Commentary: Max Brooks Q&A: We’ve had plans for a crisis like coronavirus for years. Why aren’t we using them?

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It’s not as big a leap as you might think, from writing a bestseller about a zombie war to lecturing at the Modern War Institute at West Point. There are all kinds of wars — including the one we are waging now, against a viral enemy. Max Brooks’ novel “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” holds as much statecraft and medical science as it does gore and horror, which is why he’s spoken at the Naval War College and holds a fellowship with the Atlantic Council.

Human shortsightedness is a deep theme in his books, including the new one due out next month: “Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre” — more methodical research piggybacked with a horror story. Brooks’ sense of humor may have come from his father, the writer and actor Mel Brooks — the two of them did a witty viral video on social distancing in the age of coronavirus — but his fascination with science was a gift from his mother, the actress Anne Bancroft, who loved learning about science and passed that along to her son.

Q: How did you become so knowledgeable that you lecture at West Point and the Naval College?

A: I do a ton of research on all my books, and I want all my stories to have a fictional threat, but a real solution. And that involves, for every hour of writing I do, I spend between 10 and 100 hours researching. In “World War Z,” while the zombies were fake, there was no wonder … The solutions had to do with real military technology and tactics. Therefore, the military took an interest in my books.

Q: We’ve had scenarios and solutions and responses for crises like this in place for a long time. But nobody’s thrown the switch on them.

A: We have spent decades and dollars preparing for something like this. And right here on my desk — I’m looking at it right now — is the biological incident annex to the response and recovery Federal Interagency Operations Plans — sitting right here! Line 15, Page 35, it talks about protective gears like masks. And it talks about the Defense Production Act. So anyone who says we had no idea this was coming is either an idiot or a liar or both.

Q: We know that we can do this because we prepared before. My father was a Civil Defense volunteer; in the basement of our city hall we had supplies. We were ready for the commies to come after us, inadequate as it may have been.

A: We were all ready for this. And since the end of the Cold War, we’ve been dismantling all these systems because they cost money and we don’t want to spend the money and we don’t want to spend the time. And we’ve also been attacking institutions for decades. And unfortunately, people are dying because of it.

Q: Do we seem more eager to prepare for and respond to a shooting war than a war like this?

A: Oh, yeah, of course we do, because we don’t have to stretch our imaginations. We can see an enemy. We can imagine a bomb. So things that go boom are a lot easier to prep for than something microscopic. And yet and everyone needs to hear this: Germs have killed more human beings than all the wars in history.

Q: Why don’t we take that seriously? Because we can’t see it? Because, oh, microbes, you know, who cares about microbes anymore? We’ve got this licked.

A: That’s exactly right. We did care about it. We cared about it for decades. Public health was our No. 1 concern because germs killed or crippled a large percentage of our population every year. And then we won. After World War II, we came up with antibiotics and with myriad vaccines. And as a result, now, even the majority of America’s grandparents have grown up vaccinated and don’t have the same gut fear of microbes the way the Greatest Generation did.

Q: What about the people you’ve worked with, who put the plans in place and who are not seeing the stuff implemented — how are they reacting?

A: As far as I know, there’s deep frustration, but there’s also been deep frustration for decades.

We might have the most historically unqualified captain of our ship of state, but the ship of state has been rusting underneath us for some time. And I watch these dedicated professionals working way too many hours for way too little money, trying to prepare us for disasters. And all they get for it is budget cuts and being ignored by our leaders and now being vilified as the deep state.

These are the keepers of the flame. And this is all they’ve been doing, trying to get us ready. And by the way, sounding the alarm for decades and most importantly, sounding the alarm for months. Anyone who still believes that we that we had no idea this was coming and that we were unprepared and that the system somehow was not designed for this needs to Google and download the National Response Framework.

That’s another difference that separates us from China. Our emergency plans are public and our public officials wanted to be disseminated among the individual citizens. Nobody’s hiding anything. They want us to learn because they want us to help. If you live in China or Iran, you’re a helpless passenger, whereas in America, you’re an active participant.

Q: I would expect these preparedness studies and plans are not just about logistics and supplies, but also include the psychological aspects, what Americans will accept, what they won’t.

A: And this is one of the greatest facts that we need to get through right now. Nationalizing our efforts will not make us Venezuela. For decades, armies of lawyers have been working tirelessly to make sure that we do not become a dictatorship in a crisis. That is exactly why we have these plans. All of these plans, all of these exercises are done in order to ensure our rights as well as our lives.

Q: But what are the psychological ripples out from these events?

