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In the TV series The Walking Dead, why has the military been so ineffective against the walker invasion? If the walkers can be stopped by something as simple as fences and glass doors (like at the shopping mall in season 1 episode 2) can be killed with a bat, or with one gunshot to the head, then how could they compete against the on slaught of hundreds of thousands of soldiers with automatic weapons, Apache helicopters, fighter jets, tanks, and explosives that can wipe out small countries?

I understand that in season 2 it is revealed that "everybody is infected" and that could explain how some soldiers MIGHT turn against their own kind (though certainly there's no evidence I've seen so far that would indicate they would use automatic weapons) but that would have had to happened rapidly and in great masses at a time for it to be effective against the soldiers that are NOT immediately turned... where as the group in the TV series all go without exhibiting any signs of 'changing' for weeks, so why all the soldiers would all suddenly 'turn' doesn't make sense to me.

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In just about every major zombie movie ever made, the military is usually ineffective against zombies (or ends up creating them through experiments or accidental chemical spills). It's just an accepted part of the genre. –  Force Flow Nov 25 '12 at 20:41
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Plot, probably. if the Military was effective at combating them then it would not fall to a ragtag band of misfits regular joes to combat the onslaught themselves. No crisis, no drama. –  Jared Tritsch Nov 25 '12 at 20:52
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This is explained quite clearly in World War Z. Normal military doctrine does not work against Zombies. E.g. how many Zombies can a tank kill? It has only about 50 shots, and most of these are designed to kill tanks. –  Martin Schröder Nov 26 '12 at 7:42
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@MartinSchröder Good point, but how many zombies can one man in a tank with an automatic weapon kill? I'd suggest as many as he has ammo for (and fuel to drive to, if there are none in his immediate area), as those zombies have 0 chance of penetrating the tank. –  n00b Nov 26 '12 at 14:10
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Military isn't plants of Plants vs. Zombies... –  Sachin Shekhar Nov 26 '12 at 15:48

13 Answers 13

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The military has trained to destroy equipment, buildings, and to kill people.

Their first two skills (for example, taking out a radar station) are completely useless.

And that third skill, well... they're instructed to shoot "center body mass". That's not going to stop a zombie. Besides, while there are a few psychopaths in the military, most of them are going to be reluctant to even fire upon their own people. And when they do, those people don't stop, they just stagger and keep coming?

Additionally, their first response will be to send men with rifles. These will be at checkpoints on bridges and roads and so on. By the time they learn what a mistake this is, they may not have it together enough to mobilize tanks or helicopter gunships. Those things take alot of support, support provided by people who aren't safely inside of a tank. So while the tank is rolling around crunching zombies, burning fuel (and they burn a surprising amount of fuel), then the needle starts pointing closer to E they will discover that the fuel depot was just overwhelmed. Thus ends the short-lived pushback. About that time panic and mutiny will set in, with no clear chain of command (generals don't ride around in tanks, so they're not safe either).

Meanwhile, any people who are getting killed (and many are, since the military can't protect itself it's sure as hell not protecting the civilians) are turning into zombies, further enlarging the numbers. Even in supposedly safe areas, anyone that so much as dies of a heart attack or from a mugger shooting them turns into a zombie, and exponential population growth soon turns those cities into a wasteland. That's an important part of this too because that means the military can't reasonably get backup even from (until that point) unaffected areas.

They're designed to fight a different kind of enemy. Zombies are one that they can't hope to succeed against.

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The military also make a lot of noise. Which attracts more zombies. –  NWS Nov 26 '12 at 15:17
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The Posse Comitatus Act also prohibits the US Armed Forces from acting within the United States proper. –  Jim Green Jan 3 '13 at 18:14
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Only acting without authorization from Congress. We can assume that during an Outbreak, restrictions would be lifted, especially since it's more akin to disaster relief than police action. –  John O Jan 3 '13 at 18:31
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or a foreign invasion, which would lift the restrictions automatically for the duration in order to drive back the invader. –  jwenting Feb 12 '13 at 9:21
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@JohnO I think you missed my first comment. Or perhaps I didn't describe a "failure drill" very well, because that was my whole argument: they would start making them right away. A "failure drill" is 2 to the body 1 to the head in less than 1 second. So they're already trained to evaluate "1, still coming, 2, still coming, 3, put him down" very very quickly. So they would start making headshots immediately. Consequently, they'd figure out really fast to just skip the first two. As RCB pointed out, though, that still doesn't solve all the other problems. –  Matt Feb 20 at 19:16

