Through numerous interviews, the narrator collects oral histories narrated by principal players in the war against the zombies. Some of these interviews describe the pre-war lives of people in privileged nations as being soft and shallow, which is why they were not equipped to deal with difficulties of any sort. While the citizens and armed forces of these nations believed their wealth and fancy technology gave them strength and superiority, the zombie war proved them horribly wrong. Through this, the novel criticizes the bloated and ridiculous lifestyles that most people take for granted in these countries, and points out that their position of power is extremely fragile.
The zombie invasion serves as a wake-up call to those who lack self-awareness and are stuck in the rut of their privileged lives. Mary Jo Miller is one of these people. She is introduced as a developer who designs and builds zombie-proof houses. Before the outbreak, her worries centered around concerns like “car payments and […] that widening crack in the pool,” and these run-of-the-mill worries prevented her from paying attention to the news stories about zombies. However, after coming face to face with a group of attacking zombies, she changes the course of her life and works actively to provide an effective, inventive solution to help people. Miller’s husband, who’d been having an affair before the invasion, placed himself between the attacking zombies and his family and sacrificed his life to save them. Miller says, “In a split second, it was like all the lies fell away.” This holds true not only for her husband, but for herself as well—her previously small concerns have now expanded, as has her role in society.
During the outbreak, T. Sean Collins worked as a security guard at a millionaire’s mansion, protecting his boss’ celebrity guests from possible zombie attacks. The house is “a survivalists’ wet dream,” with a huge stock of dehydrated food and a desalinizer for water. However, they come under one night, and Collins is at first surprised that the zombies are so intelligently scaling the high walls. He then realizes that the attackers are not zombies at all—they are just people from the outside trying to get inside the safe mansion, “carrying ladders, guns, babies.” The attackers go on a rampage, and Miller’s boss asks him and the other guards to fire at the raiders, displaying the callousness of the privileged. However, Miller disobeys and leaves, refusing to hurt “not-so-rich people who just want […] a safe place to hide.” The zombie war not only precipitates the anger of the middle class against millionaires and celebrities who can afford safety, but also inspires Miller to walk out on his “master.”
Before the zombie war, many people in privileged societies led idyllic lives, but Brooks highlights the fact that this was far from universal. The war forces the previously privileged to take stock of the injustices that propped up their comfortable positions. Brooks shows that many people who lived in developed nations selfishly encouraged lawlessness and a bad quality of life in poorer nations as long as it brought them comforts and goods. For instance, when the narrator meets Fernando Oliveira, a doctor in Brazil who performed illegal organ transplants, Oliveira says that “few […] Yankees asked where [their] 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. [They] didn’t know, [they] didn’t care.” Since these illegal organ transplants were a way in which the zombie virus spread into the U.S., the populace is now forced to reckon with the repercussions of their actions.
Before the zombie war, the wealthy in America held white-collar jobs and considered themselves superior to manual laborers who were paid much less. However, the war upturned previously held notions of prestige and power, and people who could build with their hands were now considered the most skilled workers. Sinclair, the head of the U.S. government’s Department of Strategic Resources, tells the narrator that these changes were “scarier than the living dead” for some people who struggled with their racist and classist ideas and their own lowered statuses.
Additionally, in privileged nations that were very proud of their high technological prowess, these gadgets proved to be useless in fighting the zombies, prompting a return to old-fashioned, simple methods of warfare. At the Battle at Yonkers, the U.S. Army was prepared to fight the zombies with fancy tanks and guns. Despite this, the army was forced to retreat by the hordes of zombies coming at them since they were impervious to missiles and fire. Later, the army learned from their mistakes at Yonkers and re-engaged with the zombies at Hope, New Mexico. This time, their new battle doctrine was to go “back into the past,” and simply form a row of soldiers who fire at the zombies with rifles. This battle, a return to old-fashioned warfare, turns out to be “the beginning of the end” and the strategy that ultimately wins the war.
In Japan, too, a young man named Kondo Tatsumi realizes that old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat is most effective at taking out the zombies. He spent the initial months of the zombie war holed up in his room, sharing information about the zombies over the internet. However, he lost electricity and his connection to the internet, and realized that his internet research and the communities he has formed online are useless to him. He manages to escape the city and bumps into Sensei Tomonaga Ijiro, a blind man who has been fighting zombies by himself in the mountains, armed with nothing but his ikupasuy, a kind of shovel. Ijiro and Tatsumi team up and fight together, and they go on to found a society of warriors and train them in combat. Once again, simplicity is shown to be more effective than technology.
Overall, Brooks suggests that modern lifestyles in developed nations lack depth and integrity, and that the zombie war forces people to realize this. In order to emerge stronger in order to fight the growing menace, people must embrace simplicity and turn away from meaningless markers of power.
The Fragility of Privilege and Modern Life ThemeTracker
The Fragility of Privilege and Modern Life Quotes in World War Z
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.
Oh yeah, I was worried, I was worried about my car payments and Tim’s business loan. I was worried about that widening crack in the pool and the new nonchlorinated filter that still left an algae film. I was worried about our portfolio, even though my e-broker assured me this was just first-time investor jitters and that it was much more profitable than a standard 401(k). […] These were just some of my worries. I had more than enough to keep me busy.
Did you watch the news?
Yeah, for about five minutes every day: local headlines, sports, celebrity gossip. Why would I want to get depressed by watching TV? I could do that just by stepping on the scale every morning.
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!
Yes, there was racism, but there was also classism. You’re a high-powered corporate attorney. You’ve spent most of your life reviewing contracts, brokering deals, talking on the phone. That’s what you’re good at, that’s what made you rich and what allowed you to hire a plumber to fix your toilet, which allowed you to keep talking on the phone. The more work you do, the more money you make, the more peons you hire to free you up to make more money. That’s the way the world works. But one day it doesn’t. No one needs a contract reviewed or a deal brokered. What it does need is toilets fixed. And suddenly that peon is your teacher, maybe even your boss. For some, this was scarier than the living dead.