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I was looking around the site bored for a while, when I found this question: Why would the military use tanks in a zombie apocalypse?

Because I'm writing my own zombie story, I realized that I need my characters to kill the zombies, and not have the Deux ex Machina option of the military suddenly coming in. Thing is, logically they would, if the government wasn't completely stupid. (I guess it's not that invalid an option...) A zombie apocalypse would be pretty big news, so clearly everyone would know about it.

The zombies: It takes place in the small town of Sale Creek in northeastern Texas. They spread using venom, injected through biting. Other than that, they are WWZ zombies. The town, as it turns out, was on an ancient graveyard, and the original zombie was found in MC's grandpa's yard, while digging for a time capsule. If you need any more information, I would be happy to add it.

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    $\begingroup$ Too busy with zombie privates? $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Feb 18 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe the military DID come in...to a different town or neighborhood. They cannot be everywhere. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Feb 18 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ If it's a disease causing people to turn into zombies, maybe they would want to keep their troops away from them? $\endgroup$
    – Mattna
    Feb 18 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ Your plotline needs the military to not intervene. That's not too uncommon; because the military created the zombies and intended Sale Creek to die. You explain why that is. Please put into your question that the plot requires military non-intervention, and you want to know how to create it for your story. Then some may remove the close votes. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Feb 18 at 16:08
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    $\begingroup$ I guess they aren't invading your town because it has no oil and the zeds are not threatening any big companies (yet). $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Feb 21 at 14:08

15 Answers 15

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The best way to make sure the military does not intervene is by making them have a vested interest in doing nothing.

1 Preservation of Humanity

One simple and understandable reason for this is that they do not want the infection to spread any further, so the military has blocked off any and all escape from the town.

Essentially, rather than having the military doing nothing, you are making them the antagonists instead.

As soon as the government realized there were zombies in this town, they called up the military, surrounded the town with fences, soldiers, and tanks, and told the officers "Absolutely no one is allowed out of this town. If you think anyone is a zombie or infected, shoot them immediately."

I call this the "Scorched Earth" plan. Rather than taking the risk of letting zombies infect the world, the government is going to burn the place to the ground as soon as possible. To avoid being cruel, they'll give the few uninfected survivors a chance. They have, let's say about 15 days to get out of the city before they bomb it to oblivion.

This plan would be great for your story because it offers two things. First of all, it makes it so the army is not only not a deus ex machina for the main characters, but also a major threat. The soldiers aren't coming to save the people, they are here to make sure the infection does not spread no matter what, so they aren't here to help the civilians, they're here to kill anyone suspected of carrying the infection.

Also, adding the looming threat of the city being bombed adds even higher stakes to the story in general. A thrilling story needs a good running clock. It really increases the tension to know exactly it's too late to go back. If we know there are exactly 15 days (or whatever number you want to add, it's up to you) before the bombs go off, then it tells the readers and the characters that there is no time to waste. Every minute that the characters spend bickering, fighting monsters, or doing anything other than trying to escape, is a moment wasted for them.

I like the idea of the military going this route because it adds a lot of moral greyness to the story. Obviously, they do not want to hurt civilians, but the fate of the world is at stake. It is a trolley problem. Destroy one city to save the world from destruction.

From their perspective, they are the heroes, which makes them great antagonists.

That's my first suggestion.

2 Government Coverup/Conspiracy

This idea would also make the military the antagonists, though for different reasons.

In this scenario, the government does not want to admit its own fault. Admitting there are zombies on the loose would be admitting to their own failure, so they do nothing instead.

This is extremely common with real-world governments. A corrupt politician is never going to admit to a mistake because they want to pretend they are always right. Owning up to one's faults looks bad in front of the voting base, so it is better to pretend the problem does not exist and to cover it up as soon as possible. I could easily imagine this being the case during a zombie apocalypse.

"What, zombies? There are no zombies. It's just some strange new variant of rabies or some sort of mass hysteria. That's what it is," the government would say.