You have your pick of potential answers as to why the military is ineffective and all of them tend to be tropes of the Zombie genre. While Zombie Apocalypse events vary depending on the writer, some things tend to remain true in almost all of them:

  • The event is unexpected, spreads quickly, causes widespread panic and due to a lack of social discipline swells the ranks of the infected/undead at an exponential rate. Granted, most people are not prepared for the dead returning to a semblance of life with the speed of a pandemic, so it can be understood why so many would be overcome so quickly.

  • In the beginning of the event, when the military would be at its most effective, any military interaction would only have spread the event faster since they would assume shooting at anyone and everyone would be the best choice of action. They would have only ensured most positions unless they were perfectly secure would eventually be overrun by the zombies they were creating by shooting into the crowd. Subsequent survivors of those events might be able to piece this together and not randomly shoot crowds of potentially infected people.

The Walking Dead has also focused specifically on the period after the initial assault so we are not sure why the military failed to do its job, only that it had for the most part been unable to stop the dead from overwhelming the living. But there are a few reasons which come to mind:

  • No matter how prepared people believe themselves to be, most are unable to muster the level of violent behavior AND planning required to survive the first days of the Zombie Apocalypse, when the zombies are at their thickest and their numbers are still growing. Depending on the number of source locations for the infection, it is conceivable for such an event to cover the globe in a matter of days.

  • The military is generally ineffective during the Zombie Apocalypse. The easiest, most acceptable answer is there are NOT ENOUGH MILITARY people or police to curtail an event which brings the dead back to life almost as fast as you are able to kill them. By the time heavier weapons are able to be brought to bear, most of the military positions are overrun. Again this depends entirely upon the nature of the contagion. If it is an airborne contagion, it will cover the entire world in less than a month.

  • By the time the military are able to mobilize, the geometric progression of the event will have spread it enough that no place is safe, and with the panicked humans being attacked, killed and converted, most positions get overrun in short order. Only hardened facilities can survive the initial event.

  • It also depends on how long lasting or durable the infected turn out to be. In the Walking Dead, the converted do not seem to rot as fast as a human corpse would, so instead of disappearing after two or three months, they continue to shamble around, remaining a threat long after they would have decomposed naturally. In the movie 28 days later, it only took about a month before most unfed zombies dropped due to rotting or starvation.

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It is just one of those inconsistencies that you have to you have to ignore in most zombie films, as there is no good reason why zombies would be that much of a threat. Its the reason why films like 28 Days Later and WWZ changed certain aspects about zombies, to make them a more credible danger. I personally like how Shaun of the Dead did it, the zombies were dangerous to a bunch of unarmed civilians but once the army shows up at the end they just wipe them out effortlessly.

Some points as to why traditional zombies like those in the The Walking Dead are not really a threat.

  1. The traditional method of spreading the disease is direct exposure of your blood to the infection, which is probably the worst possible disease vector imaginable, it just wouldn't spread fast enough (see for example why the human race hasn't been wiped out by Rabies). I know in the series it follows the line that everyone is infected already and its only when they die that they become a zombie but even then it would have been fairly simple to control by incinerating the dead or just shooting them in the head once the person has died.

  2. Zombies are slow, making them easy targets for anyone with a gun, during battles in WW1 a lone machine gun nest could kill literally thousands of people in one day, and this was against armed soldiers, now imagine a zombie scenario with modern weapons, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel.

  3. Zombies are stupid, they wander aimlessly about, the amount of them that would incapacitate themselves through accidents or falling into traps in the environment (holes, ditches etc) would be huge. They also head directly for the nearest sound or visible person which basically makes them dumb sheep, they would be fairly easy to herd into traps or areas that could be sealed off.

