Worldbuilding

Five Reasons Zombies Could Never Defeat the Military

Our pop culture is, to put it mildly, obsessed with zombies. They’re everywhere, from our TV to our comic books to our novels to our video games. There’s at least one widely read guide for surviving the fictional zombie apocalypse. Most of these stories share the same basic premise: a ragtag group of survivors struggling to hold their own in a city/world overrun with the undead. What’s odd is that no one ever stops to ask how the world became overrun in the first place. It’s always something that just kind of happened, usually off screen.*

This is one of the most ridiculous premises ever conceived. You see, we have these things called armies that are very, very good at killing things. Most zombie stories pay some kind of lip service to the military being overrun, and no one seems to realize just how absurd that is. Lets take a look at just a handful of reasons this would never actually happen.

1. Machine Guns

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The nearly infinite variety of machine guns in the world all have one thing in common: they shoot lots and lots of bullets. Hundreds of rounds per minute, at least. The amount of damage machine guns can inflict is staggering.

How useful would they be against zombies? Well, one of the most iconic images from World War One is of mass infantry charges being mowed down by defenders with machine guns. Mass charges, or at least mass shambles, are really all zombies do. They come forward in a wave, and they’ll meet the exact fate that befell the lost souls of the western front.

Some will argue that zombies need to be shot in the head, which is a hard target to aim at. Fortunately, the legs are much easier target. Disable a zombie’s legs, and it’s essentially no longer a threat. Aim the machine gun a little lower than normal, and then sweep it back and forth. That should do the trick.

There’s also the question of ammunition. Zombies come in hordes, after all. Thing is, the military has a lot of bullets. They need them in modern warfare because most bullets never hit anything. That’s because humans know how to take cover, but zombies don’t. Frankly, the army wouldn’t need that much ammunition, since they could easily destroy the first few undead before there was time to spread the infection.

2. Landmines

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In real life, anti-personnel mines are horrible weapons that the world would be better off without.* In the zombie apocalypse, you can bet they’d be brought out in a heartbeat.

Humans generally know to stay away from a minefield once the first mine goes off. Zombies, by their very nature, cannot be intelligent enough to figure this out. They’ll just keep shambling* right through until there are either no mines or no zombies left.

Since they explode from below, landmines will take out a zombie’s legs. As mentioned, this makes the zombie effectively harmless. And since the entire point of zombies is that they can be killed 100% guilt free, there’s no need to worry about those pesky human rights advocates.*

Because zombies are also easy to predict, luring them into minefields is ridiculously easy. Just pile up some brains on the other side of a minefield and watch the incredibly gory fireworks. On second thought, maybe don’t watch that. Gross.

3. Body Armor

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  WORLD WAR I/SUPPLY & SUPPORT

Zombies rely on biting, scratching, and occasionally bludgeoning to inflict harm. In most zombie stories, they’re limited to human strength, albeit human strength that doesn’t tire. Fortunately, our technology has moved on a bit from the days when teeth were considered cutting edge weaponry, and bite-proof armor is well within reach.

To my knowledge there’s no study showing how effective the US Army’s Interceptor armor is at preventing bites, but as it’s made of kevlar and ceramic plates, it can probably get the job done. On the off chance that it can’t, there are other options.

Dog bite suits, while goofy looking, are verifiably bite-proof. If that option isn’t stylish enough, the army could always pay the Ren Fair a visit and pick up some chainmail. That’ll stop undead teeth no problem.

Soldiers can’t get infected if they can’t be bitten. This removes one of the major dangers in any zombie apocalypse. You know the scenario: one member of a group is careless, gets bitten, and then stumbles back to infect the rest of the group. If all the soldiers are protected from head to toe, that risk is eliminated.

4. Tanks

Operation Iraqi Freedom II

Have you ever tried to bite or punch a tank? I wouldn’t recommend it. Stopping one of these armored land battleships requires very heavy weaponry, and I don’t recall the last time I saw zombies employing shoulder-mounted rocket launchers.

The destructive power of a tank almost goes without saying. Not only do they have those impressive cannons, most tanks also mount at least one machine gun.* Even if ammunition was low, tanks could easily mulch hundreds of zombies just by running them over. As stated before, zombies are really stupid and don’t know to get out of the way.

