Max Brooks

We’ve become so hyper specialized,” Brooks said. “Everybody sees everything through their specific lens.”

Which is a problem. For instance, an Army that specializes in state-on-state warfare performs terribly against an insurgency. So how does Brooks think we should prepare for the conflicts of the future? “It is really important to have conversations that make us all feel like 7th graders.”

“The biggest mistake we made … after Vietnam was to get away from what felt uncomfortable and to leap back to what made us feel like high school seniors,” he added. According to Brooks, America faced a counter-insurgency it wasn’t ready to fight and the Pentagon should have learned from it. “Instead, the Army ran screaming and crying back to what it did best and what it felt good doing,” he explained. “Which was tank warfare in West Germany.”

“That would have been great if every other war we were ever going to face was going to be Desert Storm.”

Because the Pentagon either didn’t remember or chose to forget the lessons of Vietnam, it’s had to learn them all over again in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brooks said that everyone needs to get comfortable with feeling ignorant and asking big questions. They need to get used to feeling like 7th graders.

I asked him how that’s working out, asking military men and women to think like middle schoolers. (Brooks has lectured at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.) His answer surprised me.

“I’ve found … the military [has] been going on a soul-searching nervous breakdown,” he said. “I’ve found the military to be infinitely more open to new ideas … whereas the civilian leadership has been trying to placate the people who will re-elect them.”

Brooks thinks this nervous breakdown made the military receptive, but World War Z made him believable. “I try to root all my crazy ideas in real research,” he said. “When you take away the zombies from World War Z you have a reasonably credible global disaster scenario.”

“I think what makes zombies such a great tool for learning is that the solution to a zombie plague is no different than any other large disaster,” he elaborated. For Brooks, the solution to zombies is no different from the solution to Ebola, an earthquake or even war.

Max Brooks

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