The chief takeaway from David Epstein’s book Range, which investigates Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, is this: think broadly, not narrowly. Risk being called a dilettante. Learn from many disciplines and experiences rather than burrow so deeply into one field that you can no longer see above ground to survey the wider world. And then apply insights from one field when some baffling question arises in another.
That is sage counsel for students and practitioners of strategy, who tap insights from history, political science, economics, and an array of related fields.
Maintains Epstein, specialists encounter trouble when tackling the problems characteristic of a “wicked” world. Wicked problems are intricate. They involve variables that combine and recombine in offbeat ways. They defy the boundaries of a single field and often vex specialists. By contrast, generalists hunt for “distant” analogies to challenges. Analogies seldom reveal answers, but they help inquisitors discover the right questions to ask. Asking penetrating questions constitutes the first step toward a solution, toward wisdom.
One imagines Epstein would approve of harnessing fiction and literature as a source of wisdom. Fiction supplies abundant analogies for students of politics and strategy. Some of them are remote indeed, bounded only by the author’s whimsy.
Exhibit A: stories about zombies!
Max Brooks’s World War Z is an imaginary oral history compiled a decade after a global war against the undead. Brooks has a researcher interview protagonists in the zombie war, not just to unearth facts about it but to record their feelings and impressions.
The interviews make up the book’s narrative. The relative lack of commentary gives the book a stark, spare quality—amplifying its impact. Warning: major spoilers ahead.
World War Z relates unfamiliar phenomena that illuminate something familiar, namely the profession of arms. The approach works not because warmaking against living, breathing foes is exactly like fighting ghouls, but because counter-zombie combat resembles war in the real world in some respects while differing from it strikingly in others. Juxtaposing the ordinary against the extraordinary compels military readers to examine their profession afresh.
Brooks’s fictional chronicle raises questions - and questions make us think. Four pointers from the living dead and those who battle them:
1. Know yourself.
Brooks has either read Thucydides or takes the same jaundiced view of human nature he did. The father of history showed how a plague peeled away the veneer of civilization from the most cultured society in classical Greece, the city-state of Athens. Athenians reverted to base instincts and passions almost overnight, and why not? If you may die tomorrow, you may as well live it up tonight. Debauchery ensues. Similarly, citizen took up arms against citizen on the island of Corcyra (modern-day Corfu). Civil strife shattered all bonds of family and fellowship as democrats and oligarchs fought to determine who would rule.
Pockets of Brooks’s brave new world witness similar breakdowns. Industrial civilization is not exempt from the afflictions of the ancients. Far from it.
For example, during the “Great Panic” that accompanies the rise of the living dead, the Hollywood glitterati hire private security firms to guard them from zombies within luxury residences, all while preening on camera for reality shows that showcase their supposed fortitude. Ship crews screen evacuees by race, permitting only those with the correct skin hue to board their vessels to flee the onslaught. You can only imagine what transpires in refugee camps in the far north when populations swell, food and fuel supplies dwindle, and frigid temperatures and weather descend.
And on and on. World War Z holds up a mirror, forcing us to look ourselves in the face while contemplating the impact of mass disaster and warfare on human society. This forms part of the strategic context, and the sight isn’t always pretty.
2. Know the enemy.
Strategic grandmaster Carl von Clausewitz—not among the undead legions at last report—warns commanders and their political overseers to assess the nature of the war on which they are about to embark, “neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.” But the living do not get the chance to undertake Clausewitzian analysis in Brooks’s account. War is thrust upon them. World War Z haunts precisely because the tale unfolds in everyday surroundings, against a deathless enemy that should not even exist.
Clausewitz counsels leaders to exercise foresight before going to war; zombie war is unthinkable, and who wastes time planning for the unthinkable? Horrors ensue when you neglect the nature of the war. Think about unthinkable situations before they become thinkable.
And about the nature of the foe. The walking dead are an enemy unlike any human antagonist. In fact, counter-zombie warfare resembles epidemiology more than warfare in the usual sense. Think about it. Public health seeks to eradicate disease, not contain it or strike a compromise peace with it. Victory means utterly wiping out a pestilence.
Like an infectious disease, zombies neither hate nor fear nor scheme. These are enemies incapable of malice or strategic thought. They infect. The undead reproduce themselves by biting human victims—much as a contagion spreads from host to host. In effect they are “vectors” spreading a virus that reanimates the slain. Thus even a lone zombie shambling around the earth represents a major threat to humanity. Victory over the living dead means slaughtering them to the last ghoul. Containment is a poor second best. So long as one remains at large, a devastating new outbreak is possible.