  4. Vehicles, cars are very powerful machines and could easily plough through a crowd of zombies with ease and not get bogged down. This is even more true for larger vehicles like trucks, who's drivers could happily go for hours squashing zombies, one guy could easily take out thousands this way.

  5. Weapons, most military grade weapons would knock a zombie on it arse even if they didn't kill it head and as you move up the chain things like heavy machine guns would just blast a zombie to pieces, it doesn't matter if you are not hitting it in the head when you leave it in 5 separate pieces. And things like explosives would be even more effective since zombies lack of intelligence means they could easily be herded in tight groups and blown up.

  6. Longevity, under most conditions a normal body would be in pieces after 6 months let alone able to move about. In fact moving about would only increase they rate of damage to the dead body, so most zombies would be completely immobilised within months. And if we assume that they decay slower than normal there is still no explanation as to how they have the energy to move about, they can't be getting it from eating as they are probably the worst predators one could possibly imagine.

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In classic dumb-and-slow-zombie movies, the real threat is other humans, not zombies. That seems realistic to me (within a fantasy genre, of course). It doesn't matter how zombies spread -- they will continue to do it, because of human errors, like for example their unwillingness to destroy someone they used to love, or their slowness to redefine the rules of society under a zombiecalypse. Also, don't downplay the detail of everyone being already infected in TWD: you cannot stop zombies, only control them, and anyone in the world makes the simplest mistake and BAM! Zombies again. –  Andres F. Apr 3 '13 at 5:28
    
Funny you mentioned Shaun of the Dead, btw: there's a good article by Simon Pegg explaining why he prefers slow & dumb zombies to fast ones. "Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable" –  Andres F. Apr 3 '13 at 5:35

Actually if everyone is affected, there is no way to stop zombie invasion. That is true that this is expected part of genre but see following Math Paper ,When Zombies Attack! - Mathematics and Statistics and its conclusions. If you are mathematically inclined , I suggest you to read it. It is very good. Using mathematical models of infectious disease they show that it is almost impossible to stop this kind of invasion. Key difference here dead can come back alive as zombies. This fact changes a lot of things in models.

An outbreak of zombies infecting humans is likely to be disastrous, unless extremely aggressive tactics are employed against the undead. While aggressive quarantine may eradicate the infection, this is unlikely to happen in practice. A cure would only result in some humans surviving the outbreak, although they will still coexist with zombies. Only suf- ficiently frequent attacks, with increasing force, will result in eradication, assuming the available resources can be mustered in time.

In summary, a zombie outbreak is likely to lead to the collapse of civilisation, unless it is dealt with quickly. While aggressive quarantine may contain the epidemic, or a cure may lead to coexistence of humans and zombies, the most effective way to contain the rise of the undead is to hit hard and hit often. As seen in the movies, it is imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly, or else we are all in a great deal of trouble.

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The other answers cover the issues that military forces will experience in general with a zombie outbreak.

In addition to the reduced effectiveness of modern military equipment versus the walking dead (remember the tank from the first season?), surprise and demoralization would have taken a major toll on the communication channels and infrastructure.

The modern military is very reliant upon infrastructure and support logistics, and rather more vulnerable than individual bases.

In particular, though, we have a clear in-universe insight into the difficulties the military faced.

In the episode Walk With Me of the current season, we are introduced to a military outfit, or rather, what remains of it.

The helicopter that crashes was sent to scout the area, but suffered catastrophic mechanical failure, presumably from being repeatedly patched together from ad hoc repairs and improvised materials. The survivor of the helicopter reveals that his National Guard base survived the initial outbreak fairly well, until someone within the camp died and turned into a walker, causing the camp's defenses to fall from within. The result was that only a few of the soldiers survived, and had to go on the run.

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Please bear in mind that the characters have genre blindness. They do not seem to know about zombies from films, books etc.

Therefore when it first starts happening it will take a fair amount of time before people can simply believe what is happening. It would take a lot of confirmed, witnessed accounts before anyone takes it seriously - how reluctant are senior political and military figures going to be to go on the record as believing that the dead are walking and biting people?

