CPT Jake Miraldi:      Welcome everyone to The Modern War Institute Podcast. This week on the podcast, we’re gonna talk about something a little bit different than we normally talk about. This week we’re talking about zombies – well, kind of. We’ll be talking about zombies as a metaphor.


Max Brooks:                Insert real plague here.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      What we’re really talking about is a how a small thing in seemingly insignificant places can turn into big, global security issues. We’re talking about connecting the dots and understanding the big picture.


Max Brooks:                Bring people together in a connection and see how what could be an environmental crisis or a medical crisis or a social crisis of today will become a national security crisis tomorrow.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      That’s Max Brooks, author of the bestseller, World War Z. He’ll help us connect those dots. So stay tuned while we talk about interconnectedness, security and zombies.

This is the Modern War Institute Podcast.

So how do we get from zombies to real-world security?

Well, today, on the podcast, we’re talking to Max Brooks, author of the Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z and Harlem Health Fighters and now a new Non-Resident Fellow at The Modern War Institute.

When I sat down with him, I asked him why zombies?


Max Brooks:                Yeah. I mean I think what’s great about zombies is they are big. To my knowledge, other than maybe an alien invasion, it’s the only sort of mega-crisis that you can do. I mean we grew up on Godzilla movies. But the guys who made them, those were the generation that grew up being bombed by B-29s. And they couldn’t make a movie about being bombed so they invented Godzilla and it was a way to talk about what it was like to live under that kind of unstoppable terror coming to their shores.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Yeah.


Max Brooks:                To me, it seemed like a no-brainer, because zombies are always big stories. It’s not like one werewolf or one psycho killer killing teenagers at a summer camp. It’s a global issue, so why not write a global book about how we stop it instead of just writing another story about a small group of people.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right.


Max Brooks:                And I really want to do that from a national point of view, ’cause I think for all the great awesome things America does well, one of our issues is being isolationists and that leads to problems. And it would be fine if we were isolationists and we were Denmark.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right.


Max Brooks:                But we’re not. We’re an isolationist superpower. And so I wanted to bring in global perspectives. I wanted to talk about how you can’t ignore these little problems, ’cause you see this in wars that America gets involved in over and over again. It’s always round one for us. And it’s always like round 17 for the other guy.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right.


Max Brooks:                And I wish we didn’t have so much of a learning curve.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      So zombies provide a stand-in for potentially little things that happen in the world that turn into huge catastrophes. What are those huge catastrophes that we could see in the world? Mr. Brooks outlined one at a talk at the Naval War College.


Max Brooks:                When you think of global warming, somehow we’re all supposed to think of a polar bear drowning, ’cause the ice is gone. Well, maybe, the polar bear doesn’t drown. Maybe, the polar bear is out of a job. And the polar bear gets radicalized. And the polar bear discovers his religious beliefs and the polar bear blames the United States. And the polar bear seeks revenge. Now, obviously, this is not a polar bear.

But if this were to happen in a country like Bangladesh, which gets flooded and creates millions of unemployed, desperate, angry, ashamed, young Muslim men – and this is important, shame – men who can’t feed their families. Men who come home every day and don’t feel like men. And their shame turns into anger. And they need someone to blame. And there’s only one superpower left. And it’s all because the polar icecaps have melted. He doesn’t know that. All he knows is that we’re the only superpower left and somehow it must be our fault.

And this is what I tried to get through in World War Z is to talk about how everything is connected and problems that we might not understand will morph into other problems.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      So that’s a hypothetical. I asked him in my recent interview if there were any real-world examples that are going on right now that he could highlight.

Is there something in the world today that you sort of feel like embodies the interconnectedness and that evolution from small thing to global catastrophe?


