chair wheel—he had time to shoot it. Teams also dealt with looters and squatters. Most needed and responded to assistance, but actual criminals were more dangerous. One shot Muhammad in the shoulder. Teams sometimes came across ferals, orphaned children surviving on their own by hiding and filching—rarely could they bring the ferals in for reintegration. But quislings were the greatest danger. Quislings were people whose fight-or-flight instinct had been hijacked by fear. They came to believe they were zombies, walking and moaning like them and trying to chew on people. The only way to quickly distinguish a zombie from a quisling was to watch for blinking. Quislings blinked. Teams were supposed to apprehend quislings, who were sent to a former prison at Walla Walla to undergo controversial treatment. During the Great Panic quislings' actions led to misinformation—that zombies could be killed, that some people could recover from bites. Muhammad finds the fate of the quislings tragic. They'd forgotten who they were, but the zombies hadn't. When zombies swarmed a quisling, the quisling lay twitching as they consumed it.

Interview 4: Malibu, California

The investigator meets Roy Elliot on the Malibu Pier Fortress. People around them recognize Elliot but respect his privacy.

Elliot was one of Hollywood's golden boys, but during the war he was classified F-6. The Rocky Line was firmed up and the safe zone to the west was being purged of infestation, yet about a hundred people a day were dying of Asymptomatic Demise Syndrome (ADS, or as some people called it, Apocalyptic Despair Syndrome). Elliot thought patriotic films would help, as in World War II, but the government didn't have time to listen to his proposal or resources to fund it. So Elliot grabbed handheld cameras, and he and his son went out looking for stories. In Claremont, near Los Angeles, several hundred students from five small colleges had laid in supplies, dug wells, planted gardens, and otherwise fortified part of Scripps College. They held off thousands of zombies while awaiting the military. Elliot and his son arrived to film in the siege's final hours; they also used film a student had shot of students at work on weapons and supplies while a woman sang "Avalon" over the loudspeaker to keep morale up. Elliot raced home and made 14 copies of Victory at Avalon: The Battle of the Five Colleges. He had it screened at community centers and refugee camps in LA, but audiences walked away silently afterward, so he assumed his efforts had failed and took a job on a road crew. But not much later, a Santa Barbara psychiatrist arrived on horseback to ask for copies of the successful film. ADS cases were declining in communities where the film was still being screened. Elliot hired Malcolm Van Ryzin, the student whose footage he had used (and who went on to become a renowned cinematographer), and they began to produce more copies of Avalon and work on other movies, shipping them out everywhere, even to the military. ADS cases plummeted.

Elliot's Fire of the Gods was the first in a series of movies about technologically advanced weapons—flashy, but with very low resource-to-kill ratios and thus seldom used. So in essence, the movies were lies, as was The Hero City, a movie by another filmmaker that portrayed soldiers as utterly heroic. But these were necessary lies for a technology-obsessed nation. These lies kept people from hiding in their beds and dying from ADS. They gave people hope.

Interview 5: Parnell Air National Guard Base, Tennessee

Colonel Christina Eliopolis meets the investigator on base. Small, tough, and fiery, Eliopolis racked up an outstanding mission record as a pilot during the war.

Eliopolis trained hard, pushed past discrimination in the Air Force, and reached her goal—to fly the FA-22 Raptor, a fighter jet she calls "a monument to American technical prowess." But in the Zombie War such prowess "counted for shit," and the Air Force mothballed its fighters and bombers for the next conventional war. Eliopolis ended up flying prop planes she thinks of as U-Hauls to supply fortified zones east of the Rockies. On one run to a zone near Tallahassee, she and her copilot flew their C-130 Hercules through hours of turbulence, and she finally had to go rear to use the chempot. Just as she was finishing, an explosion ripped the tail off the fuselage, and she was sucked out of the plane, spinning through the air somewhere over Louisiana. She deployed her chute and watched the plane go down, smoking. One other chute deployed, so after she landed, she ditched her chute and ran toward the other crew member. She heard a faint scream and, still stunned herself, ignored her training, making too much noise as she ran toward it. Fortunately, the five Gs (as she usually calls the ghouls, or zombies) who had killed Rollins, her copilot, were engrossed in consuming his intestines and didn't notice her. Furious with herself for getting caught "squatting over a bucket like a goddamn girl" rather than being at the stick, where she might have prevented the accident, Eliopolis could hardly remember to put the suppressor on her weapon before killing the zombies. Then her radio crackled on. Mets Fan, the call sign of a Skywatch volunteer, saw the plane fall. Trapped by ghouls in her cabin, Mets began to advise Eliopolis, first helping her calm down, get her bearings, and then staying with her as she navigated the maze of the Atchafalaya basin toward the I-10 elevated bridge, where she could be rescued.

As Mets talked, Eliopolis disciplined her thoughts and followed the survival training she'd endured (with live ghouls). Even so, her path to the bridge was perilous. Mets kept Eliopolis on track. When Eliopolis wanted to raid an SUV for supplies, Mets pushed her to move on. But her pause to inspect the SUV allowed zombies to spot her. From atop the SUV, Eliopolis picked off that wave and found a tree to spend the night in. By morning more than a hundred zombies stood moaning at the tree's base, awkwardly climbing on each other to reach her. Without sufficient ammo, Eliopolis had to leap from the tree, landing as far from it as she could, and flee. She landed wrong, breaking an ankle, and fell facedown into cold water that at least kept her conscious. Mets began yelling, "GO!" as Eliopolis limped just ahead of the mass of shuffling ghouls toward the bridge. Cars below the bridge erupted in moans of trapped zombies as Eliopolis, nagged by Mets, avoided the decaying hands that reached for her. Eliopolis, in pain and weak, nearly gave up and shot herself, but Mets yelled, "What are you, your fucking mother!?!" That motivated Eliopolis to get up on the bridge, where she heard a helicopter and deployed a flare. Soon she was aboard, where the Cajun pilot explained he'd just spotted her flare on a routine shuttle flight. He'd had no search-and-rescue report. Eliopolis radioed her thanks to Mets, who never responded.