By the time there has been sufficient action for the military to formally become involved there would have been many many deaths and therefore many more walkers. The military are not trained or configured to deal with this kind of threat, their training is to aim for the centre of mass. When they shoot these people, machine gun them, blow them up etc and find that they are still coming - how many of them are not going to panic or go into shock? What they are personally witnessing simply cannot be happening.

Also, it is unlikely that the army will strike with a well co-ordinated, informed and organised approach immediately. They are likely to put smaller units (with artillery support etc) in place - the kind of unit that a unit of people would stand no chance against - in strategic places which a large group of undead would probablty break through.

Hence more confusion and panic as reports come back from panicing soldiers of cannibals who do not die when shot and get up again after being blown up. The officers will try to figure out what on earth these soldiers are on about as no one gets back up after being shot in the chest and blown up etc.

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Insofar as it goes it does all come down to television. While the military would suffer numerous losses and so forth to zombies in real life there would be entire units that would be unaffected and able to act against threats in an organized manner. Once they understood the nature of the threat there would be no chance those men would go down until they run out of bullets and they would torch any large concentrations of zombies, civilians possible or not.

You would only need one group of soldiers and there would certainly be at least that. Moving in armed caravans they would systematically lock down bases with additional supplies and readily set themselves up to be safe. By setting up night watches inside domiciles you could prevent abrupt death of personnel from causing walkers to infiltrate the barracks. Bases are easily locked down and no amount of walkers can knock over those walls.

Such a group could retain civilians and, with care, survive in the apocalyptic world. They could start making bullets (someone will know how to do so), and would probably be able to establish an entire community. This is not the story they wanted to tell. It's not the story we would have wanted to see- although it might be interesting in its own right.

Walkers are slow, unintelligent, and unarmed . They would be completely unable to stop the military from stomping them once they understood what was going on. It would be precarious but within human capabilities to manage using simple, no nonsense precautions.

A television show done in that manner would be boring. Once there is no threat there is no show. In any case, it is possible (at least at the point of the first season) that there ARE military units doing just that. They may not be in the Atlanta area, however. It would do Rick and company no good for the contingent out of Fort Lewis in Washington to have locked down the local ammunition stores, squirreled away thousands of civilians, and set up night patrols to ensure no walkers arise, would it?

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I think even a unit of highly trained soldiers, aware of the situation, would eventually collapse in a zombie disaster. Sure, it's kill the weirdo civilians at first, but what about your family? What about your fellow soldier who started acting strange? What about Sarge, who came down with a fever a week ago and won't come out of his room? How about one of the rookies kills himself in a panic, then becomes a zombie. Sorry, no way out of the zombie apocalypse; not with weapons or the military. –  Andres F. Apr 3 '13 at 5:39

This isn't explicitly explained but i just assumed since "Everyone's infected" once the outbreak hit the, military was in close knit camps with tight security right? You know there will be at least on soldier who sees the world going to hell and kills himself. Then his corpse munches his friend and one thing leads to another and everyone dies.

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Nah, it's obvious. The virus spreads very quickly to the entire population but has a relatively long and predictable incubation time. In episode 5 of season 1 of the television show we see a recording by Dr. Jenner who says it was 194 since "Wildfire" was declared and 63 days before the global outbreak of the disease. By "Wildfire" he possibly refers to the discovery of a new virus spreading extremely fast in the population but not yet causing serious symptoms. About 130 days later, the major disease outbreak begins and the vast majority of people die of the virus itself and reanimate. The military has no better chance against this type of threat than anybody else as almost everyone in its ranks dies and becomes a walker. The survivors we meet are all exceptional individuals whose immune systems were able to fight back the virus for them to become asymptomatic carriers.

