THE LATE GEORGE A. ROMERO, father of the modern movie zombie, crushed the souls of The Walking Dead fans when he declared his not-fondness for the show, stating that The Walking Dead was nothing more than a soap opera with an occasional zombie in it. The problem with The Walking Dead, according to Romero, is that the show lacks the deeper meaning found in his zombie films.
Although The Walking Dead has certainly met the blood and guts standard, the show is short of substance. At least according to George A. Romero.
As much as I love Romero’s films, I disagree with his assessment of The Walking Dead.
Not the soap opera part. The Walking Dead is a soap opera. And that occasional zombie was a season two thing. You know, because AMC canned Frank Darrabont… and the budget got slashed, so they didn’t have as many zombies… and all this stuff…
Oh, wait. Where was I?
was I anywhere?
Anyway, I think that there’s plenty of substance going on in The Walking Dead.
Some of it is kinda obvious.
I’ve been writing about philosophy in The Walking Dead for awhile, now. In fact, I think I’ve written about The Walking Dead more than any other thing I’ve decided to analyze from a philosophical point of view. Most of my TWD posts are about how this or that character does this or that that is or isn’t the morally correct thing to do.
Writing about ethics keeps my posts pretty much on the side of Western philosophy.
I’m pretty sure that there’s a lot to write about The Walking Dead from an Eastern philosophical point of view as well.
The series dipped into Eastern philosophy in the season six episode “Here’s Not Here”, and the character Morgan Jones’ morality is grounded in an Eastern point of view.
Honestly, I don’t write about Eastern philosophy because its not my forte.
That’s not gonna stop me from doing it, tho.
Because I’m a philosopher. And philosophers are qualified to write about everything.
There are many well-known Eastern philosophical texts: the Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, Analects, Upanishads, and The Art of War.
Not the Wesley Snipes movie, the book.
And never to be confused with The Art of the Deal, written by the current U.S. president, Donald J. Trump.
More specifically, I’m referring to the 5th century text on military strategy and tactics written by the philosopher-general Sun Tzu. The Art of War is considered to be the definitive work on strategy and tactics and although The Art of War was not intended to be general audiences (like Hegel), Sun Tzu’s treatise is read by such diverse readers as U.S. military intelligence, sports coaches, and business leaders.
Although The Art of War is requited reading for those who want to conquer the enemy from generals to CEOs to kindergarten teachers with the soul of a Mongol conqueror, it’s obvious that this book does not exist in the fictional world of The Walking Dead.
When it comes to strategy and tactics, the characters in The Walking Dead do too much dumb.
A particular master at the dumb is the current charming and way-too-attractive-to-be-a-real-bad-guy-in-the-real-world, the villain without a full name, Negan, played by Jeffery Dean Morgan.
Negan may seem like a badass to most but to some he is a mess of a shitstorm level, already-doomed-to-fail, bad decision making.
This would not be the case if Negan had read The Art of War.
You see, in The Art of War Sun Tzu lays out the perfect plan for defeating one’s enemies.
Negan does none of that plan.
Sun Tzu writes that war should not entered into casually. A leader should ask if war is even necessary? Moral aptitude and decisiveness are required (in leadership) for a quick victory.
The aim is victory without war. According to Sun Tzu,
“Weapons are ominous tools to be used only when there is no alternative.”
Skillful generals win by taking advantage of enemies weaknesses, annexing territory and supplies, and disrupting the relationship between a general and his army.
Sun Tzu also writes that wars are to be short with the least amount of loss possible.
Seems like a pretty easy to-do list, right?
Not for Negan.
Negan starts off with violence.
Violence courtesy of Negan’s barbed wire wrapped Louisville Slugger named Lucille.
Now, Sun Tzu says the goal is to break resistance without fighting. But when your first contact is smashing someone’s head in with a baseball bat and taking their stuff, you’ve thrown out the possibility of avoiding fighting.
In fact, all you’ve done is sown the seeds of anger, resentment, and a festering want for revenge.
It’s clear that Negan is practicing a kind of Roman scorched earth policy; intimidation by overwhelming strength. But it’s obviously not a good tactic. At least it’s a tactic that isn’t guaranteed to always succeed. Negan is not just facing war with Rick’s group at Alexandria, but with two additional settlements, The Kingdom and Hilltop, as well.
Not to mention there’s growing dissension within Negan’s own ranks.
Dissention within Negan’s “army” is attributable to Negan’s leadership style.
Sun Tzu writes,
“A leader leads by example, not by force”
Negan’s compound, The Sanctuary, is ruled by force. Negan is sole dictator, with a cadre of men (or Saviors) who enforce Negan’s absolute rule.