There’s a scene early in the Walking Dead where the main character stumbles onto an abandoned tank with a dead soldier inside. It’s difficult to imagine the scenario in which that took place. Even if the tank was completely out of fuel, the crew could have hidden inside for however long it took for another tank to show up and rescue them.

It’s also unlikely that gas would be an issue at all, because the army has armored fuel trucks as well. It turns out they’ve considered how to deliver fuel in dangerous situations. Who’d have thought?

These points apply to any reasonably armored vehicles, not just tanks. Once it’s past a certain size, you don’t even need weapons mounted on it. The vehicle itself becomes a weapon. Even if you’re dealing with Left 4 Dead style special zombies, my money’s on the steel war machine over any undead, no matter how souped-up they are.

5. Airplanes and Helicopters

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And you thought biting a tank was hard. These fighter jets and whirly birds don’t even have the decency to play on the zombies’ level. Instead they zip around in the wild blue yonder, turning the undead into just regular dead.

The destructive potential of modern airpower is hard to overestimate. A decently equipped air force can easily reduce a city to rubble, along with all the shamblers inside it. That kind of damage is usually restrained in real life, because there needs to be something left to conquer, but all bets are off once the dead start to rise.

Not only are aircraft powerful, they’re also relatively precise.* Precise enough that they can support any ground soldiers being overwhelmed by zombies. Zombies don’t know how to take cover in air raid shelters, so they’d just be standing out in the open. An A-10 Warthog’s rapid fire cannon can easily turn the mightiest horde into a fire red haze.

Since zombies are notably lacking in anti-aircraft weapons, there’s little risk to the planes or their pilots. The biggest potential problem would be zombies shambling onto airbases while the planes are refueling, but those bases are guarded by everything else on this list, so it’s not likely.

Really, planes and helicopters are probably overkill against zombies. More likely the military would deploy unmanned drones, and wouldn’t it be nice to have a use for those that isn’t ethically compromising? Predator drones can stay in the air for more than a day at a time, hunting down any undead that dare to show their rotting faces. Since zombies can’t understand what a drone is, that would be pretty much all of them.

None of this is to suggest that a zombie outbreak would be pleasant. There would be deaths, especially in the first few hours as people figured out what the rules were, but it could never spread to world-ending proportions. Humans are just too good at killing things. Zombies are doomed by the very thing that makes them such perfect bad guys: they’re unintelligent. If they were smart enough to counter our vast arsenal of weapons, we’d have to think twice about killing them.

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Comments

  1. Claire

    I’m curious as to if you’ve ever read World War Z by Max Brooks? The author briefly goes into why many modern military tactics and equipment is ill suited to handle zombies, namely that they rely on maiming rather then outright killing, which if you’re a zombie, you’re not really going to care about your lungs hanging out if your spleen liver has been doing so for the last two weeks.

    Also, body armour does not guarantee absolute protection. Most armour leaves the face and limbs unprotected (for obvious reason), so all it takes is one bite to the shins or brain splatter and you’ve got an infection risk.

    Also, most machine guns rely on laying down a suppressing cone of fire, so hitting a zombie in the legs is difficult. And even if you smash their legs, they’re really not going to care and will probably keep shambling towards you even if they’ve lost everything below the knee.

    Not saying competent anti-zombie military isn’t stupid, just that it’s probably not the stomp you describe.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I have not read WWZ, however I did read and very much enjoy the Zombie Survival Guide by the same author.

    • Devin

      Brooks’s explanation is nonsense, though.* If your bones are pulped, ain’t nothing your muscles can really do anymore, so a sufficiency of maiming will do the job just fine (and you can come back through wearing an EOD suit with a stick to poke through their skulls at your leisure).

      Some military weapons would be significantly less useful against zombies than humans, it’s true. This includes small-caliber ARs, most grenades, and (sorry Oren) land mines.** But others would work just fine, including any kind of big HE payload like bombs, artillery, tank main guns, etc (overpressure and fragmentation effects should work just fine on zombies) or machine guns. That “suppressing cone of fire” you’re talking about is tactical, not mechanical: it’s what you have to do with this weapon to be effective as an element of a fireteam operating against trained human soldiers, it’s not the only thing the weapon can be made to do. Big bullets fired rapidly will cut down zombies almost as fast as they’d cut down humans in the same formation, and a damn sight faster than they’d cut down humans running for cover.