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I was with you right up until the end. Nothing has been been shown to imply that just being infected causes a person to die and reanimate. It has been revealed that everyone is already infected and that the virus does not become active until the person is dead. –  phantom42 Jan 3 '13 at 18:17
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I think what they meant was something along the lines of I Am Legend. The virus originally infected everyone, and the only ones to survive were the ones who's bodies didn't react violently to it. The reason the survivors don't die and turn immediately is because they are "immune" to the aggressiveness of the virus. It isn't until their bodies shut down and lose their immune system that they lose their ability to fight it and turn. This would also explain why it takes everyone different lengths of time to change as some peoples' immune systems are stronger and would last longer after death. –  Dragus Jan 25 '13 at 9:40

The military would have several problems in TWD scenario:

Since everyone has been infected, the virus must have been very easy to transmit. Easier than anything we have ever seen. Possibly also a long incubation period. So that most, if not all, were already infected before symptoms (reanimation after death) began to manifest. By the time the government had a handle on what was happening, it would be too late to setup true "safe" zones. Any geographic area would already have infected people within, and since the first symptoms don't occur until the victim dies of other causes, it would be difficult to find unaffected people.

I just looked it up, and it seems that about 6800 people die every day in the United States. If, per the above, most/all people were already infected when reanimation began to occur, and the infection spread at an extreme rate, there would be a large number of "walkers" to deal with very quickly, since the first cases would be a complete surprise. Hospitals would likely be overrun very quickly, with all the doctors and nurses that would be bitten.

Now, certainly within a few days or a week or so, the military would know what was happening and how to kill the walkers. They probably wouldn't really know all the hows and whys, but they would know that people who die come back as walkers, anyone bitten becomes a walker, and it takes a shot or blow to the head to kill them. But with thousands of people dying from natural causes everyday, and many first responders wiped out from the initital outbreak, containment in civilian areas would be impossible. But, they would likely try nonetheless, which would prove futile and would deplete resources.

What's more, the public panic would be unprecedented. The public also would not be educated as quickly as the military was, further complicating matters. Innocent people would be killed, thereby creating more walkers. The sick (from other diseases) would not go to hospitals out of fear (if their local hospital was still functioning).

I agree with those that say the military could easily kill walkers, shooting them in the head, blowing them to bits with heavier weapons, etc. But the problem would be that the walkers would be interspersed with the civilian population. They wouldn't be able to engage large numbers of walkers together until most of the civilians were dead or converted. At that point, it's too late.

The one thing the military could likely do with some effectiveness is set up small safe zones and let some survivors find them.

Still, some military units would be infiltrated by walkers. Most active duty personnel are healthy and aren't dying of natural causes in large numbers, but it would happen in some bases.

There would also be mass desertions. Military personnel are people too, and when they realize their families and friends are dying en masse, they will try to save them despite orders.

Many in the military (as well as civilians) would probably crack mentally given what was going on around them, and what they were being asked to do.

