History of the World, Part Z

What the undead can teach us about the fall of Rome -- and cyberwar.

Current interest in zombies -- from The Walking Dead to World War Z -- should be seen as less driven by end-of-times imagery and more by the fact that zombies speak so well, even if subliminally, to the spirit of the times. World events are ever more driven by mass movements, in which the weakness of individual members somehow morphs into amazing collective strength. Just like zombies. The Arab Spring certainly fits this mold, but social uprisings of this sort have been around at least since the waning years of the Cold War. Indeed, the old Soviet Politburo must have looked on in utter consternation at Poland's Solidarity movement and other popular insurrections among satellite states, confounded by the inability of traditional levers of power to tamp them down. And when the masses finally made their way to Moscow, they prevailed there too, as hard to stop as a zombie swarm.

In between the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring came the so-called "color revolutions" of the past decade: Georgia (rose), Ukraine (orange), Kyrgyzstan (pink/tulip), and Iran (green). Each of these featured unarmed masses mobilizing to stand against authoritarianism or electoral fraud. All succeeded, save for the protesters in Iran. This last case shows that a zombie offensive can be successfully defended against. Certainly this was George Romero's point of view in his first foray into the genre in 1968, when the zombies were beaten back at the climax of Night of the Living Dead. But his sequels conveyed a growing sense of zombie resilience, even triumph. And Max Brooks's fine novel, World War Z -- the film is too Hollywood, the zombies too fast for my taste -- reflects the outcome of the struggle as a very near-run thing.

Beyond serving as a metaphor for mass social movements in the physical world, the zombie trope also applies to the virtual world -- not to herald a new form of people power, but to signal the onset of an age of cyberspace-based enslavement and an innovative form of disruptive attack. Today, countless millions, in the United States and around the world, unwittingly serve as the zombie foot soldiers of hackers' robot networks (or "botnets"). "Recruitment" is largely accomplished by cracking passwords and gaining control over individuals' computers -- though some major corporations have, from time to time, been targeted as well.

A master hacker of my acquaintance once told me how he focused on making zombies of children, as so many kids had powerful computers and next to no security. He also followed the hours of the school day across the country, harvesting banks and banks of computers that connected to the Internet -- very insecurely -- from the moment they were turned on. He routinely deployed over a million zombies.

To what purpose? Many master hackers -- freelancers and even those working for some nations -- combine their zombies' processing capabilities to create "hot-wired" super computers. This helps them to break codes that protect vital financial data and corporate intellectual property. Others use their zombie armies to mount swarming attacks that ping particular sites so overwhelmingly, from so many directions simultaneously, that they are unable to continue functioning. These are also known as distributed denial of service attacks, a common tool of "hacktivists."

Perhaps the clearest display of the power of zombie hordes used for disruptive purposes of this sort was in Estonia in 2007, when one of the world's most wired countries -- 97 percent of Estonians bank electronically, for example -- suffered costly, sustained attacks. Russian hackers were the suspected culprits, as the swarm arose after a statue of a Red Army soldier of the Great Patriotic War era was removed from a prominent place in Tallinn. But proof of the origins of the attacks was hard to come by. Zombies, for all their other strengths, also frustrate computer forensics.

But wait. Explaining today's social movements in the physical world and providing insight into the tactics of cyberattacks are not the only things zombies are good for. They may also help us develop a deeper understanding of many recurrent patterns of history. Essayist and social commentator Andrei Codrescu even used the term "zombification" once in this context, noting that, twice during the 20th century (during the world wars), "suicidal mobs of followers gave up every thought in their heads for the sake of slogans that led to mass graves." My only question about this is, "Just twice?"

It seems to me that the notion of being overcome by zombies -- opponents pound-for-pound weaker than oneself, but collectively unstoppable -- fits many times and places. Surely the waning days of the Roman Empire must have had the feel of being swarmed by zombies. The numberless barbarians who flooded the frontiers and sacked Rome and other centers of culture surely fit the zombie mold -- at least that of the faster-moving kind featured in the Brad Pitt film.

For those who want to stick with a slower-moving zombie metaphor, think of how Native Americans must have felt at their inability to stop the slow, inexorable progress of settlers across America. Whether early on in the great wildernesses east of the Mississippi River, or later across the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and on to the Pacific, all the valor and skill of American Indians proved of little moment against the creeping tide of "civilization." Truly a zombie apocalypse.

So the next time you're watching or reading a zombie story, think about the many ways the walking dead speak to our time -- and times before. As models of mass social movements, of ways of cyberwarfare, and even as the basis for allegorical historical analysis, nothing says it more clearly than a zombie.


National Security

How Chess Explains the World

And predicts the rise and fall of nations.

