I recently picked up World War Z by Max Brooks. It’s a good read. Haven’t seen the movie, so can’t compare, but the use of disjointed narratives to paint a global picture of the zombie near-apocalypse is ingenious and used well. Max Brooks gets to cover nearly every possible reaction to the zombie apocalypse, dealing with a lot of the plot holes that are handwaved in other adaptations (How could a zombie outbreak escape quarantine, defeat the army, survive a winter, etc.). I really enjoyed reading about the collapse of governmental infrastructure.
And then the story turned toward how they beat the zombies, and my appreciation was spoiled.
World War Z is notable in the first half for how varied the accounts are. Some nations try to suppress the plague, some build walls, some send out commando strike teams to kill the infected. America tries to finish off the zombies with one big military battle, and it doesn’t work. It’s a multifaceted collapse, stemming from basic human fears, drives, and emotions that express themselves differently across different cultures and political situations.
But they all end up having to save themselves in the same way—by sacrificing someone else. Usually the civilians.
I don’t think Brooks is making a statement about the military as opposed to the civilian sphere. Often soldiers are sacrificed alongside civilians. But he is definitely making *a* point. (Probably about overpopulation). The story told by the survivors is always the same. Their government managed to survive the collapse by somehow sacrificing the civilians to the zombies. In several instances, the governments actually use most of their populace as bait, while the “essential personnel” are preserved in a super-complex somewhere.
Brooks doesn’t exacty present this as a good thing (one strategist actually goes insane with guilt over the plan), but he also doesn’t present it as a bad thing. In every case, it works. Every survivor ends up going along with it—even reluctantly praising the plan. The final account in the turnaround features a heroic general who sacrifices himself to blow up a bridge full of innocent people. It ends with a triumphant soldier looking over the carnage. Because this is the turning point, the nations of the world will now survive. All they had to do was betray their people.
It shouldn’t really surprise me. Zombie survival stories often are about the “hard decisions” one must make to survive. True survivors generally decide they can’t afford the “luxury” of scruples.. Walking Dead is the textbook example of this, as the “heroes” make grimmer and grimmer decisions to preserve their core membership. The survivors meet a priest, Gabriel, who hid inside his church while his parishoners hammered on the doors outside. Rick, the central protagonist, at one point shoots his girlfriend and her child to save his own son. There is something very cannibalistic in the way they survive the zombie apocalypse.
And this is seen as a good thing, or at least a necessary thing. In World War Z, all the stories are told in a bright future, one that would not have been possible without the mass sacrifice of civilians on every continent. Yes, that was terrible, but it was necessary, and so in a way, it was good. Walking Dead presents its heroes as dark, but badass, and most importantly, effective. Rick’s strength is that he gets things done. He’s kept them alive—or at least, he’s kept the survivors alive.
People have an unhealthy obsession with survival these days, and you see it everywhere. Game of Thrones is really a story of survival, not justice or politics. “Survival” video games like This War of Mine or The Gods Must Be Watching number in the hundreds, and generally revolve around having to betray or victimize others in order to keep the game going. The central premise of Ender’s Game is predicated on the idea that surviving justifies everything (possibly. The movie is ambivalent). Even the comedic fantasy series Discworld (which I wrote about here) has a similar theme. Just live. Just keep existing. Don’t even stop to question why, just survive. At any costs. Rob old people, betray the sick, abandon the idealistic group of rebel orphans—so long as you live, you can always make up for it later.
It’s the evolutionary mandate, I suppose. If everything boils down to survival of the fittest, then really everything boils down to survival. Whatever one does to “win”, or to stay alive, is inherently justifiable. “Whatever I did, it worked.” Colonel Graff of Enders Game retorts. The ends justify the means. It was the only way. We had to survive. Things had to be done to preserve our way of life. “Hard decisions” had to be made. People had to “get their hands dirty.” And of course, the people willing to make the hard decisions, the people “not afraid” to get their hands dirty, who don’t let these moral niceties get in the way of doing “what needs to be done,” they are the heroes.
But this doesn’t even consider the question of whether living is really worth the cost. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? Or even to gain his life? Is it worth it, personally, if you have to murder someone to save your own life?
Or would it be better to say no, and accept death, and go to meet God with a quiet dignity?
These stories always carry an assumption that morality is a polite thing, only applicable when things are going well. The “luxury of scruples” is a term that gets thrown around a lot. Ethics are not made for “reality,” for tough, hard times—religion is only applicable in matters where life and death are not involved.
Of course, this overlooks the fact that most religions were formed during some of the most dangerous and intense periods on earth. Most get stronger during times of intense trial. If anything, rules and morality ought to matter MOST during times of death and danger—and, back in the day, the real gritty times, they generally did.
One of my favorite Anglo-Saxon poems is The Battle of Maldon. It’s the story of the Angles going up to battle against the invading Vikings at, naturally, Maldon. The Angles have a superior position, but their commander, Byrthnoth, gives up the strategic advantage in order to meet the Vikings in a fair battle.
He dies nearly immediately.
See, people didn’t used to have this obsession with surviving!
The poem calls Byrthnoth’s decision ofermod, “excessive boldness,” and debate rages about whether that’s a compliment or an insult. There’s no debate, though, on the tone of the rest of the poem. The soldiers Byrthnoth brought to fight the Vikings now find themselves in a bad position, without a leader. Defeat is inevitable, death near certain. There’s no immediate town or castle they’re protecting, no strategic reason to hold their position. They could surrender or flee, live to fight another day.
They don’t. (well, some do, but most don’t). The entire rest of the poem is about how all these loyal retainers stay and die gloriously, simply because it’s the honorable thing to do.
