David French and Jonah Goldberg have been arguing about this at the Corner. French’s position: The military would be toast.

As I understand the dynamics of the Walking Dead universe (at least as illustrated in Fear the Walking Dead), the apocalypse starts when a wave of “the flu” sweeps through the country — except this flu is rapidly fatal if you’re symptomatic. Note that several people “turn” without being bitten. The sickest members of society die first (junkies and the homeless), but then people start falling like flies within 24 hours or so of the first victims. They immediately reanimate and start munching everyone around them.

The immediate chaos would impact our military almost as badly as the civilian population. All of a sudden guys are fighting off zombies in the barracks, officers are home trying to keep the wife from eating the children – all while they’re being frantically called in to collect their weapons and respond to the nightmare that’s erupting everywhere. In a nation of 320 million, if even 5 percent are fatally infected with the initial virus, that’s 16 million zombies munching away, plus a significant and immediate loss of military combat power as troops fight off their undead comrades (not knowing that every bite is fatal). Assuming the military could stabilize its own bases within, say, 24 to 48 hours (though the barracks, dining facilities, and hospitals would be scenes of utter carnage), then the few hundred thousand remaining troops (most of them not combat soldiers) would face the task of dealing with a zombie population that would be crossing the 100 million mark, and rising.

Goldberg’s position: C’mon.

I’m just not buying the idea that the military would be entirely outmatched by unthinking, slow-moving rotting sacks of meat that can be lured by loud sounds, including car alarms and barking dogs. It may take the military a little while to discover that every bite is fatal, but most people still don’t want to get bit. And while the military may be taught to shoot center mass, biting is a real close range tactic, which moves heads into easier target range. See item #1 on this piece.  I’m not saying that a zombie outbreak would be cleaned up in a day or two. But immediate and systemic society-wide breakdown? Not convinced (absent some other galvanizing factor).

I’m mostly on Team Goldberg here, although that’s because I think French has one of his premises wrong. I’d have to go back and watch the first few episodes of FWTD but I don’t believe the zombie “flu” is itself fatal to human beings. There is, obviously, some sort of airborne agent that’s affecting the population, but I don’t think the agent is sickening them. What it’s doing is ensuring that they’ll return as zombies once they die from some other cause. (As has been made clear in both series, everyone in the TWD universe returns as a zombie upon death unless their brain is destroyed.) A bite from someone who’s infected will cause you to get sick and rapidly succumb, but absent that bite, you won’t get sick, in which case it’s not true that vast swaths of the military would fall ill for no apparent reason and die, depleting the ranks.

I’m trying to recall any evidence from the series that contradicts my understanding of the “flu” and can’t come up with any. Alicia’s boyfriend is obviously very sick the last time she sees him — but he’s been bitten on the neck. There are references to a mysterious “flu” that’s spread in several states plus the fact that more and more kids seem to be missing school, but that’s easily explained, I think. The kids are being kept home not because they’re sick but because there’s a panic about this mystery disease that’s spreading through mechanisms that the public doesn’t understand yet. And the people in other states who’ve contracted the “flu” are probably just zombies who died of other causes and whose post-death behavior is being misinterpreted as a sort of illness rather than zombification. Remember, Travis mistakenly describes their zombie neighbor as sick at one point before Nick the junkie corrects him and says no, she’s dead. Even Nick’s dead junkie girlfriend, the very first zombie we see in the series, is explainable. She probably OD’d on heroin and then resurrected as a zombie due to the mysterious airborne agent. All of which is to say, while the military would have to worry about quickly destroying the brain of any soldier who suddenly died, there’s no reason to think any of them would die of the “flu.” The flu merely ensures zombification after death. It takes a bite to make you sick.

So the military would remain mostly intact, especially the healthy young men who do the actual fighting. Desertions would be a problem as some troops decided that family came first, but I like to think the only real hope of beating back the apocalypse would hold together at the moment of crisis. In fact, the military would probably gain a bunch of overnight volunteers. One element of the zombie apocalypse that’s rarely explored in this genre is that for many people, especially in the early stages of the outbreak, fighting zombies would be fun. You’d have all sorts of men ready to go Rambo on the undead once the Marines deputized them — which would create its own problems, but at least would partially solve the zombie situation. Meanwhile, I stick by what I said yesterday: Although cities would quickly become anarchic, areas of lower population density would be in no immediate danger and would probably end up as a turkey shoot for survivors over the first few weeks. Many locals have their own guns and there’s no way realistically for a horde of zombies to surprise anyone in such wide open spaces. I think rural America could be secured fairly quickly once people implemented the new protocols of destroying the brain of anyone who’s recently deceased. The hard choice for the military would be how many resources to devote to securing rural areas, which are territorially vast but pose little threat, and how many to devote to trying to take back cities, which are small but would be crawling with zombies fairly quickly. As of 2010, a little less than 150 people died in New York City each day of various causes. Imagine how quickly that number would climb with those 150 infecting many others, and then those infecting others.

I think the military could contain the threat but it would be laborious and would depend, of course, on whether they’re first able to secure supply lines of food and ammunition, which would presumably be their highest priority after the outbreak. Some cities might be so overrun that it’d be more efficient to raze them entirely. In the earliest weeks of the outbreak, though, I think even cities would put up more of a fight than everyone expects for the simple reason, again, that there’d be plenty of vigilantes around eager to capitalize on the situation. How long would it really take once everyone understood the scale of the threat for gangs of men to grab knives and baseball bats and start going home to home or block by block and killing every zombie they encounter? How quickly would people adjust to the brutal reality that their loved one’s brain needs to be destroyed as a matter of simple self-defense? New norms for disposing of the dead, both before and after zombification, would proliferate quickly and that would lighten the load on the military. I think you’d end up with a country where lots of urban areas are effectively no-go zones but flyover country is hanging in there while the military gradually expands the perimeter of the secure areas. It would take years, but there’d be nothing much else to do anyway.