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This is perhaps the biggest oversight in the genre, and I'm glad its being discussed. It is a huge annoyance of mine, especially in the Walking Dead. The writers, and the fans, know nothing about how the military actually works. It is by far, the best equipped to survive, not only structurally and operationally but functionally. 1) Structure is one of the most important tools to survival.
The average civilian doesn't understand the concept of a "squad." In the military, any sized group would be quick, expedient, and mission oriented. Season 2 of Walking Dead is the exact opposite of how this works. Sitting around on a farm, fiddle farting around about god knows what is not the way to survive.
Additionally, in the military, there are sub-organizations responsible for greater tasks, such as supplies, intelligence/information, communication, and probably the most important of all ... OPERATIONS AND PLANS. Again, season 2 of Walking dead is the prime example of no plan, whatsoever. The military is structured to deal with the situation at hand. In season 3, we actually get to see some "military" dudes. This sorry bunch of losers looked more brain fried than a surfing team. They were just standing around in a gaggle, no scouts out watching the road and wood line, nobody manning the guns, no barbed wire fence set up, nobody frisking this random stranger who could very well be a lunatic coming to blow something up or ... shoot them. That was the complete opposite of how the military actually conducts business. Poor Phillip wouldn't get within 50 feet without being on the ground and frisked before they said a word to him. 2) Equipment, Equipment, Equipment!!! Who else has loads of guns at their disposal? Who else has transportation already figured out? Who else has access to gas masks and riot gear? The Military. Guns not as effective as melee weapons, you say? Well, anyone who has been in the military would have made fun of their arms room NCO for having to inventory his large collection of bayonets which are left over from WWII. Who wouldn't want a gun with a knife on it in the zombie apocalypse?
Today, we also rely too heavily on technology. The military isn't innocent in this, but the fundamental training you receive in the military is to survive as a small group, without computers, using hand and arm signals and being quiet while fighting the enemy. Which, I think is pretty important in the world of zombies. Now, you say that without the military failing, there is no story? I disagree. The government has a great chance of falling if their power grid goes out, their communications structure goes out, and the citizens are turning into mindless drones. However, the military would not fall if the power went out. Its just not how its built. Soldiers are trained to fight in the dark anyway, so it wouldn't even matter if the power is out. A military fighting in the dark, in a collapsed world, against zombies would be an awesome story. 3) When this thing happens ... WHEN, not if, I don't believe the military would take on inane missions such as defending Atlanta (Walking Dead). This is a ridiculously complicated task for even a large military unit to conduct. Occupying a city almost never works. Stalingrad anyone? At best, the military would be charged with clearing the land around Atlanta to prevent a horde from attacking the city. This goes back to the whole planning thing.
In fact, I don't think the military would let survivors even come close to them unless it is cleared through the planning process. This is why the military lives on bases. If there's one near you, go there tomorrow and ask to see the commander of the outfit and I'll guarantee you the gate guards won't be amused. This could easily fit in any zombie movie and it could be fun too. ie. What if Rick and his Walking Dead group find a military garrison and are so overjoyed that they run to hug the guards and that snotty nosed little kid, Carl gets shot again followed by a loud and unfriendly, "military garrison is for cleared personnel only." How terrifying would that be?

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There's a lot of truth here, but don't forget too that the sheer level of catastrophe we're talking about would destroy the discipline of most military forces. Not all, but most. I've known a lot of 19-year-old GIs that couldn't cope with a bad breakup, and the end of the world would be too much for many. –  Jon of All Trades Apr 13 '13 at 4:33

I think its a great question, Not to sound like an internet tough guy but I have served in the military for 5 years, served in the Iraq War as an MP and I did some basic base defense & I'm currently a civilian police officer and I thought I would give my best answer on your question from what I have learned in my time.

Like the 1 guy was saying above me, If you eradicate the zombies and quell the problem...you get no movie/story. You have got to remember, everyone in the active duty military is ready to go. What I mean by this is, If a national emergency hits every enlisted/officer will be put on the ready no matter what there MOS/Job is...9/11 confirmed this for me. Everyone in the military, AND I MEAN EVERYONE is familiar with rifles/pistols and basic tactics.

I'm not saying everyone in the military is a special forces sniper, but you have to understand the basic job of every branch is to take arms and follow orders PERIOD. You would be surprised how quickly a response can happen. So, Can the military stop it all No, but can it still function and preserve or save survivors set up safe zones? Of course, If 70 year old Hershel is walking around on 1 leg and still fighting....Your not going to tell me the Rangers,SEALS, Marines, etc. are "all gone, went home or dead" or "cant fly out o gas", then they will go get it.

BUT I would need to know if any other countries saw the U.S. on its knees and took advantage of it. I would assume allied forces may drop aid & supply if need be, if there not infected themselves...Or, An enemy power waiting for the perfect time to strike while the defenses are down?? I don't know..Is the continuity of government active?? I don't know... but could the military handle it, to a certain extent yes. Not everyone is going to run home at the site of the first zombie. But, to answer it 100% I would need to know whats going on world wide.

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If the military successfully deals with a zombie outbreak, there is no movie/story.

Despite the mathematical numbers, the demoralization, the tactics that the military would normally employ, the military is well trained. The marines for example train extensively to shoot their rifles, day after day after day.

One line of 5 marines can put up a wall of lead, head shots only.

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So your answer is that is its purely due to the fact that there would be no movie/story otherwise? –  phantom42 Feb 11 '13 at 20:20
    
US Marines are not trained to kill women and kids with head shots. At least I hope so. –  Martin Schröder Feb 17 '13 at 18:11

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