World War Z

World War Z

by

Max Brooks

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World War Z: Chapter 3: The Great Panic Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Parnell Air National Guard Base: Memphis, Tennessee, USA. Gavin Blaire used to pilot a Fujifilm blimp as a civilian, but now pilots a D-17 combat dirigible. He describes the traffic jam that “stretched to the horizon” as people desperately tried to get out. All kinds of belongings lined the road—suitcases, furniture, a grand piano—and some people were on foot. Some miles along, he saw that “those creatures were swarming among cars” attacking people. Blaire says that this traffic jam was on the I-80 between Lincoln and North Platte, which were both heavily infested, so these people had nowhere to escape to. He wonders what they had planned on doing, and how they had hoped they might escape what was coming.
Blaire’s example reveals that in the war against the zombies, even civilians took on combat roles—probably due to the large number of deaths among the armed forces. From his blimp, he had a bird’s eye view of the “panic” on the ground below. His descriptions highlight the tragedy and hopelessness of the people below who had nowhere safe to escape to but tried anyway. Again, this detail calls up the novel’s theme of fear hampering people’s judgments. The familiarity of the descriptions calls up national reactions to other crises—like Hurricane Katrina, for example—which makes the scene even more chilling since it seems more plausible, and, other than the detail about the zombies, closely aligned to reality.
Themes
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The Fragility of Privilege and Modern Life Theme Icon
The Cost of War Theme Icon
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Alang, India. The narrator stands on the beach with Ajay Shah, surrounded by rusty ships that are like “silent memorials to the carnage this beach once witnessed.” Shah tells the narrator that he knows his experiences are not very different from those of many others around the world who tried to escape to sea. He used to be an office manager in a city nearby, and had never even been to Alang before. He headed there to try and escape on a ship, without knowing that it wasn’t a shipyard—it was a place that bought old ships and turned them to scrap iron. He didn’t find any functional ships, just “naked hulks lining up to die.”
Shah was a clueless urbanite before the zombie crisis. In his attempt to escape the zombies, he makes his way to a scrapyard instead of a shipyard. Shah’s previously comfortable life had left him unprepared for the crisis, and in great fear, he rushed to escape from a beach that had no functioning ships. Again, the narrator shows that fear causes people to make rash and unhelpful decisions.
Themes
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The Fragility of Privilege and Modern Life Theme Icon
Shah spotted a few new arrivals anchored offshore that looked like they had skeleton crews, and one of them was trying to pull a beached ship out to sea. The beached ship broke apart and sank, and Shah saw that it had been packed with at least a 1,000 people. He says that the beach was filled with frantic people that night, some of whom were trying to swim to the offshore ships. Small boats offered to ferry people over for huge sums of money, and some ships only took young women, while others wanted only members of the higher castes. 
Shah was not the only person who’d decided to make his escape at Alang—the beach was filled with other fearful, clueless people like him as well as canny individuals who were out to take advantage of them as they offered to transport them to the ships anchored offshore. Shah witnessed a tragedy, with more than 1,000 people falling into the ocean as their ship broke apart. Even among this heartbreaking scene, some people didn’t recognize the seriousness of the situation, reveling in this opportunity to make a quick buck without realizing that soon, money wouldn’t count for anything. Others were foolishly focused on saving only “the higher castes” who were part of a community that was considered superior to others by some people in India, seemingly unconcerned that they were leaving other people to die.
Themes
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Shah admits that there were many “good and decent people,” too, who could have easily escaped and yet returned on their small boats to help the people on shore. There was also the danger of “underwater ghouls” since many infected refugees had drowned and then reanimated. Shah swam to a ship, but after he reached it, he could see no way up and was too exhausted to stay afloat. Just as he went under, he was rescued by a crew member of an ex-Canadian Coast Guard ship. As they passed other ships, Shah could see that some of them were “floating slaughterhouses” with infected refugees on board who had begun to attack the others on board.
