World War Z is about a zombie crisis during which millions of people all over the world are killed and entire nations are ravaged by hordes of attacking zombies. After the zombies are contained, the narrator, who works for the U.N., travels the world to collect the stories of some of the major players in this worldwide battle. The many narratives in this novel are united by the question of what it means to be human and how to retain that humanity when confronted with adversity—particularly when up against something monstrous like a zombie. Brooks suggests that the main difference between zombies and human beings is the ability to empathize with and care for other people. Those who are willing to stand up for others and even sacrifice their lives for them represent the heights that humanity can reach, while other people who are mindlessly acquisitive and unfeeling are depicted as being just as monstrous as the zombie hordes—perhaps even more so.
In the novel, emotions and empathy are portrayed as the very essence of humanity. When the U.N. publishes the narrator’s report on the zombie war, he finds that much of what he’d included has been edited out. The chairperson explains that this is because the initial version had “too many feelings,” and they needed “clear facts and figures, unclouded by the human factor.” The narrator disagrees with this manner of thinking, saying that it is the “human factor that connects us so deeply to the past.” He decides to write a book that will include all the “feelings” that the U.N. had found too messy and unnecessary for its report. He is convinced that it is important to preserve stories that are full of emotion and human experience, since these would help future generations to truly connect with the stories of the war rather than seeing them as just a collection of facts. The narrator says that the human factor is “the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as ‘the living dead.’” Similarly, Travis D’Ambrosia, an army general, tells the narrator that “[e]ach zombie is its own, self-contained, automated unit,” and that this separates them from people who form deep connections with each other.
To further emphasize this distinction, the characters in the novel who allow themselves to be guided by empathy and affection for humanity are depicted as heroes. David Allen Forbes, a British author, reverently describes how the Queen opened up Windsor Castle to the public during the zombie attacks since a castle offers more protection than an ordinary building. Forbes says that he tried to convince her to leave London and head to a safer place, but that she refused because “the highest of distinctions is service to others”—this is an idea that many of the honorable characters in the book believe in. Another oft-mentioned hero in the book is General Raj-Singh of the Indian Army who helps fight a surge of zombies who are making their way across a bridge. When the bomb on the bridge doesn’t detonate, Raj-Singh manages to set it off manually, which most likely kills him since he is never seen again. His sacrifice helps create a “safe zone” away from the zombies for the government and people of the Indian subcontinent.
In contrast to these characters who embody humanity’s potential for heroism, there are others in the novel who lack any sense of empathy or conscience. Brooks suggests that these are the true monsters of the book. Unlike the zombies, who are incapable of higher feelings, these human beings are presented a choice and choose cruelty and harm. One of the most despicable characters in the book is Breckenridge “Breck” Scott, who made a fortune selling Phalanx, an anti-rabies vaccine that he falsely marketed as being a cure for the zombie virus. He refuses to take responsibility for lying to the vulnerable public at the time of the crisis. Safe in his bunker in Antarctica, Scott tells the narrator that he feels no guilt and claims that the “the sheep who forked over their greenbacks without bothering to do a little extra research” must be held responsible for their own foolishness. He is completely untroubled that he made his millions off of a terrified, desperate populace.
While the zombie crisis could have been effectively controlled at the initial stages, it spiraled out of control due to inept leadership and government bureaucracy. Grover Carlson, the former White House chief of staff, exemplifies the callousness demonstrated by some of the politicians in power. He decides to play down the dangers of the zombie plague and even encourages people to embrace false cures like Phalanx because it will calm them down. Carlson ignores outbreaks that are not in his party zones and even denies law enforcement in these areas any additional support to contain the zombie outbreak. Despite all this, Carlson has no qualms about his behavior when the narrator interviews him, justifying his cruelty as just being smart politics. While the zombies wreak havoc on humanity, they cause harm unwittingly while people like Scott and Carlson choose to do so. Like the zombies, people who are extremely selfish are immune to the suffering of their fellow humans. The novel repeatedly shows that those who are incapable of empathy are not only dishonorable, but also monstrous in that they exhibit the very antithesis of what it means to be a human being.
Humanity vs. Monstrosity ThemeTracker
Humanity vs. Monstrosity Quotes in World War Z
The official report was a collection of cold, hard data, an objective “after-action report” that would allow future generations to study the events of that apocalyptic decade without being influenced by “the human factor.” But isn't the human factor what connects us so deeply to our past? Will future generations care as much for chronologies and casualty statistics as they would for the personal accounts of individuals not so different from themselves? By excluding the human factor, aren't we risking the kind of personal detachment from a history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn’t the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as “the living dead”?
When I think about how many transplants I performed, all those patients from Europe, the Arab world, even the self-righteous United States. Few of you Yankees asked where your new kidney or pancreas was coming from, be it a slum kid from the City of God or some unlucky student in a Chinese political prison. You didn’t know, you didn’t care. You just signed your traveler’s checks, went under the knife, then went home to Miami or New York or wherever.
Our report was just under a hundred pages long. It was concise, it was fully comprehensive, it was everything we thought we needed to make sure this outbreak never reached epidemic proportions. I know a lot of credit has been heaped upon the South African war plan, and deservedly so, but if more people had read our report and worked to make its recommendations a reality, then that plan would have never needed to exist.
I realized I practically didn’t know anything about these people I’d hated my entire life. Everything I thought was true went up in smoke that day, supplanted by the face of our real enemy.
