What’s wrong with the Pentagon’s plan to thwart the zombie apocalypse

Daniel W. Drezner
June 20
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

People dressed and made up as zombies take part in a traditional Zombie Walk in Prague, Czech Republic, Saturday, May 24, 2014. And now let us all observe a moment of silence to appreciate that the words “traditional Zombie Walk” have actually been used in that sequence. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Your humble blogger is working feverishly on last-minute revisions to the revived edition of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. Now ordinarily, at this stage of the book, the changes would be only marginal. But then last month Foreign Policy‘s Gordon Lubold had to go and discover the Pentagon’s actual zombie apocalypse contingency plan:

Incredibly, the Defense Department has a response if zombies attacked and the armed forces had to eradicate flesh-eating walkers in order to “preserve the sanctity of human life” among all the “non-zombie humans.”….

“This plan fulfills fictional contingency planning guidance tasking for U.S. Strategic Command [USSTRATCOM] to develop a comprehensive [plan] to undertake military operations to preserve ‘non-zombie’ humans from the threats posed by a zombie horde,” CONOP 8888′s plan summary reads. “Because zombies pose a threat to all non-zombie human life, [Strategic Command] will be prepared to preserve the sanctity of human life and conduct operations in support of any human population — including traditional adversaries.”

CONOP 8888, otherwise known as “Counter-Zombie Dominance” and dated April 30, 2011, is no laughing matter, and yet of course it is. As its authors note in the document’s “disclaimer section,” “this plan was not actually designed as a joke.”

You can download U.S. Strategic Command’s plan here.

There is much to admire in the planning scenario.  Like my own zombie research, the authors note that, “planners will have to assume worst-case scenarios derived from popular culture references (books, movies, comic books) to adequately model zombie threats.”  Furthermore, the plan acknowledges the need to deal with the living dead while simultaneously develop confidence-building measures with, “nuclear armed peers such as Russia and the PRC [China.]”

Having read it over a couple of times, however, I did detect a few flaws in the planning process. In no particular order:

1.  The plan doesn’t really assume worst-case scenarios. U.S. Strategic Command ostensibly presents an exhaustive typology of the living dead, ranging from Evil Magic Zombies (EMZs) to Chicken Zombies (CZs) to Symbiant-Induced Zombies (SIZs).  Later on, however, the plan states unequivocally, “It is important to note that zombies are not cognizant life-forms.”

Now, based on the bulk of the zombie canon, the above statement is true.  But there are certainly examples in the genre, ranging from the fully cognizant ghouls of Return of the Living Dead to the Oedipally problematic zombies of Dead Alive! to the evolving stenches from Land of the Dead to the diffident British folk of In The Flesh, where zombies do display intelligence.  Furthermore, there is zero discussion in the plan of the different tactical military problems posed by fast vs. slow zombies.  This matters, because as this Very Important Chart demonstrates, the worst-case scenario is, by far, the smart fast zombies:

 

If there can be an entire Reddit thread devoted to this question, then surely the U.S. military can think about the worst-case scenario a little bit more.

2.  Twenty-eight days later — nothing?  The plan almost casually mentions that “USSTRATCOM forces do not currently hold enough contingency stores (food, water) to support 30 days of barricaded counter-zombie operations.”  Wait, not even 30 days?!  So the U.S. military is telling us that, maybe 28 days later, USSTRATCOM has blown through its reserves? That’s unacceptable. The fight against the undead is likely to be a long, hard slog. Clearly, U.S. strategic planners need to recommend more reserve stores of food and water. That would certainly be the CDC’s recommendation.

3.  The plan is trigger-happy about nuclear weapons. It is to U.S. Strategic Command’s credit that it has thought about zombie apocalypse scenarios. Unfortunately, it seems as though it has thought about them primarily as a way to ensure that USSTRATCOM has the lead in this policy arena. Indeed, at one point the plan states unequivocally: “Although CDRUSSTRATCOM has no geographic AOR [area of responsibility] and has no specified combat roles against zombies, he is the only CCDR in control of nuclear weapons, which are likely to be the most effective weapons against the hordes of the undead (emphasis added).”

Whoa there, U.S. Strategic Command!! Who said nukes would be the best response to the living dead? Not me, that’s for sure!! So why the reliance on them? Because that’s USSTRATCOM’s bailiwick. Clearly, other military commands need to think seriously about this threat, so as to ensure that Strategic Command doesn’t privilege its position too much. I want to see a whole-of-government zombie counterinsurgency plan, not one that simply privileges the role of USSTRATCOM in classic bureaucratic politics fashion.

4.  A failure to communicate up the chain of command. According to the plan itself and Lubold’s story, USSTRATCOM planners wrote and published this in late April 2011. Which means the plan had been unclassified and circulated for at least two years when, freaked out after reading World War Z, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “I scared the hell out of myself…. I went to the Joint Chiefs and I said, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do if the zombies attack?‘” Which means that two years after CONOP 8888 was drafted, the top military brass remained unaware about this contingency plan. One can only hope that during an actual zombie apocalypse, information will travel more freely up the command chain. 

Again, this was an excellent first draft by the planners at U.S. Strategic Command. But if the last decade of military exigencies has taught us anything, it is that we need to be serious about contingency planning. So I’d like to see some follow-up drafts, please.

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