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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.

MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

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