A: Well, you know, I wrote “World War Z,” basing it on the history of plagues. And it doesn’t matter which country you go through or what time you’re living in. There tend to be basic cycles.

You first go through denial: I can’t get it. There’s something about me that makes me above it. And then there’s a tipping point where usually some famous people get it. Suddenly we tip over from denial to panic. And the panic usually is directly linked to how much preparation was done beforehand and also how ready societies are to deal with any crisis.

The Israelis are much better equipped and psychologically prepared than we are. As far as I know, there’s been no panic buying in Israel because they know they’re surrounded by enemies and they know to come together.

Same thing in South Korea, even Japan. Japan understands they’re on a crowded chain of islands with limited resources. So there’s been no panic there, whereas the United States — nobody does “losing your s — “ better than the USA.

Q: Well, we’ve only had, I think, two (hostile) incursions into the continental United States — the War of 1812 and 9/11.

A: But we always get sucker-punched. Pearl Harbor, 9/11, but also Sputnik, where we were driving big cars and rolling around with Hula-Hoops and then suddenly, oh, my God, the commies put a satellite in space right above our heads!

I lived through a plague. I lived through AIDS, where we went from denial to panic. But then we did something that Americans are also really good at doing. Americans are great at adapting to crisis. I dare anyone to find a society in human history that can pull itself together and reinvent itself like America. And we did it. We replaced free love with safe sex. We changed our cultural practices. We understood that this was an “everyperson’s” disease and not just a “them” disease. And while it was too late to bring the dead back, we stopped AIDS from wiping us out.

Q: But was it Churchill, or Abba Eban, who said you can depend on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve exhausted every other possibility?

A: I think that was Churchill. And it’s true, we are always we’re always the last to the fight, but we’re the best at finishing it.

We were always rabid individualists and yet somehow we came together. We stopped the Kaiser, we stopped Hitler. We stopped the Communists and we stopped AIDS. We can do this. This is a very American thing.

We’re not tied to a thousand years of history and culture. We don’t have countless generations crying from the grave to say, Americans can’t do that.

Think about it: We’re the only country in the world where our last president literally could have been a slave of our first president. Show me another culture that’s made that much social progress in that short a time.

We have an amazing life in this country that was born in blood by generations before us, and it’s about damn time we stopped taking that for granted.

Q: Tell me about the video you did with your father in terms of safe distancing from him, and your joke about how you don’t want to kill off a whole generation of comedy genius.

A: You know, this is the key to any sort of crisis management and to imparting any kind of public safety is you’ve got to make it personal. Looking at charts and facts and figures and dry press conferences do not have the same personal impact as a son worrying about killing his father. And so I wanted to personalize this by doing a video with my dad.

So I called my dad and asked him if I could come over, and he said yes. And that video was real. He was on one side of the window. I was on the other side. I haven’t hugged him since this crisis started, and I won’t.

It’s not just about you getting sick. It’s who you can get sick. And so far, 15 and a half million people have seen this video. Now, whether those views translate into action. I don’t know.

Q: Part of the of the planning that you’ve seen and that you’ve researched — does it also include disinformation and people trying to game what we know and what we don’t know?

A: Oh, there are professionals right now working on what the military calls the gray zone. I’ve got a report right here on my desk from the Modern War Institute at West Point, of which I am a senior nonresident fellow. And this active duty Army officer wrote a very detailed report about how the Russians use misinformation to either create a crisis or to exploit a crisis, which I’m sure they will do now.

If we do a comprehensive analysis of misinformation, we will see that the Kremlin is trying to fan the flames in the United States, because what better way to kick America off the world stage than to have a pandemic at home?

I don’t understand why the White House is not reacting in the correct manner. I’m not in the White House. I don’t know who’s whispering in the president’s ear. I don’t know whether it is ignorance or willful ignorance or greed or simply listening to the wrong people. But I can tell you, this state by state, county by county response is only going to prolong the outbreak and get more people killed.

Q: He said no one knew this would happen. No one has seen or anticipated anything like this.

A: We know that’s untrue. We absolutely know that’s untrue.

Q: We do. But the question is, does he?

A: Well, that we don’t know. Did he simply not know? Is this the fault of his cowardly enablers who were too terrified to try and tell him the truth? Or was he told the truth and simply chose not to believe it? We don’t know. And we shouldn’t speculate because there’s no time for that.

What we know is that we’re not doing enough and we need to ramp up our response before more people die. Because the real threat, the real deaths are not just going to come from coronavirus. For every one person who dies of coronavirus, how many people are going to die of other problems because they simply can’t get into a choked hospital? How many people with cancer? How many people with emergency births? How many people with accidents?