At Alang, Shah witnesses not only despicable human behavior but also kindness and generosity. His account suggests that while many people exploited other people’s fears in those stressful times, there were also others who proved that humanity was worth fighting for and saving. Shah mentions the “underwater ghouls” who were reanimated refugees, showing that human tragedy led to an increase in the zombie forces. The sight of the “floating slaughterhouses” is also made more terrifying by the fact that the number of zombies is steadily rising.
Themes
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Topeka, Kansas, USA. The narrator is at the Rothman Rehabilitation Home for Feral Children, where he is meeting with Sharon, a beautiful young woman who was found in the ruins of Wichita. The narrator says she “has the mind of a four-year-old.” Sharon describes taking shelter with her mother and others in a church. There were other children there, and also Mrs. Randolph who cried when Sharon asked her where her daughter Ashley was. The pastor was trying to calm everyone down but it wasn’t working.
Sharon was a feral child, which implies that she lost her parents in the outbreak and grew up without adult supervision or care. The event she is describing to the narrator must have occurred when she was the same age as her mental age of four—she was not old enough to understand that Ashley was probably dead and to know exactly what the adults were worrying about.     
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Then somebody yelled “Here they come!” and Sharon’s mother came and picked her up. People tried to hold the doors closed, but they could hear the moans of the zombies. Sharon’s mother told her that she won’t let them hurt her. As the zombies broke down the door, the pastor’s wife screamed that they had to save the children and picked up one little girl who was crying loudly and swung her hard against the wall until she was quiet. Sharon mimicked how her mother had then tried to strangle her. Mrs. Randolph shot her mother and rescued Sharon, and had then taken her out into the parking lot and asked her to run without stopping. 
Sharon’s narrates a horrific account of how people killed children to save them from being bitten and turned into zombies. This shows the extent to which fear and desperation can push people into behavior that is staggeringly cruel. Sharon’s account is doubly chilling because it occurs in a church and it seems like parents (including Sharon’s mother) followed the example of a pastor’s wife who kills a little girl by smashing her head in. A place of worship and comfort was transformed into a place of shocking brutality.
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Khuzhir, Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal, The Holy Russian Empire. The narrator meets Maria Zhuganova alone in a small, bare room, but is certain that they are being watched through one-way glass. She tells him that she and her troop of soldiers used to work in a remote southern republic, and their superiors cited “state security” as the reason for suddenly cutting off their access to TVs, radios, and cell phones. A plain-clothed civilian with a mean face showed up out of nowhere—the soldiers nicknamed him “Rat Face.” Right after, they were placed on full combat alert. They were told to question the villagers to see if anyone had gone missing or been bitten by a rabid animal or person.
Russia attempted to control the zombie problem without giving its soldiers clear instructions on what they were fighting. Like the Chinese and U.S. governments, Russia, too, withheld information about the zombies from its own people. The government likely assumed   soldiers would want to return home if they understood the nature of the danger while the government wanted them to stay and work. Meanwhile, China wanted to maintain the illusion of its superiority and control, while America’s administration didn’t want to upset its electorate. The countries had different reasons to downplay the danger of the outbreak, but they all contributed to its spread.
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After Rat Face spoke to the village elders, they looked scared. Zhuganova and the other soldiers were confused and angry since they weren’t given any information. One day, at a tiny town they were searching, a little girl came running and pointed to a figure across a field—another little girl was staggering towards them. Rat Face looked at her through his binoculars and ordered the platoon sharpshooter to shoot her. When he refused to shoot the child, Rat Face pulled out a pistol and finished the job.
While Rat Face didn’t think it important to inform the soldiers about what was going on, he did speak to the village elders about it. Perhaps he expected full revolt if the soldiers knew the extent of the menace. Zhuganova thinks he is a civilian, but he seems to be a government agent who has been sent to Zhuganova’s outpost to monitor the spread of the virus in that area.
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The next day, Arkady, the heavy machine gunner, held an old zombie woman by her throat and showed her to the other soldiers, telling them that he had discovered the real reason they were there. The old woman managed to bite his hand. Arkady kicked her head in, and then demanded that he wanted to go home to protect his family, and the other soldiers joined him in this demand. Suddenly, Arkady was shot in the face, and Zhuganova could smell tear gas. The Spetznaz commandoes had appeared, and were beating and shackling the soldiers.