It's not hard to imagine politicians being so corrupt that they would leave people to die painful deaths at the hands of zombies rather than being honest about the problem.

Heck, in most zombie stories the apocalypse is usually a direct result of the government's actions.

For example, they were trying to make a biological weapon to use in a war against another country and it accidentally got loose for one reason or another. You mention that the town was built on an ancient graveyard, so it doesn't seem like this is the government's fault per se, but what if they knew about the existence of this clearly zombie-infested graveyard yet allowed the town to be built there anyway?

They might be more concerned with the graveyard than the safety of the people.

"Hmm, zombies we can use as biological weapons. That's great. We should study this. Oh, there are people living there? That sucks. We'd better way for them to all turn into zombies so we can study them."

It sounds heartless, but this kind of callousness is to be completely expected from real-world governments, who are about as heartless as they come.

3 The Army's Too Overwhelmed or Can't Be Bothered

It's also possible that the army has simply been overrun already. The zombie infection could have spread so fast that they have no way of handling the massive influx of infections. In the worst scenario, the infection spread so rapidly and so many people died that the military is nothing at this point. It's pure anarchy. No one is safe. Whether you were rich or poor in the old world means nothing now because we're all equals in the face of death.

The army is scrambling to fix the problem, and they just do not have the time or resources to help the town where the main characters are at. By the time anyone even remembers that place, the military has already been so depleted that there is nothing it can do at this point.

An even crueler explanation would be that the military and the government do have enough resources to help this place, but they'd just rather protect their rich investors. The poor people can just become zombies.

Is there a billionaire in this town? Okay, sure, the military will whisk him away in an instant. Normal people, though? Nah, they're of little value. Leave them to die.

Imagine having to have to pay to be saved from the zombies. If you can't offer the army a decent sum of money, they won't even bother as you're ripped limb from limb. That'd be an interesting social commentary.

I hope you consider one of these ideas for your story.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the "Can't be bothered" idea. Sounds like modern politics! $\endgroup$
    – Murphy L.
    Feb 18 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ A more lenient version of #1: They let people out of quarantine, but only after each has been tested for zombie-virus. Perhaps they do let some soldiers in, wearing NBC gear, under strict orders to only shoot people who are clearly beyond saving. $\endgroup$ Feb 21 at 2:31
  • $\begingroup$ Being a billionaire with a billion dollars in your bank account is quite pointless when there are no poor people that you can provide something useful for. $\endgroup$
    – gnasher729
    Feb 21 at 12:52
  • $\begingroup$ @gnasher729 True, but it's not like the rich couldn't be calloused enough and short-sighted enough to not think about that. If they are being smart about it, though, they wouldn't leave everyone to die, just those they don't deem useful enough to live. What you're left with is a bunch of desperate people who have nothing left and owe you their life. The perfect way to keep power in the new world order. $\endgroup$ Feb 21 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ #1 is basically Outbreak $\endgroup$ Feb 21 at 15:28
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SURE, zombies. right.

The state militia has had a problem with this - flash-mob fake 'zombie' and 'werewolf' attacks have resulted in huge hoaxes and a massive black eye on their reputation. A popular protest movement has started having their protestors dressing up like zombies and complaining about working conditions (slave labor conditions is likely one of the original sources of the zombie myth). Internet trolls have started routinely creating false disasters (including video and mass 911 calls), and the military simply doesn't trust anyone who is reporting a supernatural event.

Similarly, the governor is needed to authorize the intervention of troops, and the governor personally thinks it's a hoax. Possibly, someone trustworthy from the town thought it was a hoax and CALLED the governor, telling him it was a hoax - just before being eaten.

Yes, as this thing spreads, eventually the troops will be sent in, at the point that this thing is spreading out of control. So the troops WILL arrive - about a week after it would make a difference to anyone in the town. So unless they want to be zombie chow, they better get hacking with those machetes!

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In "normal" countries the military does not meddle with public order affairs. Cops are there for that, and should be better trained at engaging civilians in a more civil way.