Q: Some of us who prepared for earthquakes feel a little bit ahead of the curve with this. I had masks. I had hand sanitizers. I’ve got gloves and all sorts of things that people laugh at me for carrying around in the car.

A: I am constantly surprised that my fellow Angelenos are panic-buying anything, because an earthquake kit should be in every home. And an earthquake kit should be much more extensive than a pandemic kit, because at least in a pandemic, the lights are on in, the water is running. But in an earthquake, I have everything I need to literally camp out on my lawn if my house falls down.

And hopefully, this crisis will teach all of us to be prepared.

Q: What’s the difference between preparedness and the survivalism that we associate with wacky political extremism?

A: I think we need to be very clear on preparedness versus prepper culture, because when people try to call me a prepper, I always say no, no, no. Because prepping just by its nature sort of hints at irrational paranoia with maybe a little side helping of anti-Semitism.

Disaster prepping — that sort of, oh, God, I need I need 1,000 pounds of lentil and 1,000 rounds for an assault rifle — is counterproductive. It’s wasteful, and it also could get somebody killed.

Good preparedness means common sense. Keeping in your home what you need, according to what the bona fide professionals tell you is necessary.

Q: If you could flip one switch to change the direction we’re heading in on this virus, what would it be?

A: National lockdown. Nothing else will suffice at this point. You have to lock down the entire country. You cannot go state by state, county by county. The virus doesn’t care. The virus is not going to stop at a state or county line. The virus is attacking the United States, and the states must act in a united fashion. We must practice social distancing from sea to shining sea. And while the American people are doing their part, our leadership must do its part. It must federalize the response. It must enact the Defense Production Act. It must centralize and coordinate the private sector so we cannot just ramp up production of what we need; we can make sure those tools get to the right people before it’s too late.

Q: Why do people read apocalypse fiction and watch apocalyptic movies?

A: I think there’s a bunch of reasons. I don’t want to speak for anybody else but myself. I think some people feel safe and bored and just want a thrill. I think some people use it wisely to explore the possibilities of what could go wrong.

And therefore, I think the onus is on the artists to be truthful, because you can be entertaining and exciting and still be 100% accurate. The movie “Contagion” was completely accurate. And yet it was really exciting to watch.

You don’t have to make stuff up. And you don’t have to exaggerate, because in apocalyptic fiction, the real crises are really scary.

Q: And your new book, “Devolution,” which is coming out in May, takes it in a different direction.

A: Well, devolution doesn’t deal with pandemic. It deals with natural disaster. It is the story of what happens when a group of very highly educated, well-paid intellectuals are suddenly confronted with having to fight for their survival.

Now, if I wrote this as an essay, I would either scare people away or bore them to death. So what do I do? I wrote a Bigfoot story. So it’s a fun, exciting tale of Sasquatch terror. But underneath it are the real lessons of what we must all do to prepare for a disaster.

It’s the message of what happens when we build a society based on comfort at the expense of resilience, which we had been racing toward since the end of the Cold War. We’ve been slowly dismantling all the safeguards that have kept us healthy and alive.

And you see this in the tech sector: Move fast and break things, with absolutely no regard for what could go wrong. You see that pale, wide-eyed Mark Zuckerberg staring at Congress with absolutely no concept whatsoever that he and his company might have had a hand in cracking our democracy. No idea.

Because at no point did any of these techies ever think what could go wrong. You see it now with driverless cars. The No. 1 tool of the terrorist is driving a car into a crowd. And anything “network” can be hacked. Are these driverless cars being built with a manual kill switch, or are we about to just flood our roads with rolling guided missiles? I don’t know.

We cannot be Luddites and we cannot be against progress, but it must be smart, safe progress. And that’s what I’m trying to get through in “Devolution,” where these people have built a society without any thought of what could go wrong.

Q: Did you — I read this book when I was a kid, like a million times — read “Microbe Hunters.”

A: Oh, my God, that was my mother’s favorite book! One of the reasons that I know all about this is because my mother was a closet scientist. And the world didn’t care. The world wanted Mrs. Robinson. They didn’t care that she was brilliant and inquisitive and curious.

But she cared. And so, when I was a little boy, she would read to me from “Microbe Hunters.” I learned about (microbiology pioneer) Leeuwenhoek the same time I learned about Bugs Bunny.

That was my childhood.



Patt Morrison is a longtime Los Angeles Times writer and columnist who has a share of two Pulitzer Prizes.


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