The only rule that ever made sense to me I learned from a history, not an economics, professor at Wharton. “Fear,” he used to say, “fear is the most valuable commodity in the universe.” That blew me away. “Turn on the TV,” he’d say. “What are you seeing? People selling their products? No. People selling the fear of you having to live without their products.” Fuckin’ A, was he right. Fear of aging, fear of loneliness, fear of poverty, fear of failure. Fear is the most basic emotion we have. Fear is primal. Fear sells. That was my mantra. “Fear sells.”
The swarm continued among the cars, literally eating its way up the stalled lines, all those poor bastards just trying to get away. And that’s what haunts me most about it, they weren’t headed anywhere. This was the I-80, a strip of highway between Lincoln and North Platte. Both places were heavily infested, as well as all those little towns in between. What did they think they were doing? Who organized this exodus? Did anyone? Did people see a line of cars and join them without asking? I tried to imagine what it must have been like, stuck bumper to bumper, crying kids, barking dog, knowing what was coming just a few miles back, and hoping, praying that someone up ahead knows where he’s going.
So when I saw the searing, bright green signatures of several hundred runners, my throat tightened. Those weren’t living dead.
“There it is!” I heard them shout. “That’s the house on the news!” They were carrying ladders, guns, babies. A couple of them had these heavy satchels strapped to their backs. They were booking it for the front gate, big tough steel that was supposed to stop a thousand ghouls. The explosion tore them right off their hinges, sent them flipping into the house like giant ninja stars. “Fire!” the boss was screaming into the radio. “Knock ’em down! Kill ’em! Shootshootshoot!”
Dude, we had everything: tanks, Bradleys, Humvees armed with everything from fifty cals to these new Vasilek heavy mortars. […] We even had a whole FOL, Family of Latrines, just plopped right there in the middle of everything. Why, when the water pressure was still on and toilets were still flushing in every building and house in the neighborhood? So much we didn’t need! So much shit that only blocked traffic and looked pretty, and that’s what I think they were really there for, just to look pretty.
For the press.
Hell yeah, there must have been at least one reporter for every two or three uniforms!
I know that the majority of psychobiographers continue to paint this man without a soul. That is the generally accepted notion. Paul Redeker: no feelings, no compassion, no heart. However, one of our most revered authors […] postulates that Redeker was actually a deeply sensitive man, too sensitive, in fact, for life in apartheid South Africa. He insists that Redeker’s lifelong jihad against emotion was the only way to protect his sanity from the hatred and brutality he witnessed on a daily basis. […] Those who knew him from work were hard-pressed to remember witnessing any social interaction or even any physical act of warmth. The embrace by our nation’s father, this genuine emotion piercing his impenetrable shell…
[…] I can tell you that that was the last day anyone ever saw Paul Redeker. Even now, no one knows what really happened to him.
Now, I am a good soldier, but I am also a West German. […] We were taught since birth to bear the burden of our grandfathers’ shame. We were taught that, even if we wore a uniform, that our first sworn duty was to our conscience, no matter what the consequences. That is how I was raised, that is how I responded. I told Lang that I could not, in good conscience, obey this order, that I could not leave these people without protection. At this, he exploded.
Yes, they were lies and sometimes that’s not a bad thing. Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they’re used. The lies our government told us before the war, the ones that were supposed to keep us happy and blind, those were the ones that burned, because they prevented us from doing what had to be done. However, by the time I made Avalon, everyone was already doing everything they could possibly do to survive. The lies of the past were long gone and now the truth was everywhere, shambling down their streets, crashing through their doors, clawing at their throats. […] The truth was that we were standing at what might be the twilight of our species and that truth was freezing a hundred people to death every night.
She…she wouldn’t leave, you see. She insisted, over the objections of Parliament, to remain at Windsor, as she put it, “for the duration.” I thought maybe it was misguided nobility, or maybe fear-based paralysis. I tried to make her see reason, begged her almost on my knees.
What did she say?
“The highest of distinctions is service to others.” […] Their task, their mandate, is to personify all that is great in our national spirit. They must forever be an example to the rest of us, the strongest, and bravest, and absolute best of us.
The data we were broadcasting […] came from all around the world, from experts and think tanks in various government safe zones. They would transmit their findings to our IR operators who, in turn, would pass it along to us. Much of this data was transmitted to us over conventional, open, civilian bands, and many of these bands were crammed with ordinary people’s cries for help. There were millions of wretched souls scattered throughout our planet, all screaming into their private radio sets as their children starved or their temporary fortress burned, or the living dead overran their defenses. Even if you didn’t understand the language, as many of the operators didn’t, there was no mistaking the human voice of anguish. […] I don’t want to know what that was like for the IR operators. […] Not one of them is alive today.
They let us sleep as late as we wanted the next day. That was pretty sweet. Eventually the voices woke me up; everyone jawing, laughing, telling stories. It was a different vibe, one-eighty from two days ago. I couldn’t really put a finger on what I was feeling, maybe it was what the president said about “reclaiming our future.” I just knew I felt good, better than I had the entire war. I knew it was gonna be a real, long-ass road. I knew our campaign across America was just beginning, but, hey, as the prez said later that first night, it was finally the beginning of the end.
Fifteen thousand dead or missing. […] “Go! Go! Fight! Fight!” It didn’t have to be that way. How long did it take the English to clear all of London? Five years, three years after the war was officially over? They went slow and safe, one section at a time, low speed, low intensity, low casualty rate. […] That English general, what he said about “Enough dead heroes for the end of time…”
“Heroes,” that’s what we were, that’s what our leaders wanted, that’s what our people felt they needed. After all that has happened, not just in this war, but in so many wars before: Algeria, Indochina, the Nazis…you understand what I am saying…you see the sorrow and pity? We understood what the American president said about “reclaiming our confidence”; we understood it more than most. We needed heroes, new names and places to restore our pride.