Remember DoD’s Counter-Zombie Plan? It’s Actually a ‘Brilliant’ Preparedness, Mitigation, and Response Strategy for New and Unforeseen Threats

It’s been many months since the Defense Department’s fictitious CONPLAN 8888-11, Counter-Zombie Defense, was made public and held up to ridicule –- some declaring it another example of wasteful Pentagon spending. I mean, come on, frittering money on a fictitious plan for countering a zombie apocalypse? But the fact is, CONPLAN 8888-11 is brilliant on so many levels. My first reaction was I’m so incredibly proud of our military. This effort is like a "knowledge force multiplier" on the issues of planning, crisis response and asymmetrical threat.

Probably the best and most important thing they did with CONPLAN 8888-11 was to make it available on Intellipedia so both the American public, and, more importantly, the emergency management community could look at and work with the best example of a CONPLAN template they could possibly find.

As the authors’ of the fictitious counter-zombie plan noted — it’s funny and entertaining. It was designed that way so its concepts would be entertaining to digest. Even though a 6th grader could probably grasp the underlying metaphor for "terrorist" and a novel "pathogenic threat," by using humor and a metaphoric zombie threat characterization embedded in pop culture,they  removed real fear from the equation and (probably without the less sophisticated reader understanding it) walked those who "consume" it through the logical process of threat characterization and the requirements associated with preparedness, mitigation response and recovery against new, unforeseen … and otherwise very fearful threats.

The plan also very clearly demonstrated that the co-mingled efforts of planning and response are multi- or, even hyper-dimensional efforts, where no single silo of a critical infrastructure sector—or, in the case of this particular scenario, society itself—could work in a vacuum and possibly hope to achieve success.  It’s all co-mingled. I have used the analogy of Star Trek’s iconic character, Spock’s 3-dimensional chess game for a long time to describe the complexities of planning and response, i.e., when one piece is moved on one layer or dimension of the game, it has a cause-and-effect impact on another that must be accommodated.

The military has understood this almost intuitively for as long as they have done operational planning, but it is a concept that has eluded us in the domestic Environment. By using a walking dead scenario, they have "universalized" the asymmetrical threat that is now endemic to our environment in the post-911 era. While the scenario is ludicrous, the reader nevertheless is left with a better grasp of the notion of a threat that could affect us all — and that only by beginning to plan (at the personal level, at the home level, at the community level, etc.) can we hope to achieve resilience against any kind of new, fantastical scenarios.
When the media first reported DoD’s counter-zombie plan last year, they didn’t seem to get it. The media, pundits and talking heads mocked the CONPLAN as a waste of time and money. But the fact is, this was probably the brainchild of some über-smart major who should be allowed to pass ‘Go’ and be directly promoted to at least 2-star rank!

With its fictitious zombie CONPLAN, DoD went "Aikido" on us—but most of the public, and certainly the media — didn’t grasp the implications of what was conceptualized in the plan. Aikido is counter-intuitive to the normal practitioner of the (percussion) martial arts. Instead of using force against a threat, the "Aikidoka" uses the force generated by the attacker to throw the attacker off balance with little or no effort. As the practitioner moves within what is referred to as the "dynamic sphere," he simply directs the energy of the attack in exactly the direction it was already going. But since the attacker doesn’t expect this—he expects force will be met with reciprocal force—he effectively gives his balance away, and in doing so, loses the engagement.

So, how does this compare with what the authors of this counter-zombie plan did with the plan? The universal adversary—and novel diseases—have entered our dynamic sphere (i.e., the United States, our Western Allies, the planet even) in the 4th generation of warfare. There is no getting around that anymore. We could approach emerging threat(s) in our classically trained manner (the manner that may have worked in the 3rd generation of warfare dominated by force-on-force engagement with non-asymmetrical weapons systems), and try and use antiquated tactics, techniques, policies and procedures (TTP&P). But this plan proves (to me, at least) that there is emerging recognition that those TTP&Ps that worked for a long dead enemy will simply cause us to have our balance taken from us in short order in the modern era—something we clearly cannot afford to let happen.