Max Brooks:                Oh, yeah. I mean you look at ISIS right now, I mean and you can’t just blame ISIS on Iraq. I mean ISIS started because of the Arab Spring and the Arab Spring started because of one guy in Tunisia who couldn’t feed his family. And he couldn’t do that because of the global food prices were so high. And the global food prices were high, because people were converting farmland to biofuels. And they were doing that, ’cause of the high price of oil. And the high price of oil, because of Iraq. So there’s this chain of events that sucks us in.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      So when you think conceptually about whether it’s the zombie problem in World War Z or the ISIS cycle that you just talked about, how do you go about breaking that down in your own head? Is it something that you start with the current situation? Or, in the sense of World War Z, the end state, the end of the war? Or is it something that you start at the small thing and then work and expand out from the small thing?


Max Brooks:                I think I always start with questions.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Okay.


Max Brooks:                I think I’m always sort of asking myself questions. And sometimes they’re big ones; and sometimes they’re little tiny ones. But whenever I sit down to write, whenever I’m looking at the blank page, the first thing I always write are my lists of questions. And through answering that, I sort of start the ball rolling.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right. Okay. I mean so it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of method for how you go about looking at these problems?


Max Brooks:                No, no, ’cause I think it depends on what the actual problem is. Like, for example, Zombie Survival Guide was about how would I, as an individual, survive a zombie plague and that led to the answers that became the book. Whereas World War Z was how would we, as a species, as a planet survive a zombie plague, so completely different train of thought.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right. So a lot of what – maybe not junior officers or cadets immediately, but definitely in the future of their careers understanding the complexities and the interconnectedness and the connective tissue, the threads between all those items are gonna be part of what cadets, graduates of West Point, officers do.


Max Brooks:                Yeah.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Is there a way that you found works best as a starting point or how to go about recognizing what issues are important in the world? And how do you go about doing that?


Max Brooks:                I think the word why is probably the most important word in our language, certainly, if you’re in any sort of problem-solving capacity. Sort of why is this happening? And, like, for example, with Zombie Survival Guide, I started to think about it. And I started to think, if there was a real zombie plague, most people would not die by zombie. Most people would die secondary, tertiary. They would die of dehydration, malnutrition, accidents. And I learned that from studying military history. For every one soldier who dies of combat death, how many soldiers in the past have died from just disease or malnutrition or whatever, secondary, tertiary problems?


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Yeah. How do you foresee some of those things that you just sort of called secondary, tertiary problems outside of a global catastrophe? How do those feed into security issues that military folk will be thinking about?


Max Brooks:                Well, I think what I’ve watched the military do in the last, I would say, five or ten years, I think is awesome. And I think it’s the kind of sort of nervous breakdown reinvention we should have had after Vietnam. And what I’ve noticed is that the military is starting to imagine problems as not just a military problem.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right.


Max Brooks:                That the wars of tomorrow are the economic problems, the social problems, the environmental problems of today. And I think that’s wonderful. I think it’s great to sort of start to imagine everything is connected, because we used to be good at that.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Economic problems, social problems, environmental problems, all potentially creating security problems. What Max Brooks is advocating is officers and leaders, especially in the armed forces, who are holistic, who understand the whole picture and see at a higher level.

Is that something that we’re doing well in terms of educating our officers? And is that something that we, as a community, as an Army, as a security community care about and think about? And if that’s something we do care about, how do we foster that holistic thinking?

Mr. Brooks says we have to focus on engagement. This is him at the Naval War College.


Max Brooks:                We need to get back out into the world. And we need to stay in the world. And this is what I was trying to do is that we need people who do nothing but see connections. And this is going to be the future leaders.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      So if individual and national engagement are key to our development and our understanding of the future problems of the world, how does that apply to the Army itself?

What do you foresee the military’s role being in that engagement?


Max Brooks:                No, I think that somebody, not necessarily the military, has to be the driving force for integration once again. And if nobody else is doing it, maybe the military should. But I do think we have to get rid of this sort of compartmentalization. I think the worst thing that’s ever happened to this country was the yellow ribbon, because it really is the motherlode of the empty gestures. And so when people say I support our troops, how?


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right. If the Army is not functioning in a role of the great integrator, what does our engagement look like?


Max Brooks:                I foresee the Army in the future integrating with other services as far as our foreign policy, because I think what we’ve started to learn – and the funny thing is with Americans, we always have to relearn this –


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right.