Sometimes art imitates life; some games do so as well. In the case of chess especially, the parallels with power politics are many and uncanny, persisting over the centuries. Originating on the Asian subcontinent, chess moved to Persia ("checkmate" comes from shah mat, "the king is dead") but really began to diffuse widely during the great age of Arab conquest, starting in the 7th century of the Common Era. The structure and rules of the game remained consistent for centuries within Muslim domains, but in Christian countries to which chess spread, innovations emerged.

The most important change, introduced in the West some 500 years ago, granted greater directional flexibility and longer range to the Muslim "vizier," renamed the queen, perhaps to reflect some of the great queens of the Middle Ages, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, as scholar Marilyn Yalom suggests in her highly entertaining Birth of the Chess Queen. The relabeled piece combined the capabilities of rook and bishop and, from a central position, could now exert influence over nearly half the board's 64 squares, a ten-fold increase in power over the vizier.

This occurred on the chessboard at almost the same time that the long-range sailing vessel armed with heavy guns emerged, heralding the West's rise to world mastery. Muslim powers never truly imitated this innovation -- as they had failed to empower the vizier/queen along Western lines. Thus began their long decline in world politics. Now the real competition was between European powers. Spaniards, much of whose land had been occupied for centuries by Muslims, produced the earliest Western masters of the game in the 16th century -- most notably Ruy López, for whom a famous, still popular, opening is named -- and at the same time created the first globe-spanning empire.

In the following centuries, however, France and Britain produced the strongest chess masters -- while simultaneously challenging and ultimately overmatching Spanish power on land and sea. The French no doubt picked up the game due to Spain's proximity; the British may have had chess brought over by Norsemen, as the famous 12th century Isle of Lewis set -- made of walrus ivory -- features Viking "berserkers" as rooks. The Anglo-French competition proved exceptionally fierce, over the board and throughout the world. So while French and British troops contended, roughly evenly, over the futures of the Asian subcontinent, North America, and elsewhere, their chess masters, the best in the world, were of roughly equal strength as well. A chess figure of Napoleonic stature did arise -- the famed Philidor -- in the decades just before Bonaparte, but his death in 1795 kept the contending chess powers in balance. In the wake of Waterloo, the era in world politics known as the Pax Britannica was equaled in chess by the triumph of the Englishman Howard Staunton -- the standard tournament chess piece design is named after him -- over France's Pierre de St. Amant.

This 1843 match was regarded as the first world championship, and there was much rejoicing among Britons, who saw in Staunton's 11-6 victory an affirmation of their empire and world leadership. But all too soon the cheering faded. Staunton spent the late 1850s avoiding a match with the American chess prodigy Paul Morphy -- a Bobby Fischer-like talent, and ultimately his equal in madness as well. Where Morphy signaled the rise of the United States as a chess and world power, there was much greater ferment in Germany and Austria. German-speakers, many of them Jewish, controlled the world championship until just after the end of World War I, while Nazi Germany's team won the chess Olympiad held in Argentina on the very eve of World War II. Alexander Alekhine, world champion from 1927-1945 with one brief interruption, was a Russian expatriate who played for the Reich and wrote horrible anti-Semitic articles in the wartime Pariser Zeitung about how "Aryan chess" showed the fighting spirit and heralded the ultimate world triumph of German ways. Wrong.

In his last days, Alekhine recanted; his death in 1946 marked the start of a Russo-American chess rivalry that fully matched the bitterness of the Cold War. Soviet grandmasters generally held the advantage, but in 1972 Bobby Fischer came along and wrested the world title from Russian control -- foreshadowing the ultimate collapse of the Soviet system. But after Fischer disappeared into his dementia, the Russians reasserted themselves for a while. Still, their greatest master of this late era, Garry Kasparov, was and is today a political dissenter. And the dissolution of the Soviet Union has sprinkled the products of its great chess combine throughout much of the world.

Some among the Russian chess diaspora landed in and brought fresh energy to the United States, but the most important American chess development of the post-Cold War period came from silicon-based intelligence: that is, IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer, which narrowly defeated world champion Kasparov in a match in 1997. This may be a sign that American power will now be mostly measured -- perhaps exercised as well -- in high-tech terms. But maybe not. After its victory, Deep Blue "retired," ducking new challenges much as Staunton fled from Morphy in the 1850s. Maybe there is an analog to this as well, given the sharp rise of anti-interventionist sentiments among average Americans -- if not yet among their elected leaders.

Whatever path the United States follows, it is clear that there will be no American-led "new world order" such as President George H.W. Bush envisioned in 1991 after the lopsided victory won in Operation Desert Storm. Instead, the high politics of the 21st century appear to be in a state of flux, with the rise of new great powers like India and the return of older ones like Russia. This trend is clearly mirrored in chess, as the men's world champion, Viswanathan Anand, is from India. The women's title, held by Britain's Vera Menchik until her untimely death in a Nazi buzz bomb attack in 1944, was won and kept by Russians until the end of the Cold War. But since then, though there has been one more Russian women's champion, there have been four from China.

If my observation about chess-as-looking-glass holds as true in the future as it has in the past, fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy century.