      And you’re right that present-day military body armor isn’t well-designed for zombie infighting, but that doesn’t mean a minimal redesign couldn’t fix that. A faceplate and forearm defenses, plus beefed up glove facings, would just about do the trick. It wouldn’t make you invulnerable, but it would mean that a conscious, struggling soldier should be able to protect his or her unarmored areas without any real danger. (Try it! Put on some old clothes, take a Sharpie as a combat knife, have your roommate stick a Sharpie in his or her mouth for zombie teeth, and get to wrestling. If you get sharpied on your neck, palm, armpit, inner elbow, crotch seam, or back of the knee before you can sharpie their head, they win.)

      *Not his most egregious pile of shit, however. He doesn’t seem to have thought about his Russian sequences at all. Just for starters, he figures when they gear up they’ll probably just skip over their massive armaments industry and their stockpiles of older weapons, including millions and millions of Kalashnikov-family guns and something like a hundred thousand T-55 tanks (plus at least half that in newer models), to pull out the museum pieces (I mean, I love the T-34 as much as anyone, but there are probably less than a thousand surviving vehicles and most of them don’t run. Plus, nobody’s made ammo for the guns in half a century.)

      Plus, he’s racist as fuck. Oh, you’re not American? Cool, here are two stereotypes about you that Max Brooks thinks are true. Go on now, that’s your storyline! Russians are patriotic and don’t care about human life! Japanese are otaku and/or Zatoichi!

      **You could relatively quickly make zombie-effective land mines. But present models will basically just blow your leg off. Won’t really stop a zombie (though it’d sure help). You’d want either something with a lot more explosive in it, or something like a Bouncing Betty to put high-velocity fragments out at head-height.

      • Claire

        I’ll admit I’m not a military buff like yourself, with most of my military knowledge coming from my uncle (Irish army lieutenant), so I’ll bow out.

        I also read WWZ when I was very young, so I probably have a little nostalgia filter on, hence why I forgot about the racism till now

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Devin went into a lot more detail than I was planning to, but that’s about the size of it. Although I think he’s counting land mines out a bit too quickly!

      • Chris Winkle

        I’m really curious as to why blowing a leg off wouldn’t be good enough against zombies. Sure, they can pull themselves by their arms or hop if them still have one leg, but their mobility would be so low as to make them non-threatening. Movies have managed to make dramatic fights scenes between a human and as little as a single zombie hand, but that’s using camera angle tricks and implausible movement from the hand. It’s really hard to imagine a legless zombie could overcome even someone without training. Someone who’s sleeping, maybe?

        • Cay Reet

          The problem is that zombies are relentless. They have no sense of time. If it takes them five hours to crawl across the room and bite you (biting your feet or legs will be sufficient, too), then that’s what they will do. Sure, you can run away, but unlike a zombie, you have to sleep, you have to rest, you have to let down your guard sometime. You might get trapped somewhere and, unlike a zombie, you will find it hard to hack off a limb stuck somewhere. And that is why you have to deal with legless zombies, too. A legless zombie could be crawling below vision, under some shrubs or even under a slight cover of earth (since zombies also don’t breathe).

          Imagine a field full of zombies which have been mowed down by a machine gun attack. Unlike enemy soldiers, they’re not screaming, wailing, or moaning in agony. They feel no pain. They have one thought, one order, stuck in their head: find human, bite human. They can’t walk, but most of them will still be able to wriggle or crawl. So the next step after the machine gun attack should be something like fire bombs or napalm. You can kill a zombie with a bullet, but, honestly, burning is more efficent.
          Also, don’t underestimate what a being can do only with their hands and arms. There are humans who miss most of their legs or even all of them and are still pretty mobile. Sure, they have a working brain to help them, but if you’re just determined enough, that means you can get far on your arms alone, especially if time has no meaning.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        The scourge of late risers everywhere!

      • Matt Black

        The problem with big HE payload weapons/delivery systems is the common zombie trope is that the potential threat of Z’s is never recognized quickly enough. Military never assesses the threat properly, therefore they can’t use HE in areas that aren’t completely, 100% overrun. Tanks require so much fuel and cannot cross most bridges or use many roads, they are just too heavy. Some of these problems are addressed in Ringo’s “Black Tide Rising” series. As far as machine guns, only belt-fed, cooled guns would be effective. The amount of ammo that soldiers would need to carry would be very heavy, and since anything but a headshot would be essentially wasted, it would not be terribly effective. As far as the body armor redesigns, it goes back to how fast the outbreak happens compared to the true threat recognition. Is there enough time to redesign, produce, and distribute before most bases or units are overrun?