Negan takes the wives of The Sanctuary’s men and persuades/coerces the women to be his “wives”. The men are no longer granted access to their former wives or else face the consequences.
Like a hot iron to the face.
People in The Sanctuary are not permitted to leave.
Everyone and everything “belongs” to Negan. When asked the question “who are you?”, personal identities are thrown aside, as the proper answer to the question is “I am Negan”.
Failure to answer the question correctly earns you a beat down.
Because Negan leads by force.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes,
“Treat captives well, and take care of them”
Sun Tzu says when one takes care of the captured enemy, one is “using the conquered foe to augment one’s strength.”
Naturally, Negan screws the pooch on this one when he captures Rick’s greatest warrior, Daryl Dixon.
Daryl is imprisoned, psychologically tortured, mistreated, and malnourished – nothing that would sway his loyalty from Rick and his fellow Alexandrians. Negan wants to “break” Daryl, but had he read Sun Tzu, he might have realized that a better tactic might have been to use honey with Daryl Dixon instead of vinegar.
It’s clear that Negan knew that a little bit of care works, as playing the gracious host is how he wins over captive Alexandrian, Eugene.
Negan also uses the charm offensive in an attempt to win over another captive from Rick’s group, Sasha.
But Sasha swallows poison and kills herself rather than join Negan’s Saviors.
Can’t win ‘em all, eh?
While demonstrating to the King of Wu that his concubines could be trained like the King’s best soldiers, Sun Tzu placed two of the King’s favorite concubines to serve as generals to the others. After giving the women orders, the groups of concubines were commanded to carry out the orders as instructed. The women did not comply.
Sun Tzu informed the King that failure to comply is the commander’s fault. Sun Tzu told the King,
“But when they [orders] have been made clear, and are not carried out in accordance with military law, it is a crime on the part of the officers.”
Sun Tzu then ordered that the King’s favorite concubines be beheaded.
This story is apocryphal, but still applies.
If Negan claims that everything as his, including people, then Rick’s group (Rick’s “army”, if you will) also belongs to Negan. Negan’s new acquisitions fail to comply with his orders because their leadership prevents them from doing so – that is, the Alexandrians’ loyalty to Rick is interfering with their obedience to Negan.
Negan allows Rick to remain leader of the Alexandrians, and as a consequence orders are not carried out in accordance with Negan’s law.
Rick Grimes is a bad general.
Negan keeps Rick around even though it’s clear that he should have bumped Rick off from the get-go. Unfortunately, Negan is a rabid weasels bag full of TV tropes (including, but not limited to “evil gloating”, or as coined by Roger Ebert, “The talking killer”). Instead of doing what would assure The Savior’s victory, like, I don’t know, killing the leader of a rival group – Negan insists on giving Rick Grimes and the Alexandrians even more reason to seek revenge against The Saviors.
That means that both groups are headed towards “all out war” – something that won’t be resolved quickly.
Exactly what Sun Tzu says shouldn’t happen. Sun Tzu writes,
“What is essential in war is victory, no prolonged operations”
In all fairness, there is one thing that Negan gets right.
Sun Tzu writes,
“Hence the wise general sees to it that his troops feed on the enemy…
Negan’s system of tribute, forcing other settlements to provide food, weapons, and supplies to the Sanctuary, keeps The Saviors well fed and supplied.
So I guess even by Sun Tzu’s standards, Negan is a completely awful leader.
You can’t be an awful leader when you wear a snazzy leather jacket.
In the end, I can’t be sure if nobody read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in The Walking Dead universe. Before the undead conquered the earth, Negan was a PE coach and probably had plenty of spare time between coaching vigorous ping pong games to read Sun Tzu’s work and fantasize of being the leader of the second most badass group to populate a Washington DC-adjacent post-apocalypse.
Seriously, Negan was a ping pong coach.**
Although I generally consider myself the last person to argue with the inventor of the flesh eating ghoul as a viable movie subgenre, but, despite appearances, you can squeeze a whole hell of a lot of deep stuff out of The Walking Dead.
…even a 5th century Chinese manual of military strategy and tactics.
George Romero might not have realized it, but it’s actually quite easy to take a handful of out of context Sun Tzu quotes and apply it to a basic cable soap opera with an occasional zombie in it.
** For more on Negan’s adventures as a ping pong coach, check out The Walking Dead multi-part prequel comic Here’s Negan.
Sun Tzu. The Art of War. Trans. by Samuel B. Griffith. 1963. London: Oxford University Press.
Curious about “the talking killer” trope? Check out: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/EvilGloating