So, what do you do? Well, you break the mold. You engage the threat through clever metaphor; pull, then push it in the direction you can control; take the thinking about the threat out of the black world of clandestine operations and into the mainstream of society; and engage the common citizen in the process of improving his or her own posture of preparedness right down to the most base and micropolitan level of our society. I’ll repeat—it’s brilliant!

Somebody very smart was behind this. This should actually be held up as a groundbreaking, forward moving effort in the realignment of our approach to national security in the 21st Century.

A friend of mine named Peter Hitt once described the definition of the word "resilience" as, ‘The ability to live as normally as possible in an abnormal environment.’  When you watch virtually any zombie movie or TV series like, “The Walking Dead,” what are the humans doing at all times (other than decapitating, blowing up or blowing away the zombies)? They’re trying to do just what Peter described—live as normally as possible while the rest of the world has gone the way of the living dead. They still need to eat and drink, find shelter and medical care, and protect their wives and children. All kidding aside, these are the base pursuits of our existence that American psychologist Abraham Maslow described in his "Hierarchy of Needs" in 1947.

I flexed the “Hierarchy of Needs” in previous writings to show that when the environmental duress of a disaster presses down on our society, we tend to reflexively revert to those base elements of our existence.

However, since we tend not to think about duress on a daily basis, or buy into the very real fact that risk — even fantastical risk — has increased in our environment, we don’t take the measures we should to prepare for the basest of requirements in advance of a disaster. We invariably struggle, and/or compete for them, when the event occurs. Said another way, by failing to engage in any sort of pre-event planning, our chances of mounting an adequate response diminish in equal — but inverse — proportion to the impact and magnitude of the event.

With the subtle craft of a master, whoever is responsible for writing the Zombie Plan is suggesting to its consumers that we have, indeed, entered into a paradigm shift in terms of dealing with emerging threats. That is, the only way we are going to change our posture of preparedness is by understanding that each and every one of us has to embrace the zombie (i.e., believe that a threat is real), and then figure out what we have to do keep the monsters at bay and still live as normally as possible in a new-normal, albeit very abnormal, world.

At the height of the Cold War, it could be argued that the nuclear Sword of Damocles hung precariously an inch from each of our collective necks as citizens of this planet. Yet, the threat was a known and familiar one. We practiced to make our responses reflexive; we had a national civil defense system; we had alarming mechanisms to alert us to increased threat; and we talked about it all the time.

We have none of that now. A comparable threat, today, is one, big, very frightening unknown to us. We don’t know what we might be attacked with next (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or more high-explosive, kinetic energy weapons ripping into tall buildings—who can tell?). We can’t see armies moving into position any more, or ICBMs spinning up in their launch silos. We don’t know if the guy sneezing next to us on a plane might be shedding some new and virulent virus that has the ability to create the next pandemic. And we really don’t know if the chicken zombie (CZ) phenomenon will one day manifest itself in the human species. Can anyone say definitively it won’t?

What we should know—and what this plan suggests—is that one way or another, we have to embrace readiness at a very personallevel if we’re going to have any hope of getting through whatever the next big event is going to be. And, that we shouldn’t be waiting for some wacky, cosmic-ultra-top-secret plan that the US government may—or, hmm, may not, have—to come riding in to the rescue when the monsters appear on the horizon.

Dr. Pietro (Peter) D. Marghella currently serves as the Senior Advisor for Medical Planning and Preparedness for the International Medical Corps, the largest direct response medical and public health non-governmental organization in the United States. He previously served as director of the New York State Office of Emergency Management.

A career naval officer, Marghella served as a plans, operations and medical intelligence officer in the Navy’s Medical Service Corps, retiring as the Director of Medical Contingency Operations for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.  Previous assignments included Chief of Medical Plans and Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Chief of Medical Plans and Intelligence for the US Pacific Command; and Chief of Medical Plans and Intelligence for the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. His national-level planning credentials include authorship of the nation’s first Catastrophic Incident Response Plan (response to acts of domestic nuclear terrorism) and the National Smallpox Response Plan.

The opinions contained herein are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the International Medical Corps.

Images courtesy of AMC

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