Later, Eliopolis decided Mets must have been a former pilot; she knew too much not to have gone through that training. But Mets and her cabin were never located, nor was a Skywatcher with her call sign ever registered.


Chapter 5 deals with the massive task of preparing the nation to fight the Zombie War, and it includes many details about what life was like for various segments of the population. But the common thread in all the interviews is the mindset of individuals working together in communities. Mental preparedness and flexibility allowed people to survive; mental rigidity and weakness were the enemies. The interviews develop the themes of the enemy within and the will to survive.

Communities are one key to survival in the lower 48 states during the Zombie War. More territory, Arthur Sinclair points out, is controlled by zombies than by people, who must all work together to rebuild and fight. Not since World War II has such commitment been required, and individuals who undermine community are enemies. The Whacko speaks of a senator convicted of war profiteering. The senator receives 15 lashes in public, which curbs profiteering everywhere. Public humiliation is a powerful incentive. But most looters are merely desperate people who, once their basic needs are met, join community, and most people want to join in the work. Sinclair speaks of meeting former executives and creative agents happy in their new work. One has become a chimney sweep—many people are back on candles and fires. He beams with pride, saying, "I help keep my neighbors warm." Others brag about their crops or the clothes they made, because these, too, enrich the community. And special pity is offered to those who are outside of community not by their own choice—the ferals and the quislings.

But the transition to wartime communal effort doesn't happen smoothly because mindsets are often rigid in one of several ways. One problematic mindset is hopelessness. ADS, Elliot explains, happens when people dread the next day because "it will only bring more suffering." They can't see an end to suffering or a way out; Elliot's films, though not entirely accurate, supply possible ways out for those who can no longer imagine them. But those people with hope find ways to act, as the scrappy students at the colleges in Claremont do. Readers may wonder, after reading about how these can-do young people worked tirelessly to defend, support, feed, and encourage each other, how they will be able to part later. They create strong communal bonds.

Entrenched classist mindsets are also problematic. When DeStRes calls for cars to be disassembled for materials, some wealthy people don't want to give up their expensive luxury sedans and sports cars, even though they can't get gas to drive them. And Sinclair sits in on an NRA class in which a casting director responsible for top-grossing sitcoms repeatedly interrupts the teacher with "Magda, enough already, Magda, please." The instructor, Magda Antonova, had been the casting director's cleaning lady, and the reversal of the power structure is simply too much to take.

Letting go of barriers to community and embracing new work is the key, in every sector, to preparing for and executing the battle against the zombies. Racial barriers, like those that elevated the Whacko to the job of vice president because the president was a person of color, and voters preferred "a screaming radical" to "another one of 'those people,'" matter less in the face of destruction, for example. The communities and individuals who fail to survive are those who refuse to integrate. The western militias, for instance, seize the crisis to do what they've wanted to do for decades—secede and become their own small (and usually exceedingly white) fiefdoms. The Rebs, as the Whacko calls them, are "armed, organized political secessionists" whose existence had been tolerated but are now enemies within. "We didn't have to think twice," the Whacko says, "about an appropriate response." Fringe groups, too, fail, such as the Fundies and the Greenies. Anyone who refuses to participate in a community fighting the war is a threat that must be either assimilated or eliminated so the external threat of the living dead can be faced.

Each individual, too, must fortify his or her mind for the fight. Christina Eliopolis's interview is the case study for mental readiness and adaptability. Tough and able, Eliopolis has had to fight so hard to attain top pilot status in a male-dominated field. She has, she admits, "mother issues," and she carries a lot of self-hate simply because she's female. She holds herself to impossible standards and blames herself for what was likely a mechanical failure. In her rage she violates the rules of survival training repeatedly—and then berates herself for it, coming close to suicide. Only when she dissociates her discipline and training into the persona of Mets can she survive in a ghoul-infested bayou. But because she overcomes her undisciplined emotions, she lives to keep flying for her greater community, the USA.

A note on Brooks's style: Throughout the novel Brooks doesn't focus on gore, but he doesn't shy away from it, either. Rather than scene after scene of zombies ripping chunks of flesh off screaming victims, he focuses now and then on particular scenes to give the overall impression of the horrors survivors face. Several telling examples happen in this section. For example Arthur Sinclair talks about working with a rancher in California who stood, yelling and firing his gun uselessly, as the dead attacked his cattle, "tearing them apart like African driver ants"—a vivid image. Joe Muhammad describes the dragger that pulled its legless body to his wheelchair and "snarled up at me from the asphalt," adding a helpful sound effect. Christina Eliopolis's interview features gore with an emotional core. She describes the zombies feeding on her copilot, "draped" in his entrails. When one ghoul gets a loop of small intestine stuck around its neck, its movements pulled at Rollins, "ringing him like a fucking bell." She describes a decaying child ghoul, strapped into a backpack, snapping at her but unable to move; she destroys it, trying not to think of the child it had been. She sees the ribcage of an enormous alligator and wonders what it took for the ghouls to bring it down. By integrating these vignettes of suffering, scenes that demonstrate the horror from which not even alligators were exempt, Brooks conveys the extent of the plague's destruction without interrupting the interviewees' stories.

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