        • Hunter Bongianino

          Easily spread by bite doesn’t wouldn’t take a week to be global it would take much more also tanks can be dropped by plane ore Helo to where they are needed. Another thing is we have strategy where we wouldn’t just all out rush a city we would create choke points form lines and push similar to ww1 except we have rifles machine guns and armor while they have teeth

          • Cay Reet

            That depends on whether it only spreads from one place or from several. If someone where to deliberately turn people into zombies, for instance, they’d do well to place several points of origins, preferably on several continents. And even if it spreads slow, if you have enough carries who might not be zombies, fighting it will be difficult. A plague evolves and that means it might spread a lot further and faster the longer it exists.

            And the most dangerous ability of a zombie isn’t its teeth, it’s the fact that it doesn’t get exausted or bored. It will not stop because it gets injured, it won’t have to rest, it won’t get bored with trying to break down a door for ten hours straight. It won’t back down or run away in fear, because fear or the realisation that you’re outnumbered and outgunned needs a working brain.

      • Devin

        Chris, blowing a leg off is a damn sight better than nothing, no doubt. But present-day stockpiles… I’m not so sure it’d be a tactically-useful option for most situations. See, you’ve got to bury all these mines, right? And then you have to sit on the other side of the mines, wait for them to go off, and then go in and do decon, because you can’t just leave a thousand one-legged zombies crawling across the countryside… They’re not as dangerous, sure, certainly not to a military force, but they are still dangerous if left alone. So now you have this huge, huge HAZMAT problem: a thousand wounded zombies crawling across a partially-detonated minefield. I don’t care how much you pay me, I am not going to be the guy who goes in there to kill the zombies and clear the mines. Not even if you give me a metal detector with a spike on the end.

        And there’s a question of proportion too: use ten times as many mines as zombies (per meter of width, and assuming the field is in a chokepoint) and you figure a mine detonates under every zombie foot, sure, but you probably now have a huge unexploded ordnance problem. Use fewer, and you have to figure there are plenty of mobile zombies getting through, and you STILL have an unexploded ordnance problem (because mines just aren’t that reliable).

        Present-day mines would be useful for chokepoints like passes, and redesigned anti-zombie mines could have broader applications (especially with something like FASCAM), but I don’t see them being popular or effective for broad use.

        It’s worth noting here that human-on-human military use of minefields is as an area-denial device to buy time. If you’re actually ready to defend this area, you set up a killing zone: machine guns, artillery, the whole nine yards. (Maybe mines too, but you’re not expecting antipersonnel mines to do the heavy lifting.) You only use a minefield instead if you don’t have the resources and need to buy time to escape/regroup/dig in/get reinforcements. Needless to say, that won’t work on zombies: they won’t stop to clear the mines or look for a way around.

        • GeniusLemur

          Actually, the military has various “instant minefield” systems. And once there’s a big batch of zombies crawling around, just drop napalm on the lot of them.

        • justkiddinya

          Why would they need to bury the mines? Again, they’re mindless enemies. Just scatter them on the ground.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Would we have to bury them, you think? Maybe just leave them in the street with signs saying “if you can read this don’t step on me.”

        • Cay Reet

          Depending on the type of virus, it might be wise to burn them to eradicate everything. Otherwise, predators feeding on the decaying flesh might get zombiefied – and I don’t think anyone wants zombie coyotes or feral zombie cats and zombie dogs.

    • Hunter Bongianino

      You may be right however, the reason it would be different for zombies is they would take no evasive maneuvers making them much easier to hit. I also liked how you left out tanks which I reckon could take out a majority of zombies in any city without ground troops, and then send troops in to sweep stragglers. And airforce miniguns can shoot anywhere from 2000-6000 rounds a minute which I reckon would result in numerous zombie kills even without direct aim.

  2. Devin

    I thought about that, but zombies tend to shuffle and present-day mines tend to have top-down pressure triggers.

    FASCAM-style with tripwires or the like would work, but again: redesign and remanufacture.