When one of the soldiers discovers the zombie woman, the soldiers immediately realize the danger this outbreak poses and their first reaction is to return home to protect their loved ones against this threat. The revolt that the soldiers’ superiors were wary of comes to pass, and they take swift and heartless measures against their own soldiers.
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That was the start of the Decimation. Zhuganova says that theirs was not the first army unit to rebel, and the “government had decided how to restore order.” She explains that to “decimate” means to “kill by a percentage of ten, one out of every ten must die,” which is what happened to them. The Spetznaz grouped them in tens and had them vote on which one of them would die, and made the other nine kill that soldier. After this, the soldiers “relinquished their freedom” and followed orders.
The Russian Decimations become well-known all over the world for their cruelty. The soldiers are broken-spirited after this and obey all orders. They end up fearing the authorities as much as they fear the zombies. The narrator shows through Zhuganova’s interview that ruling over people by fear is highly unethical, likening the Russian government to the monstrous zombies who also inspire terror.
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Bridgetown, Barbados, West Indies Federation. The narrator meets T. Sean Collins at a raucous bar. He tells the narrator that there is no name for what his previous job used to be, and that the closest title that would apply would be “mercenary.” He was a vet and used his training to make money by guarding “some fat CEO or worthless, dumb celebrity.” The client he worked for right before the panic hit had a safe, well-stocked house by the beach—“a survivalists’ wet dream”—and had decided to use it to provide safety to some actors, rappers, and other celebrity friends. Each of them brought along a host of stylists and personal assistants. A webcast went out from each room of the house at all times, since Collins’ client wanted to become famous for saving his famous friends.
The wealthy led a luxurious life in pre-war America and could afford the means to safety. Collins talks of them derisively—in his opinion, they seem to be shallow and unworthy of their good fortune. Notably, his wealthy employer hadn’t invited his other famous friends to his house to ensure that they’d be safe through the crisis—he’d done it only so he’d become famous himself for doing so, showing the level of his pettiness and hankering for fame at a time of crisis. 
Themes
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The Fragility of Privilege and Modern Life Theme Icon
One night, they heard the alarms go off. Their sensors had detected hundreds of bodies moving towards the house. The lookout warned that the attackers were running, which made Collins nervous since zombies usually didn’t run. When he looked at them through the sight of his weapon which had thermal imaging, he saw that they were warm bodies—not zombies. The people who were approaching “were carrying guns, ladders, babies.” Collins’ client ordered him and the other security to shoot at these people who were desperate for a safe haven, and they shot back.
While the extremely wealthy could afford safety, most people couldn’t, and were desperate to save themselves and their children. They’d seen the webcasts from this celebrity safe house and had decided to storm it in a desperate attempt to keep themselves safe. Many of them had heartbreakingly brought their babies along. Collins’ client displays extreme cruelty when he orders his guards to shoot at these frightened people. He doesn’t just want them gone—he wants them dead for daring to invade his safe haven.
Themes
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The Fragility of Privilege and Modern Life Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Collins says complete confusion ensued, and that it looked like “the end of the world” with fire and blood and bodies everywhere. He refused to fire at the people because he had been paid to fight zombies, not humans. He walked out to the beach and paddled out onto the water on a surfboard. He wonders why the rich people couldn’t just go to a safe, isolated place like Antarctica or Greenland, since they could afford to, rather than stay in the public eye. 
Collins displays integrity by refusing to follow his client’s orders and walking out on his job. He cannot understand why the people he worked for hankered after fame even at a serious time like this. This interview shows that many wealthy people were not only shallow but were very confident that their money would protect them from all danger, which the zombie crisis quickly proved was incorrect.
Themes
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The Fragility of Privilege and Modern Life Theme Icon
Ice City, Greenland. The narrator meets Ahmed Farahnakian here. He used to be a major in the Iranian Revolution Guards. Farahnakian says that the world expected the next nuclear war to break out between Indian and Pakistan, which was why it didn’t happen—everyone was prepared to stop it. But no one could predict the events that actually transpired.