This is already a reason for having the military stay put, at least in the initial stages of the outbreak.

Then add to this tensions at the border with a neighboring country, and no sane star covered general will be willing to send his boys to deal with some rotting bunch of flesh and leave the border uncovered like the buttocks of a newborn baby.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah police should arrest these zombies. We need more cops on the streets :p $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Feb 18 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Goodies zombie Sacha Baron while being cuffed: "it's because I'm dead isn't it, so what was my crime? walking while dead?" $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Feb 18 at 17:18
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    $\begingroup$ This was my first thought as well. The notion of undead zombies is so far outside the realm of medical understanding that you'll have a hard time classifying them as such in the initial outbreak - these are just very sick citizens, not foreign combatants. The Posse Comitatus Act would prevent the federal military from enforcing domestic policy about how to deal with these people, although non-federalized National Guard could get involved. $\endgroup$ Feb 18 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ Additionally, if the town/city were near a border with political tension but no military presence, sending the military to the town/city to deal with the zombies could send the wrong message that the country is mobilizing military forces to the border. Dead town > war with your neighbor $\endgroup$
    – Blueriver
    Feb 21 at 20:12
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Maybe a confluence of multiple factors could do the trick, each contributing a small part:

  • The Military, particularly the US Military, is a finely honed tool and exceedingly good at doing one thing: killing enemy combatants. Mortar strikes? Close air support? Naval operations? Kicking in insurgent's doors? They've got it all. What the military has not trained for is "pest control" or any combat scenario even remotely similar to a "fast zombies" scenario. A whole new doctrine and method of combat, logistics, and operations would need to be developed to shift the focus of the military from overseas "world police" type action to a domestically-focused pseudo-civil-war setting with a very high amount of civilians that cannot be injured. It is, after all, a big bureaucracy. This reorganization and redeployment, assuming the military and government react quickly, is still not something that happens overnight. A realistic timescale would require months, even years, before the military got their shit together.

  • "Hard men making hard choices". Above a certain power-level, the people in command are playing a numbers game with any such plague or zombie scenario. How many soldier's lives are they going to expend to save x civilian lives? What are the costs--in human life--of doing or not doing specific actions? When doing this grim calculus, it might simply turn out that it's not economical--in terms of solider lives and resources--to save a small podunk town that's already overrun. Instead, they'd prefer to spend their assets guarding nearby major metropolitan areas or doing other stuff like preventing further spread.

  • Quarantine procedure. This ties in with the last point. Maybe the military, government, and powers that be, decide that saving the town is a lost cause. Instead of sending in soldiers who could possibly die and be turned (risking PR problems essentially), they're going to write the town off as an unfortunate tragedy and set up a perimeter that they can bombard with heavy weaponry to prevent any zombies from escaping. Eventually, when the political winds have turned in the right direction, they might simply carpet bomb or nuke the entire town and the contained zombie threat to get rid of it once and for all.

  • The military is busy elsewhere. Obviously, the military isn't one monolithic entity, but even so, foreign conflicts, border security, or other flashpoints abroad could keep military power and the military leadership so occupied that they don't have time to focus on the zombie issue, and sideline it as a priority until they've dealt with the situation in on the x-istan border.