  3. Qondomon

    (ง ͠° ͟ل͜ ͡°)ง YES!

    Sorry, i’m not a big expert on guns and bombs, so I will not be able to join in the discussion.
    But I have to thank you for posting this food to my brain! Nothing better to make more realistic and difficult some dystopia!

  4. Tamara Ryder

    Hi. Joining the discussion a little late, I know, but as a veteran I feel compelled to point out that you’re forgetting the most basic advantage militaries have over zombies. Zombies can’t think. They can’t organize or strategize. Being outnumbered isn’t actually such a big problem if you have a strategy that uses all your resources to the greatest advantage. If numbers guaranteed victory, America would still be a British colony. Wars are won by people using their brains, not eating them.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      True. The reason I didn’t specifically address the human intelligence advantage is that the general conceit of zombie stories is they’re so hard to kill that being smarter than them isn’t enough.

    • Marc Whipple

      I’ll see your late and raise you.

      That’s both their weakness and their strength. “Zack don’t panic, and Zack don’t rout.” Even the most desperate human wave attacks are nothing compared to an oncoming zombie horde. Eventually, human beings will give in to either fear or exhaustion and stop attacking a heavily fortified, well-armed position. Zombies won’t.

      The machine-gun thing is a great example. Yes, machine guns manned by well-trained troops would be about one zillion percent more effective against zombies than they are usually portrayed in the movies. But unless the horde is dense-packed, you’re still going to go through a LOT of ammo* for every Zed you put down. And if it’s dense-packed, you may not have enough ammo ANYWAY. If enough people turn fast enough**, by the time we realize it’s fight-or-die, the hordes may be large enough to overrun anything short of a major base. And, just to make things fun, remember that many kinds of zombies will advance TOWARD the sound of human activity, even if that activity is “machine-gunning zombies.”

      *Modern soldiers don’t usually “spray and pray,” but machine guns are meant for surpressing fire, and their training reflects that. Human beings are, for the most part, just not dumb enough to run in crowds into machine gun fire anymore. The soldiers are going to have to overcome both their training and the design limitations of modern automatic weapons to use them effectively against zombies.

      **In some zombie scenarios, e.g. John Ringo’s “Black Tide Rising,” or the modern remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” zombies are created not only by contact with the infected, but by systematic and large-scale distribution of the infectious agent. In that case, you start to get hordes very quick and command/control/logistics systems get disrupted before the nature of the threat is known.

  5. Skylark

    Loving this list, if only because I now have a mental image of tiny drone copters chasing down confused zombies.

    One of my favorite webcomics, Stand Still, Stay Silent, manages to get past most of these by tweaking a few things.
    First, the virus incubates for up to two weeks, takes a while to show symptoms, and can be airborne. It also infects more than humans, making pets and vermin vectors.
    Second, most militarily powerful nations are also fairly populated. See point one. There’s a reason the main characters are all descendants of isolated people from Nordic countries.
    Third, the resulting zombie-critters are a hell of a lot more powerful than your average shambler. It’s easy to shoot out the legs of a humanoid zombie. Taking on a creature the size of a bus with a dozen legs, that rips its way into an armored train? A fair bit harder. Especially since a few have shown some level of intelligence.

    This article does make me wonder “what about planes?” in that story. We’ve been given a few hints as to why there’s no modern tech, like the belief that tech is the cause of the virus, but I’d think there’d be more holdouts. I’ll give it a pass for now since it’s still updating, but I’d like to see this plot hole filled a little more concretely.

    • Hunter_Wolf

      Stand Still, Stay Silent sounds quite ineresting, and yeah the one thing the article doesn’t account for is a viral induced zombie apocalypse, Oren just assumes that zombies will spread the infection by biting and scratching, but many zombie stories attribute the zombie outbreak to a virus that usually spreads faster than anyone can deal with it.

      The Walking Dead example of the dead soldier in a tank could easily be that he died due to the initial infection spreading, WD is -as far as i know- still ambigious about what causes the zombification and why people who die become zombies shortly afterwards.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        That’s the Left 4 Dead model, and it works better for sure, though in L4D they make it clear that the zombies never actually defeat the military in pitched combat, the military just retreats to avoid the airborne virus.

        In both Walking Dead and World War Z, which are easily the most commonly known zombie stories in recent years, it’s assumed that the virus is spread primarily through bites.

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