Farahnakian makes an excellent point about how tragedy can be averted if one is prepared for it. While he is speaking of nuclear war, this same idea can also be applied to the zombie war. The reason the situation got so out of hand was because no one was prepared for it and didn’t react to the danger signs quickly enough.
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Farahnakian says that Iran was relatively unaffected by the outbreak since their land was mountainous and their population was small. Their biggest threat was the hordes of infected refugees coming in from Baluchistan, which overwhelmed the army. Most of the refugees were from India and passed through Pakistan while looking for a safe place. Pakistan was happy to pass on the problem of the refugees to another country rather than deal with it themselves. Iran offered to send some troops to Pakistan to help them keep the refugees out of their country, but the offer was seen as a threat and refused.
Again, this example shows that tensions between nations exacerbated the zombie problem around the world. Pakistan was happy to pass on the problem of the refugees to Iran rather than dealing with it ethically.
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Desperate to keep the infected refugees out, Iran decided to bomb a bridge that led from Pakistan into Iran. Farahnakian led the mission himself, and hoped  that Pakistan would not retaliate. But right after, Pakistan attacked the Iranian border station. The president and Ayatollah were willing to let it go, but Pakistan would not relent and continued its attacks. Their diplomatic channels had been destroyed, and the conflict escalated and turned nuclear. Farahnakian says that no one could have expected this, since Pakistan had even helped Iran build their nuclear program.
Fear and suspicion led to a nuclear war between Iran and Pakistan. Since Pakistan was being irrationally hostile, Iran didn’t expect the problem and therefore couldn’t resolve it quickly. Once again, fear causes great destruction and a breakdown of carefully cultivated relationships, making it almost as destructive and dangerous as the zombies themselves.
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Denver, Colorado, USA. The narrator and Todd Wainio shake hands under the train station’s mural of Victory, one of the most recognizable images from the war. It depicts soldiers standing on the New Jersey side of the Hudson and watching the sun rise over Manhattan. Wainio, who used to be a U.S. Army infantryman, looks prematurely old, like many men of his generation.
According to the narrator, Wainio and others of his generation have aged prematurely because of the stress they went through during the war years.
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Wainio says that he, like most people, had never heard of Yonkers before, but that it was now as famous as Pearl Harbor and Little Bighorn. The events there took place around three months after the Great Panic, in which terrified people “shooting everything that moved” and traffic accidents “killed more people at first than Zack.” The “powers that be” thought it would be a good idea to have one big battle against the zombies to show the public they were still in charge so they could begin to calm down.
During the Great Panic, the biggest problem the government had to deal with was people’s fear. In sheer terror, people were attacking and killing each other in larger numbers than the zombies. The government knew that people believed that they no longer had any control over the situation, so they decided to show the people that they were still in charge by going on the offensive against the zombies.
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Wainio wonders why the soldiers weren’t placed on the flat roofs of the buildings at Yonkers, from where they could have seen the approaching zombies and been safe from them. Instead, they were placed on the ground, behind sandbags or in holes for “cover and concealment.” He rails against this plan, saying it was “backasswards” and must have been thought up by some old Cold War general.
The higher-ups who planned the attack at Yonkers hadn’t realized that their old strategies would not be effective against this new enemy. They had sent their soldiers into danger without much thought.
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They had a lot of high-tech arms, like tanks and “electronic warfare vehicles all crammed with radar and jamming gear,” and oddly, even portable latrines for the soldiers to use though they were right in the middle of a city. Wainio stresses that they had many things that were unnecessary and were probably there “just to look pretty” for the press, who were there in full force. They even had the soldiers dressed in Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP 4), which were bulky suits and masks designed to protect them from radioactive or biochem exposure—neither of which were present. The suits were cumbersome and uncomfortable in the heat. The soldiers were also virtually connected via the Land Warrior combat integration system so they could easily share information. 
The campaign at Yonkers seems to have been planned solely to impress the press. There was a lot of high-tech gadgetry that looked good but would be useless against the zombies. The higher-ups hadn’t considered the soldiers’ safety or comfort in their desperate bid to please the press, and by extension, calm down the people of America. The government, too, seems to have been motivated by fear and desperation in their desire to cram all their high-tech gadgets into this battle, without really giving much thought to evolving a strategy that would be effective against this strange new enemy. 
