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World War Z | Themes

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In World War Z responsibility is an ongoing concern. Every person, from a nation's leaders to its least powerful citizen, must take responsibility to shepherd personal resources and remain prepared.

The Enemy Within

The plague's latest outbreak, unlike previous outbreaks dating back in history, reveals corruption, passivity, and greed in nations, cultures, institutions, local communities, and individuals. In interview after interview speakers either explicitly state or provide enough details for readers to infer the plague's threat to humanity is multiplied by national and personal failings. The enemy within can take the form of a secretive government trying to hide the facts or a greedy corporation willing to exploit people's fears. The enemy within subverts military readiness and performance and turns members of communities against each other in the struggle for survival. It twists religious belief to turn it into a murder weapon, and it exposes individual selfishness and weakness.

With the advantage of hindsight interviewees ruefully or angrily blame many of their losses not on the zombies but on human flaws, which act as threat multipliers in times of crisis. And interviewees are quick to praise and thank the people, and the groups of people, who overcome these flaws during the zombie war. Human strengths eventually subdue the plague outbreak, which at least temporarily purges humanity of some of its internal demons.

The Will to Survive

As the crisis sweeps the globe, people face a difficult choice. They can find some way to deal with the terrible enemy approaching in waves by fleeing and hiding when they can and standing to fight when they can't. They can give in to panic and fear, acting pointlessly or even maliciously, usually with fatal consequences to themselves and others. Or they can passively accept death: some kill themselves, while others mysteriously lie down and die. A small group even adopts the zombie lifestyle, giving up their humanity to be assimilated by the zombie hordes.

The interviewees are of course survivors. They provide a parade of models of what to do, and what not to do, to survive the zombie assaults. They describe approaches to survival that work, often because of membership in a community—and those that fail, often because of the enemies within. They also recall heroic actions that fail not because of human frailty but simply because of the nature and number of the enemy. They tell stories of surprising actions driven by adrenaline and only vaguely recalled. But in each case the first decision is the decision to fight for life. If this essential human instinct collapses, the infection spreads unchecked.

Destruction and Renewal

As the work's timeline follows the plague's outbreak, spread, and suppression, it catalogs widespread destruction. Cities become infested and are abandoned to the undead. Farming and manufacturing are disrupted, and people suffer. Waves of zombies overrun even deserts and mountains, consuming any animals, from rabbits to bears, they can reach. Even the oceans are polluted with the plague, since zombies can exist without oxygen till they decay. Almost no place on earth is untouched by the plague, and no place escapes the nuclear autumn and climatic changes.

Cultures, too, are destroyed as the beliefs that underpin them are challenged by the plague. Reliance on a strong government fails some citizens, who turn against dictatorial rule. In other cultures citizens become so desperate for guidance and help they embrace authoritarian leaders. When the tide is turned against the plague and rebuilding begins, some nations and cultures embrace the opportunity for renewal. People look hard at what made their nations a target for the plague and resolve to empower individuals to protect themselves and to cooperate globally. But other nations and cultures take the opposite approach—they regress to more restrictive regimes and reinstate tools of oppression. The crisis reveals each culture's essential nature as nations redefine themselves and local communities rebuild.

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