Max Brooks:                we learned it Somalia and we forgot it is that there’s no such thing as a humanitarian crisis without a security element. And I see the Army as being part of a team. And I think if we don’t have that team that includes everybody, if you just try to do a military solution, just the same way you try to do a humanitarian solution, it’s not gonna work.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Yeah. How do we prepare then if we are functioning as we sort of have been in a lot of these conflicts as military police potentially integrating civil humanitarian aid? How should we prepare as officers to do that?


Max Brooks:                Well, I think the Army has done a couple things in the last few years that I think will pay huge dividends in the future without us realizing it.

One of them was getting rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell” allowed ROTC to come back on campus. And that is going to allow people, military cadets to mix with the general population and exchange ideas. And I think that’s really important to depoliticize the military.

And I think another thing is just general diversity. I think as America becomes more diverse, we will get people from other cultures. And I think that’s important to learn from. I was just at SOCOM. A general looked out at the room and said I’m looking at a room of white males, who are engaged in a world where there are no white males.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right.


Max Brooks:                So I think diversity is not just some sort of feel good, granola crunchy kind of attitude. It’s not a bumper sticker. I think it should be national policy.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right. Is there anything that we should be doing or should be preparing for in our future role in terms of engagement that we’re not?


Max Brooks:                Well, I don’t know if you’re not doing it, but I think what could happen more is creative thinking, because in counterinsurgencies, as you well know, probably better than me, the rules change on a day-to-day basis.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right.


Max Brooks:                And you need to develop that part of your brain that’s able to think on the fly.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right.


Max Brooks:                And I think that’s why certain elements in the military are trying to get back to like tank warfare in Germany, fighting Russia, fighting China, because that’s sort of steady, predictable warfare.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right.


Max Brooks:                And that’s not gonna be the wars of the future. I really don’t think so. And I think we need to prepare our cadets, especially our leaders to think creatively instantly.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right. Now, obviously, as someone who writes for a living, you have to think creatively all the time. So, I mean, what is your method? Like, how did you build that skill?


Max Brooks:                Well, I got very lucky, because I was blessed with a curse. I have dyslexia, a really rotten learning disability that I hated as a kid, because nothing came easily to me.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right.


Max Brooks:                But what it did was teach me how to be a problem solver, because nothing was easy and I took nothing for granted. So I always had to learn. I couldn’t be Westmoreland. I had to be the Vietcong throughout school. And so it made me a much more flexible thinker. And so I think that sort of problem-solving skill is very important.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Okay. And you think that has sort of helped you in your career as a writer?


Max Brooks:                Yeah. I think it has taught me to do and runs around conventional wisdom. I went looking for a book on how to fight zombies, how to survive zombies. There wasn’t one. So I thought I will write it myself.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Okay. So, we, as leaders, need to engage and we need to be creative. Where does that creativity come from?


Max Brooks:                I think this is a long-term thing. I think it actually has to be bottom-up. Junior officers always know that they run into the generational wall where they run into colonels and generals of a different generation, who are – and that’s not the colonels’ and generals’ problem. That’s an age thing. After a certain age, you just stop learning new ideas. And I think if we can train this generation of junior officers to always be thinking, always be learning, always be reinventing themselves, then that will become their comfort zone when they start wearing general stars.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right.


Max Brooks:                So when a second lieutenant in 2050 says, I have a brand new idea, they go, I’m open to brand new ideas. Okay. Let’s _____. Let’s try it out.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      You’ve talked a lot about everything in the book is based on something real, something that actually happened.


Max Brooks:                Right.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Do you in coming up with this stuff think broadly and conceptually or do you look back at history? Are you creating a new vision with your books? Or are you trying to show how history has –


Max Brooks:                I do both.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Okay.


Max Brooks:                Because I think everything I do is based in history. Everything I do is backed up by research. And I think that’s my own dyslexic insecurity.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Uh-huh.


Max Brooks:                I feel like I need to be like a case lawyer.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right.


Max Brooks:                Like if somebody comes up to me and says that would never happen, I need to be able to say it already has and I need to be able to have facts to back it up.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Gotcha.


