World War Z

So the World War Z movie came out last weekend. It’s got Brad Pitt as the main character in the Max Brooks novel–the second part of the so-called “Brooksverse“–which is kind of odd, as the novel doesn’t have a main character. But whatever. It’s about the zombie apocalypse and the end of the world. No spoilers there, I’m sure.

We generally try to avoid discussing the legal implications of things that happen in a legal vacuum, and the zombie apocalypse is one of the most stereotypical of such vacuums. But on a more granular level, what we’ve got here is an account of the gradual descent into said vacuum. Society may ultimately collapse, or it may not, but it hasn’t done so yet, and it’s still operating on at least the vestiges of institutional inertia. That would necessarily include some version of the current legal system. So it does make sense for us to take a look at how that descent is portrayed. Specifically–again, no real spoilers here–the organization of a UN-led fleet in the North Atlantic.

I. The United Nations

Let’s start by briefly discussing what the United Nations actually is. The UN is mostly a humanitarian and diplomatic organization. Both the World Health Organization and the International Court of Justice are UN entities. It does a lot of work in economic areas too, e.g., both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are organs of the UN.

The one thing it’s not is a government. It’s a sort of quasi-governmental organization sponsored by multiple national governments, but it does not really have its own jurisdiction over any particular place or any particular person. Nor does it have a military, standing or reserve. So-called “UN troops” are actually troops of member states which are contributed to authorized UN peacekeeping actions and operate under the UN flag but which are technically part of the member states’ chains of command. Sort of. It’s a bit squishy. Each peacekeeping force is assembled, ad hoc, for a particular mission. Member states are notoriously stingy about contributing actual troops, and it’s something of a quiet scandal that common practice is for poor countries to contribute troops while richer ones contribute money.

Even when a peacekeeping mission is authorized and organized, what said peacekeepers are authorized to do tends to be a lot less than one would think. They may not be allowed to leave their base without supervision from the host country, and it’s vanishingly unlikely that a force would even be authorized without the permission of the host country. This lack of authority led to a decidedly unsatisfactory outcome in Rwanda in the mid-1990s.

II. The “UN North Atlantic Fleet”

All of those things being the case, the idea that the main locus of human civilization and society after the outbreak would be a UN fleet in the North Atlantic is somewhat implausible. Indeed, a significant percentage of the UN’s personnel would likely have been killed almost immediately, as the Secretariat building–the UN equivalent of the executive branch–is, in fact, that iconic building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Further, if we’re going to be talking about an organized force keeping it together after the End Of the World As We Know It, I’d put my money on said force being the US military, with a few other major national militaries (China, Russia, the UK, and maybe a few other European countries) remaining coherent as well. But it is military organizations, not the UN, which have standing plans for what to do when the chain of command takes a hit. Indeed, though we’re not actually sure what would happen if both the President and Vice President were to die at the same time (we discussed that here in the context of Y: The Last Man), the chain of command in the military is crystal clear to everyone involved. They’re also the ones standing around with enormous reserves of equipment and supplies, waiting for orders.

But what if the US military simply ceded authority to the UN in light of the current conflict? I’m not even sure that’s a possibility, let alone plausible. I would be very, very surprised if the Pentagon did not have a contingency plan for a true evisceration of the federal civilian government, and equally surprised if said contingency plan involved placing any resources at the disposal of the UN. I think a much more plausible scenario would be the US military taking point and inviting other military groups to join forces, while asserting operational command out of sheer force. If the UN were involved, it might be as a kind of diplomatic interface, but in desperate circumstances, I have trouble picturing a US general officer waiting around to see what the UN would say or do. He’d give an order. If other countries wanted to play ball, that’s great, but he’s not going to bow and scrape.

Whether or not this is the best course of action isn’t what I’m trying to get at. I just find it very unlikely that a survivors’ fleet off the coast of the US would wind up under the command of anyone but the ranking US naval officer. We do maybe see a hint of this in that UN officials would prefer certain people to stay with the fleet that get sent to a refugee camp under US military orders, but that’s a bit ambiguous. It could simply have been one official in the UN chain of command losing a turf war with another UN official. There isn’t any clear indication of what I think would probably be the case, i.e., the US military being in charge with UN officials along for the ride.

III. Conclusion

As far as the rest of the movie goes, that’s pretty much the only real legal issue involved. Again, when the world comes crashing down, the legal system tends to go along with it. If society is ever re-established, there might be some kind of reckoning, but from the way things look in the movie, that isn’t likely to happen before any applicable statutes of limitations would have long-since expired. But I don’t think they handled the role of the UN properly. It’s just not that robust an organization, and it’s singularly ineffective at projecting power even when it can decide that it wants to, which it rarely does.

12 responses to “World War Z

  1. In their defense, the framing element of the book involved a reporter going around and getting interviews with people about the course of the war, but yeah, that’s a bit of a departure from said person being in the thick of the action everywhere.

    • It’s really not worth even arguing about. Here, noted film and literary critic Matthew Inman explains the differences between the two works.

      http://theoatmeal.com/comics/wwz

      • Melanie Koleini

        Having read the book, I have to agree. Brad Pitt paid a lot of money for the right to call his movie “World War Z.” I’m not sure anything else from the book made it to the big screen.

  2. As I understand it, the film decided to drop the politics present in the book (I have seen neither so I don’t know).

    • Ryan Davidson

      As one review put it, while people will probably go to see a movie called World War Z about Brad Pitt–or almost anyone else for that matter–running around in the zombie apocalypse, the potential market for a movie called, or about “The Comparative Politics of Human Survivors in the Zombie Apocalypse” isn’t quite what we need for a studio tentpole.

    • My understanding is that the movie decided to drop everything from the book except the actual zombies.

      The book is a documentary style story set well after the war is ‘won’. The movie appears to be your standard zombie flick with a catchy name.

      I really wish they had done the film adaptation as a documentary as well, and kept closer to the book, but that’s not what big summer action movies are made of, so I’m sure it would have been a much harder sell.

  3. I haven’t seen the movie, but I imagine if the US was overrun, the US Military would follow the example of the Free French forces in WWII. They would try to work with allies, but not give up their separate status.

  4. Honestly, I’d imagine NATO would be a more natural multinational front, given its military focus and background in building a survivable chain of command in the face of an apocalypse.

  5. Wait, did they actually call it a UN fleet? I’d just assumed it was UN officials working with a US fleet; basically, everyone who survived the initial onslaught trying to figure out what’s going on and what they can do to stop it. I definitely agree with OmegaPaladin above that if you have to go with a multinational front, NATO seems like a more obvious military choice.

  6. The origin of the United Nations was the group of countries who fought together in World War 2 against Hitler. We now call these countries “the allies”, but back then they referred to themselves as “the United Nations”. After the war the grouping formed the basis of the UN as we know today, but originally it was military in nature. Maybe the United Nations in WW Z harks back to this earlier phase?
    See original declaration;
    http://untreaty.un.org/cod/avl/ha/cun/photo06.html

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