You could argue, of course, about whether it’s the right thing to do—certainly it’s not the smart thing to do—but my point is that this wasn’t some cushy period when people had the “luxury” of scruples. These guys were as hard and gritty as you can get. Harder and grittier than many antiheroes you get today, in fact, because these guys weren’t obsessed with saving their own hides. They didn’t go on to have memoirs where they say “I hate myself every day for running from that field—I see the faces of my comrades before me all the time—but I survived.”
I guess that’s only partly true. There’s another poem, The Wanderer, about a nameless retainer who survived when his lord died. And the whole point of that poem is that it’s a miserable excuse for survival, and the man wishes he’s died at the side of his lord with honor. There was a realization, back then, that death was not the worst thing that could happen to you, that certain ways of surviving were not worth the life they would gain you.
The other book I’ve been reading recently is The Siege of Malta. It’s a nonfiction account of the 1565 Seige of Malta by the Ottoman Empire against the Hospitallers who held it. It’s all levels of fascinating and dramatic, but the part I want to talk about is St Elmo’s Fort.
St. Elmo’s Fort is a small castle separate from the main garrison at Malta. It’s the first fortress the Turks try to capture—a tactical mistake on their part, since it gives the main fortress time to build up its defenses. And the Hospitallers know this, even before the siege begins. Its in a bad position, the walls aren’t built up, there’s no proper cover. It’s a kill box. Hard to take, but impossible to hold.
The knights in the fort realize this, and they’re constantly asking Grand Master Valette if they can pull out—there’s a trench that allows them easy access to the main garrison for quite some time. They’re being shelled day in and day out, killed by cannonfire as they cower behind the walls. Numerous commanders check in and agree that the fort can’t be held. The knights plead with La Valette, but the Grand Master says no. St. Elmo is giving the main garrison valuable time to build up its fortifications. He reinforces them daily and withdraws the wounded as he can, but he keeps a garrison there.
St. Elmo’s eventually gets cut off, the Turks finally break through, and they slaughter the entire garrison. No prisoners, no sanctuary—the Turks are seriously cheesed off because they’ve been wasting months on this itty-bitty fortress that’d killed hundreds of their elite janissary soldiers. And sure enough, those months give the main fortress the edge to hold off the Ottoman main assault until the relief force arrives.
What I want to focus on is an earlier incident in the battle for St. Elmo’s, though. Fifty high-ranking knights draw up a document to the Grand Master begging him to withdraw them—but, they say, if he’s unwilling to do that, they ask permission to charge out to meet the enemy in the field and die fighting. Again, survival is not the chief goal—they just want to die well.
Valette refuses them again; he can’t afford for them to die too quickly. I do want to address this point—the Grand Master does sacrifice these people. And I wonder if he’s wrong to do so. The fall of Malta would probably have meant the Ottoman attack at the underside of Europe. It could have meant the fall of Christendom. It might not have. Impossible to say. But I’m not sure that, either way, that would be on the Grand Master’s head. He would not have to answer to God for all the deaths in a war between Europe and the Ottomans. He would have to answer for all the soldiers he sent to their deaths. But also, these are soldiers, and he is their commander, and by the nature of command that means he often does determine what’s the most effective way to die. What Valette mentions, too, is that all these men have taken oaths to defend the Hospitaller Order, and their slow death in St. Elmo’s is vital to that defense.
But the larger point is that though there’s nearly a mutiny when La Valette’s answer comes back, the captains rally their men. A famous commander, Don Constantino, volunteers to take charge of the fort. And this isn’t an isolated incident. Captain Miranda, the current officer, gets wounded, but instead of going to the infirmary at the main garrison, gets into a chair on the fortifications and stays there till the end. A friar comes (and leaves), and by his preaching all the knights in the fortress vow their willingness to die in St. Elmo.
And I want to note that the Grand Master didn’t sacrifice those men so he could survive, or even necessarily most of his men—much later in the siege, when the main fortress is being attacked, and he hears the enemy Is attacking the adjoining town of Birgu, he says, without emotion: “Come my knights! Let us go and die there! Today is the day!”
That’s tough. That’s gritty. Not to forsake morality in order to survive, but a willingness to stand and die to retain one’s honor. Hospitallers (and Anglo-Saxons) lived in a world that would make Frank Miller and Quentin Tarantino cry like little girls. Their lives were about as real as reality gets. But they don’t suddenly discard their vows and scruples because they’re only made for the “non-siege” times of the order. All throughout the siege, the biographer records the various holy feasts and observances continuing as usual, even as cannons barrage the walls. (Full disclosure—the Messinan calvary does do a feint where they charge out and massacre the Ottoman wounded and unarmed while the main army is attacking the calvary. So they do sacrifice some morals.)
Shortly after Valette has beaten off the attack on Birgu, his retainers urge him to go back to the main castle. It’s safer there. Better to let the commanders and the important people guiding the siege stay safe while the less important people serve as the distraction, right?
Valette not only stays in Birgu, he orders the bridge between the two burnt. He’s staying in Birgu. He’s not going back. Maybe he’ll die, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that he told the citizens in the city he would protect them, and he’d sooner die doing that than live any other way.
That’d be a zombie story to read, wouldn’t it? Not a story about survival, but about making a stand. Where a group of survivors decides no, actually, they’re NOT going to leave their teammate behind, they’re NOT going to abandon that pregnant woman just so that the group can continue existing another day. They’re not going to make the “hard decision” to save their own lives by betraying their neighbors, they’re going to stay, even if it means their death, because it’s the right thing to do.
A story not about living badly, but about dying well.
That’d be a story with heroes.