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    $\begingroup$ Whilst your first point is perfectly true, it's worth noting that special forces are intended to deal with situations which are more complex than simply "put some lead down range". So that gives more potential plot elements - the army put in a quarantine, and a recon squad head in to check out the situation, report back, and retrieve anyone who can be easily saved. Do they help the survivors, or do they just shoot anything that moves? Plot... $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Feb 19 at 9:17
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    $\begingroup$ When I started to get bored with 'The Walking Dead' TV show, while watching I started musing on how effective it would be to gather the zombies together e.g. by using sound to attract them, and then trying neutron bombs bursting at low altitude. If the contagion was confined to the US, I'm sure (given it is fictional) the UK could revive one or two Avro Vulcans to drop them, maybe using Canadian bases or even transatlantic air-to-air refuelling. $\endgroup$ Feb 20 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHarvey World War Z (the book, not the film) goes into a fair amount of depth about things like this. There's the particularly gruesome effects of airbursts on creatures that can only be killed by headshots. $\endgroup$ Feb 20 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ Please consult en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CONOP_8888 ;) $\endgroup$
    – abukaj
    Feb 21 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ "Above a certain power-level, the people in command are playing a numbers game with any such plague or zombie scenario." No. The people in power are often playing a PR game. They don't know or care who dies, as long as they come out looking good. Shifting blame. Thats the game they have played their whole career and the only game they know how to play. (I wish they were playing the numbers game) $\endgroup$ Feb 26 at 23:47
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These are not monsters!! These are your fellow human beings, having... a hard time!!

They have been told there may be a cure. ...Or it's unclear if theres a cure or not and they basically don't want to kill thousands of human beings if theres a tiny chance it can be resolved, reversed or contained and worked on. "We are working on a cure" is what they hear from the scientists.

...and the world is watching.

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    $\begingroup$ A local scientist (usually an attractive female) has convinced the sheriff that if they call in the military, many people will be killed who could be cured. So they keep the news from getting out as much as possible. $\endgroup$ Feb 21 at 2:34
  • $\begingroup$ That's a nice way to put it! $\endgroup$
    – n00dles
    Feb 21 at 2:51
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A zombie apocalypse would be pretty big news, so clearly everyone would know about it.

Not necessarily. Take a leaf out of the horror genre's playbook and cut off communication. If this takes place it a small backwater town, it's quite easy to cut off communication with the rest of the world. Suppose a small scale natural disaster has happened (a tornado, perhaps?) and most of the town's power has been knocked offline, as well as the local cell towers, crippling communication. The main road has been rendered inoperable because a tree fell on it, or because there's a mass of zombies by it, etc.

If the threat is localized, it's possible to make sure that no one can call for help. And if it isn't, then the military has more pressing issues than a backwater town, and has to focus on the major population centers.

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    $\begingroup$ If you make it a little retro you just need the locale switchboard operator to be one of the early victims and you've got your isolation .. good comedy to be had there with the zombie switchboard operator misrouting outgoing calls to other random locale numbers. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Feb 18 at 17:43
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    $\begingroup$ All it takes is one person in the town with a StarLink uplink and you've got videos streaming to the entire internet seconds after the first attack. Cutting off communications isn't as simple these days as snipping a single wire or taking down the one cell tower in the middle of town. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Feb 20 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ So all you have to do as a writer is not have that one person with a StarLink. There is such a thing called suspension of disbelief, and in fiction, all you have to do is paint a plausible enough picture. $\endgroup$
    – Halfthawed
    Feb 21 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Corey Because when one random nobody puts shaky home footage of zombies on their obscure youtube channel, everyone instantly notices and believes them. LOL $\endgroup$ Feb 26 at 23:44
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Law, and bureaucracy

Your constitution disallows any military action within your own borders, and neither the military nor the government wants this changed.

True story from Germany: after WWII, (west) Germany was demilitarized by the allies. A few years later, with the cold war becoming more intense, Germany got an army again, which was, at that time, highly unpopular with the Germans themselves, because they remembered how the Nazi Wehrmacht had behaved. So, an explicit provision was put into the constitution that forbade any operation by the German army inside Germany.

Then, in 1962, a flood struck Germany, especially Hamburg. The Major of Hamburg (Helmut Schmidt, who would become Chancellor some years later) called the army to help, ignoring the constitutions of both Hamburg and Germany, and got away with it because of the damage and deaths that were prevented. Later, the constitution was changed, and military aid, especially with distasters, were permitted.

But imagine it had been a zombie apocalypse instead of a flood. No government official would ever have dared to call the military to shoot civilians, every military commander would have refused to act on such a call, and all over the world people would have said that, not even 20 years after the war, Germany started acting even worse than the Nazis, again.