Max Brooks:                And I think history is a great teacher. And that’s another thing Americans don’t do well. We don’t learn from it.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      I was curious. It was funny watching the Naval War College speech that you did. I’m not sure if that was one of the first speeches you did for a military organization.


Max Brooks:                Yeah. Oh, yeah.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      But it was funny upfront, because you sort of weren’t sure you were in the right spot. I think you even said that in the speech.


Max Brooks:                No, I said are you sure you got the right guy? Isn’t there a Lieutenant Commander Brooks somewhere?


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Yeah. Somewhere who’s lost. But I was curious. I mean we, as military officers, read a lot of nonfiction, a lot of history stuff, a lot of current events type stuff. The fiction route is something that I think is often neglected. Do you think there’s an added benefit that fiction can give us, a little nuance, perhaps, to what we read?


Max Brooks:                Yes. I think what fiction does, particularly science fiction or alternative history, is it circumvents the ego defense mechanism. And that’s something we all have. Human nature is nobody wants to be scared, nobody wants to be uncomfortable. So if you’re reading something that trips that, it’s your brain’s nature to be like, uh, this is a downer.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right.


Max Brooks:                Let me just read something that makes me feel good.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right.


Max Brooks:                So that way if you call ISIS zombies or whatever, if you make them Klingons, if you make them Cylons, then it’s easier to be entertained and you don’t even realize that you’re teaching yourself.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      So looking at fiction, is there any other fiction that you would recommend that military officers read? Is there anything else that people are writing that runs kind of in the same current as what you wrote in World War Z?


Max Brooks:                Yeah. I would encourage Starship Troopers, Heinlein. I mean it’s a classic. I tried to get it made back into a TV series, nobody bit. But because I think that Heinlein predicted the world we’re living in right now. Back in the ’50s, he predicted a generation of spoiled young people who live for themselves and then this military class totally separate. And so I think it’s got some amazing ideas.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Anything else sort of more current than that? Or is there –


Max Brooks:                Yeah. Let me think about – so, currently, if there’s anything I’m sort of reading right now, I kind of like all the old stuff. I mean I’m always a fan of Red Storm Rising, but I know that’s probably dated.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right [laughs].


Max Brooks:                Yeah. I think that’s pretty much it. I mean Starship Troopers will always be an important one. And also I’m a big fan of graphic novels. I mean there’s a comic book that’s only about 20 pages long and it’s about the Choctaw code talkers in World War I. I had no idea they existed.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Yeah.


Max Brooks:                And what a mind blower that was.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Yeah. I have to ask what you’re working on now? What we can expect from you in the future?


Max Brooks:                I’m writing a comic book story as part of an anthology with Alan Moore and Garth Ennis and some other guys. My story is Gettysburg, but it’s alternative history Gettysburg. It’s us versus giant ants. Civil War has never happened and General Lee is command. And it’s really a story about not having the luxury of prejudice, basically, how when your back is against the wall, you have to reach out to talent no matter what their gender or skin color or whatever. And everybody needs to kick in.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Right.


Max Brooks:                For example, I think that the Army getting rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was amazing. I can tell you – I haven’t had much military experience. I’ve had like a semester of ROTC. But I can tell you the absolute finest cadet in my unit was a guy named Stephen May, who later sued the Army over “don’t ask, don’t tell”. And let me tell you, America would be a lot safer with Stephen May in a uniform than me. So I’m glad we finally caught up to that.


CPT Jake Miraldi:      Engagement, creativity, connections, a lot to think about. Just make sure to protect your brain. Thanks for listening. Please make sure you rate us on iTunes and check us out at http://www.ModernWarInstitute.org.

If you’d like to find additional research, op-eds and other original ideas from The Modern War Institute, please visit the War Council blog at http://www.ModernWarInstitute.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can find new episodes of the Modern War Institute podcasts on iTunes and Stitcher.

The views expressed in this podcast are those of the respective participants and do not reflect the official position of the United States government.

For The Modern War Institute, I’m Captain Jake Miraldi. And I hope you’ll join us next time for more in-depth conversations on war, policy and leadership.


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