Themes
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The Fragility of Privilege and Modern Life Theme Icon
The zombies started trickling into the choke point. The soldiers fired rockets, which destroyed three-quarters of them, and there was much cheering. But the rest kept coming, even though their bodies had been torn apart by the blasts. Soon, more zombies began appearing, and the second round of rockets didn’t do much to stop them, and neither did the bombs. The soldiers fired at them with heavy arms and missiles and grenades from the Humvees. Wainio is angry that their superiors hadn’t realized that none of their high-tech arms were of any use against “a group of walking corpses.” As the soldiers saw thousands of zombies still approaching through the fires, they began to feel fear. Wainio shot one in the chest and saw it get up again, which filled him with terror.
Wainio is angry that the campaign at Yonkers had been so irresponsibly planned. The army higher-ups had great faith in their technological prowess because this had worked well for them in other battles against human enemies—they were astounded that this had no effect on the zombies. The rules of warfare had changed, but the army was unprepared. The soldiers on the battlefield were gripped by fear when they saw that the zombies were unaffected by the bombs and gunfire, since they, too, had never faced an enemy like this one before. The U.S. Army wasn’t used to feeling this powerless.
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Wainio says that many arm-chair theorists cannot understand why the soldiers couldn’t just shoot the zombies in the head. But he says that all their life they had been trained to shoot in the torso, and it was hard to suddenly change what they were used to. Their uncomfortable suits made it harder for them to reload their guns. Though they were trying to stay calm, they’d lived through three months of the Panic and had just seen that the zombies were undeterred by even missiles. Yet, they’d stayed and fought and killed many zombies.
Wainio seems justified in his defense of the soldiers who fought valiantly despite their frayed nerves, They had endured months of stress even before the Battle of Yonkers. When faced with the zombie horde that kept coming at them, they were terrified, but they powered through their fear and stayed and fought.
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Land Warrior showed them just how large the horde of zombies was. They could see thousands, but behind them were millions. Land Warrior also transmitted the soldiers’ frightened exclamations, and when one soldier said that the zombies didn’t even die when they were shot in the head, it caused widespread panic among them. Then, through their eyepieces, they could see a soldier getting bitten by a zombie family, and the terror on his face when they tore off his mask and attacked him. An older soldier ordered them to stay off Land Warrior, and then the connection went dead.
While their superiors thought it would be a great idea to have all the soldiers connected virtually on Land Warrior, this plan backfired and only served to feed their fear. When they realized that they were being attacked by millions of zombies, they lost all hope for victory and were gripped by fear when they saw the zombies attacking other soldiers.
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Then, an airstrike began and Wainio took shelter in his hole. A burned zombie head struck him in his back, and it was still trying to bite. After the last of the missiles fell, he came out of his hole and saw that more zombies were still coming through the fire and smoke. In the all-out panic that followed, soldiers and reporters tried to flee, and there was random shooting. Wainio was shot in his sternum. He felt hands reaching for him and fought back until he realized they were his friends rescuing him. 
The Battle of Yonkers devolved into confusion and chaos. The higher ups had planned for the airstrike to be the final measure of defense, but this, too, proved to be ineffective against the zombies who walked through fire and didn’t mind losing a few body parts. The zombies had won this round.
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Wainio says that historians talk about Yonkers as representing a “catastrophic failure of the modern military apparatus,” and he concedes that there were many mistakes made. Still, he believes that the main reason that Yonkers turned into a disaster was because the army was confronted with an enemy that felt no fear. Real fighting “isn’t about killing or even hurting the other guy, it’s about scaring him enough to call it a day.” He says that Yonkers destroyed all hope that they’d be able to win against the zombies, and if it weren’t for the South African plan, he is sure that everyone in America would have turned into zombies.
Wainio stresses the importance of fear in a war—the victorious side is the one that can successfully frighten and intimidate its enemy. However, the zombies feel neither awe nor intimidation by the army’s weapons. Unlike people, they have nothing to lose. Also, they are incapable of feeling anything, including fear. This proves to be their biggest strength in battle.
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