So, no chance at all to get the military involved, at least not before it's too late, everybody agrees military action is necessary, and of course, by then, the infection is out of control.

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No military to come

The original Mad Max was set in an Australia where something had happened. It is bleak but not over the top - there are people and houses and stores. But something has happened. It is not specified what that is. Wikipedia states:

The series follows the adventures of Max Rockatansky, a police officer in a future Australia which is experiencing societal collapse due to war and critical resource shortages.

In your future world something has happened. There are police but there is no military to come. Maybe there has been a war and the country of your characters has been defeated and disarmed. Maybe it was a civil war which was fought to a standstill and both exhausted sides disarm by mutual agreement. Maybe the only military available are the occupying forces of the victors.

This would help you from a storytelling perspective. Implication of a larger and more longstanding societal problem would be an excellent stage for your zombie story.

I like the idea of a scene at the abandoned airport, forest growing up around the runways. Lined up planes sit empty. It is not explained why the airport is abandoned.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this one. The townsfolk await the military but no military come. They finally defeat the zombies at the end of the book, and head out to rejoin the rest of the world, only to find ... DON'T MISS THE THRILLING SEQUEL OUT SUMMER 2023! $\endgroup$ Feb 21 at 15:30
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The same reason they're not doing it right now, when a cult of spreading disease runs amok in towns and cities, terrorizing citizens in their homes, schools, places of business, etc.: a major political party largely supported by the police and military is in favor of the zombie apocalypse and the changes to social order they believe it will bring. They want the eugenics aspect because they believe they're of superior genetic stock and it will be others who are "inferior" who are most killed by the zombies. They want the class and racial aspects, that they believe they will have the means (guns, large isolated private property, etc.) to defend themselves against zombie hordes while others won't. And the military (maybe just its commander in chief?), being on their side, supports them in this.

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    $\begingroup$ This would have been a better answer had it been less about complaining about a major political party and more about describing the hows and whys of using this example to create a realistic scenario. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Feb 20 at 16:08
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Cognitive Bias, Incompetence, and Denial

A handful of people at the top of the chain of command simply refuse to believe the zombies are real, and actively order troops to stand down. This could be for one or a combination of reasons:

Conservatism Bias

The tendency to revise one's belief insufficiently when presented with new evidence.

Initial intelligence stated the "zombies" were a hoax carried out by a foreign government. Top brass now interprets new reports that zombies are real as evidence of a foreign power fueling the hoax more.

Normalcy Bias

A cognitive bias which leads people to disbelieve or minimize threat warnings. Consequently, individuals underestimate the likelihood of a disaster, when it might affect them, and its potential adverse effects.

Humans are terrible at recognizing and acknowledging catastrophic events that endanger them. It's almost as if the brain refuses to process the evidence of danger, and will actively skew the interpretation of evidence in order to protect itself from distress. The linked Wikipedia article gives great historical examples related to Pompeii, Hurricane Katrina, the Titanic, and Fukushima.

An example of this in literature can be seen in the Harry Potter series when Cornelius Fudge denies the return of "You-Know-Who".

A real-world example is the number of politicians who insisted COVID was the flu, well after overwhelming scientific evidence confirmed otherwise.

Backfire Effect

The backfire effect is a name for the finding that given evidence against their beliefs, people can reject the evidence and believe even more strongly.

Sometimes evidence for something leads people to believe more strongly that it doesn't exist—or vice-versa.

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In a sense, the military would respond. Once an event like this occurs, the military would be activated with a declaration of an emergency by the president and other government officials. martial law would soon be declared.

Initially, they would establish lines of control and set quarantines to contain the problem. they would elevate security around high level areas, such as military installations, government facilities and industrial areas (to ensure the military is properly supplied for the foreseeable future) and protect high level personnel (such as the president and, unfortunately, more affluent people.) As the situation spread, the military would fall back to more defensible positions, evacuating who they could in the limited time.

There is some factors that would go into how the military would deploy.

