In Gundam Wing, Treize Khushrenada refuses to succumb to the demand for military employment of mobile dolls, robots piloted with an automated command system rather than a living, breathing person inside. His argument is that using robots to wage war on others is an infringement on honor, chivalry, and glory. War brings out the best in humanity, he argues, and using robots to fight battles undercuts the benefits of war.
I don’t necessarily agree with the rationale underlying his sentiments. I do, however, think that technology, particularly the advancement of ranged weaponry, has stripped war of some of its essential attributes.
1. It has distanced us from elements of human nature that make us naturally predisposed to avoiding interpersonal conflict. We don’t have to acknowledge that we’re taking the life of another human being when using advanced ranged weapons. To some degree, this makes war easier for people to negotiate.
2. On the other end of the spectrum, these advancements have stripped war of its ability to validate us in the context of interpersonal conflict.
My argument in this flash analysis is that zombie apocalypse fantasies help us enjoy the benefits that advanced ranged weaponry have allowed us while simultaneously allowing us to acquire the validation we desire from melee battle.
The improvement of ranged weaponry over time has stripped us of our reluctance to kill another because we empathize with them as fellow human beings. Early duels with ranged weapons were depicted as occurring at ten paces. Guns were powerful, but they were not always accurate. Like duels that occurred with swords, early duels with ranged weapons required you to look your enemy in the eye when you shot them down, forcing you to acknowledge that you were taking another’s life. This made taking the life of another difficult, which of course sucked for military officials.
Before significant advancements in ranged weaponry, rendering the opponent as the “other,” through propaganda became the most effective means of dehumanizing the opponent. While ranged weapons were quite effective during the pinnacle of wartime propaganda, WWII, rhetoric of the “other” failed. There is a poignant moment in Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, where the protagonist finds himself face-to-face with the enemy. After killing him, he searches through the enemy’s possessions, sees photos of the enemy’s family. He suddenly realizes the xenophobic propaganda spoon fed to him by his military dehumanizes the opposition. Everyone on the field is a human being, just like he and his comrades.
But advances in technology have remedied the problem depicted by Remarque. Now we rarely have to look our enemies in the eye. Instead we plug their territory with smart bombs. We shoot them from miles away, sometimes blindly firing into wave after wave of incoming mortars. Today’s weapons are effective not only as devices of killing. The improved range of weaponry sustains the rhetoric of xenophobia necessary to make a war successful. Moreover, the more effective our weaponry, the less effective our propaganda need be. There is no face behind the enemy that challenges the notion of the “other.” And when the enemy comes close enough, or enemy fire harms us, it only fuels hatred.
Even though modern warfare has become naturalized in our society, I still think there’s a part of mankind that longs for that classic mode of battle, but without the inconvenience of looking into the eyes of another human being, or worrying that the opponent may be stronger than we are. This is a large reason the zombie apocalypse fantasy still predominates. In its earliest incarnations, the zombie apocalypse is a utopian society for those who long for a scenario that validates their strength and cunning (no matter how limited) with the guarantee of victory. The dreamer can imagine a world in which he or she can confront the enemy head on. The second-guessing inspired by the fear of an opponent’s strength is neutralized by the docile nature of the zombies. They are neither cunning, nor agile in the classic tales. Even the weakest of people can place themselves in the context of the ultimate warrior in a world filled with brain dead weaklings.
It is the more recent incarnations of the zombie that rekindle the fear in man zombies were initially intended to incur. Those are the stories I like. They wrench the utopian zombie apocalypse from those who long for validation, and they infuse the zombie apocalypse plot with the fear-inducing qualities that give them the right to sit parallel to other horror classics. Recent depictions show the zombie who can think and is simultaneously fearless. Instead of the socially inept, or the physically strong who finds little validation in our current society, the zombie has become the Übermensch of the battlefield: our ultimate fear and our ultimate desire. That’s something we can all be scared shitless of in good conscience.
I totally need to write a story called Zombie Punching Bag that addresses these issues.