In other words, a zombie war is what strategists call an “unlimited” war, taken to its utmost extreme. Against an ordinary human adversary, unlimited war means crushing hostile forces or unseating the government they serve and imposing whatever terms you choose. Taken to extremes, unlimited war tends toward what Clausewitz terms “absolute” war—an unbounded spasm of violence with no political purpose. It is slaughter for its own sake.
Thankfully, Clausewitz concludes that absolute war does not exist outside the pages of books. War pits human foes against one another—and politics exerts a moderating influence on human struggles.
There is no such moderator in a fight against a mindless foe. The masters of strategy prescribe ways to get your way short of genocide. Yet the undead have no willpower to break and cannot be frightened into submission. They have no forces to smash, strategies to outwit, or alliances to break. They have no capital to conquer. They cannot conceive of compromise, let alone bargain. All they have is mass. Millions upon millions of bodies lurch along, uncoordinated yet driven toward the same goal by herd instinct.
Fictional strife in which strategic success equates to inflicting 100 percent casualties invites strategic thinkers to ponder the nature and ethics of unlimited war in our (purportedly) zombie-free world.
3. Fit strategy, tactics, and hardware to the fight—not the other way around.
Misfit armaments and maladroit tactics plague armed forces during the early phases of the zombie war. Armies and air forces built to fight high-tech antagonists have to reinvent themselves for infantry combat aimed at indiscriminate slaughter of the enemy. Easier said than done. Brooks’s historian interviews “Todd,” a jaded former infantryman. The ex-soldier recounts how heavy armaments and static defensive measures designed to halt “Ivan” in the Fulda Gap during the Cold War proved futile against mobs of reanimated corpses.
Determined to show the populace the domestic order remains intact, a panicky U.S. administration decides to stage a “decisive” stand in Yonkers, stemming the tide of zombies flowing out of Manhattan. (Bostonians insert favorite Yankees joke here.) Todd takes officialdom to task for folly. Precision munitions do some good against undead hordes, dispatching thousands; but there’s too little ammunition in the magazines to prevail. Defenders, that is, have too few uber-pricey gun projectiles, missiles, and bombs to mow down the millions of ghouls that come behind those brought down in the initial waves.
Guns, missile launchers, and tactical aircraft bereft of ordnance accomplish little. Todd also sees cultural travails at work. American troops, he recalls, are schooled to aim at the midsections of enemy soldiers, whereas it takes a shot to the head to fell a zombie. It is hard to remake the habits of a lifetime, on the fly, against enemies that should not exist, and that feel no pain or fear when struck in the torso. Of necessity, advanced armed forces cast aside gee-whiz implements of war in favor of weapons that strike down multitudes in bulk. The latest thingamabob may not be the best tool for the job.
More primal tactics are a must. Humanity starts to recover when military folk commence improvising warmaking methods for the strategic environment that actually confronts them. Governments temporarily abandon ground to the walking dead and turn terrain to advantage. U.S. citizens withdraw west of the Rocky Mountains to regroup and rearm, using the peaks as a sentinel line and garrisoning the narrow passages between. South Asians retreat into the Himalayas. Having established defensive lines, the living tend to the sinews of national power. Resuscitating moribund economies provides the resources needed to defend against the hordes and, ultimately, go on the strategic offensive and win.
It is a mistake to assume the enemy will conform to our preferred way of fighting. A savvy opponent tries to throw us out of our comfort zone—disorienting us for tactical and strategic gain. Living enemies mimic the living dead in that sense.
4. Adapt and overcome.
Inventive contenders command an advantage when going up against an adversary that—however remorseless or terrifying—is unable to learn or grow. The competitive impulse that pervades human struggle, prodding contestants to innovate and counter-innovate in an effort to outdo one another, is entirely absent from the zombie host. An enemy without ingenuity or passion to innovate is an inert enemy in strategic terms. And indeed, the zombie war is one-sided once humanity rides out the apocalypse, gains a respite to adapt, and comes out fighting.
Resourceful folk fashion new weapons and tactics while unimaginative foes plod along, doing the same thing time after time—which makes a hopeful note to close on. When facing new circumstances, get to know the circumstances and stay loose. Recognize that the nimbler contender is apt to be the victor—and broad-mindedness is the key to staying nimble. I daresay Epstein and Clausewitz would agree.