First, there is not enough to go around. They would determine the resources available and the extent of the situation. They would then develop a list of areas/facilities based on priority and then go down the list to secure them until their resources are spent.

Second, these soldiers are human too. Many would do what they can to control the situation and follow orders. Others would be concerned for their family and friends, or stricken with fear and will leave on their own. There is a certain level of attrition expected in such a home attack the military takes into account.

With these factors, if the situation is wide spread enough, small towns such as Sale Creek, TX will just not have any kind of military deployment. Certain smaller military posts would get abandoned to reinforce places like Fort Hood. (I cant find Sale Creek, so I am assuming its not real, but I would assume its would be no where near a large military base of any kind, so the town would be SOL.)

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I have to say the government won't get involved, at least not right away, because who's gonna believe zombies actually are running around eating people and turning others?
By the time the president and the DOD get actual confirmation and see it with their own eyes it's too late for a full military mobilization, because the disease spreads too quickly.
Only having a portion of their original strength the president and DOD decide to pull their forces for a defensive operation where they quarantine, say, DC and set up a base to work on a cure or a plan to fire bomb all the major cities to kill off as many as they can. This could lead to your heroes having beef with them somewhere down the line.

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What military?

By the time the politicians quit making stupid speeches the soldiers had grabbed what weapons they could and went home to protect their families. The only troops you have left are a few that have no loved ones to protect--and that's assuming they didn't already turn.

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So, after the last two years you are still questioning a central governments ability to live through a worldwide catastrophic situation killing millions of people and simply act for months as if nothing is happening? Really?

Here are some reasons why they would not send the military...

  • Acknowledging the zombie apocalypse would be "bad for the economy", and that would impact the shareholder values of people who give generous campaign donations... Better be safe and just claim it is fake news.
  • A zombie apocalypse would make the current government/president/party look bad. Or we might even have to admit to making mistakes, or not knowing something... So we better act as if it doesn't happen and claim it is fake news.
  • Sending the military would cost money, you know, and who is gonna pay for that? Citizens eaten by zombies don't cost you anything, so it is cheaper to claim it is fake news.
  • Why send the military for something which is not worse than your average flu? My aunt was eaten by a zombie and was completely fine, but THE FLU KILLS PEOPLE!!11
  • Why send the military if you can kill the zombies easily yourself with hydroxychloroquine, or horse deworming drugs? I have this on good authority from multiple people who have read online about a news report of this rumor being told by at least one guy in Alabama who could not even spell 'hydroxychloroquine'... or 'horse'.
  • Killing the zombies would "split society", and that is the worst thing that can happen, you know, so better to just ignore them.
  • Sending the military is construed to somehow infringe upon peoples freedoms, and for the powers that be these might be more valuable than keeping zombie death numbers low.

... I could go on.

Wow. This answer would be funnier if it wasn't so true.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't know why I ended up laughing at most of these. $\endgroup$
    – Murphy L.
    Feb 24 at 20:11
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As others probably mentioned, the army military can't be everywhere and while irl plans to fight a zombie outbreak do exist (probably not mentioning zombies but describing a virus or such with the same effect) obvious the military is not able to save everyone because in all countries the military is dwarfed by the rest of the population and the country's size means travel takes a while, even more so when lots of infrastructure and vehicles, etc. are not usable or require clearing of some manner or other due to the zombie outbreak.

Like in most zombie stories most likely there will be several outposts run / protected by the military in an unprotected wilderness and anyone not able to right away reach such an outpost must try to stay safe where they are, e.g. if travel is too dangerous, or try to reach an outpost with the military maybe assisting them if they are lucky but most likely not having the capacity to do so because they are fighting of zombies at the outposts, transporting large amounts of refugees elsewhere, etc.

Not to mention any large organiziation liek the military is an easy target for the spreading of the zombiefication in the first place so possibly only a tiny amount of military personnel are still humans .

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  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't answer the OP's question "Why would the military not intervene?" can you edit this to focus on answering the OP's questions? $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Feb 24 at 2:17

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