Metal Gear and the fallacy of ‘benign espionage’

After the final chap­ter of the series shut closed with Metal Gear Solid 5, many have begun to assess the sig­nif­i­cance of that entire, seem­ing­ly autonomous cul­ture indus­try which Hideo Kojima and his team estab­lished around the evolv­ing mythos of Solid Snake. For me, one of the most sub­stan­tial lega­cies is that the fran­chise evolved dur­ing a peri­od in which spe­cial oper­a­tions, sur­veil­lance, and ter­ror­ism — the main cur­ren­cies of the series — became increas­ing­ly promi­nent in the cul­tur­al and pub­lic imag­i­na­tion. After 9/11, the inter­ven­tions in Af­ghan­istan and Libya, Wikileaks and Snowden, the fail­ure of the Arab Spring, and the swelling of sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies and intel­li­gence oper­a­tions against civil­ian pop­u­la­tions, the world has become a marked­ly dif­fer­ent place from when the first title, Metal Gear, was released in 1987. It has today become the norm that our online and offline inter­ac­tions are stored, sift­ed, and mon­i­tored, and that entire appa­ra­tus­es of secre­tive state oper­a­tions have been arranged against us. So much we know and, to an extent, accept.

I’m writ­ing this piece from a small vil­lage in the south of France, on New Year’s Eve. Looking back over the past twelve months, French cit­i­zens have been con­front­ed with the dra­mat­ic and vio­lent con­se­quences of ter­ror­ism and the dishev­elled blow-back from for­eign wars. At such times as the Charlie Hebdo shoot­ings (the local mairie still dis­plays its ‘Je Suis Charlie’ stick­er in its win­dow), and the November Paris attacks, the slum­ber­ing, secre­tive mass of intel­li­gence oper­a­tions reared its head. In times of nation­al cri­sis and emer­gency, this vast and sub­ter­ranean world is shed with a lit­tle light. Acronyms are referred to; indi­vid­u­als in unmarked uni­forms bear guns down quiet streets. We are given glimpses of a very secre­tive and vast world which, nor­mal­ly, exists with­out our knowl­edge, or con­sent. After the cri­sis has passed, it sinks again into obscu­ri­ty.

But this is a world which Metal Gear has never been espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in. As a game that is prin­ci­pal­ly ‘about’ espi­onage and counter-terrorism, there is scant reflec­tion of these bod­ies and insti­tu­tions oper­at­ing in a real, civil­ian world, and lit­tle or no engage­ment with the fact that the vast bulk of counter-terrorism and sur­veil­lance oper­a­tions are direct­ed not against imag­i­nary super vil­lains, but against civil­ians — in the drag­net of oppor­tunis­tic intel­li­gence whose con­tours and bound­aries are indis­tinct, yet cul­mi­nate in dawn raids, tor­ture, and sur­veil­lance. And this, right­ly, presents cause for our con­cern in a series that has more wide­ly fre­quent­ly shown a con­sid­er­able lack of sen­si­tiv­i­ty in its treat­ment of the female body and its obses­sion with the vio­lence done to those bod­ies, while on more than one occa­sion, Kojima has roused the accu­sa­tion of being juve­nile and tact­less.

But I am not argu­ing that the fran­chise, or Kojima, are igno­rant of the fact that war affects and has impli­ca­tions for civil­ians. And that’s the point — the series unde­ni­ably paints war as a neg­a­tive, chaot­ic phe­nom­e­non which has con­se­quences for civil­ians and sol­diers alike. But what is not given equal scruti­ny is the per­va­sive con­se­quences of intel­li­gence oper­a­tions which have his­tor­i­cal­ly walked hand-in-hand with, and thus enabled, the exe­cu­tion of mil­i­tary oper­a­tions. If war is the chaot­ic capac­i­ty to destroy, then intel­li­gence is the pre­ci­sion instru­ment which pre­cedes and artic­u­lates it. In the world of FOXHOUND and Big Boss, intel­li­gence oper­a­tions are a kind of pan­tomime which remains dis­tinct from and autonomous to glob­al wars. For exam­ple, in the open­ing Act of MGS4, ‘Old Snake’ infil­trates an urban war zone in an unstat­ed Middle Eastern coun­try. We’re encour­aged by Otacon, our oper­a­tional intel­li­gence advi­sor, to ignore the com­bat­ants on both sides in the pur­suit of our mis­sion objec­tives. Liquid, our tar­get, is prac­ti­cal­ly abstract­ed from the war, as is the play­er. Notice how the rebels and PMC mil­i­taries who fight around us pro­vide ambi­ence rather than threat — bul­lets and explo­sions occur around us, and even take place on the sur­face of our bod­ies, with­out con­se­quence. There are no civil­ians. No evi­dence of civil­ians. The sol­diers around us are lit­er­al­ly of no con­se­quence to Snake’s infil­tra­tion mis­sion. It’s as if the world of covert oper­a­tions exists on a dis­tinct cat­e­gor­i­cal and expe­ri­en­tial plane from ‘ordi­nary’ mil­i­tary oper­a­tions and the (for­mer­ly civil­ian) loca­tions in which they take place. In the game, we have noth­ing real­ly to do with them. But in real­i­ty, of course, intel­li­gence and war­fare — the turn­ing of a civil­ian urban area into a bat­tle­field — have every­thing to do with intel­li­gence oper­a­tions. In the case of the bat­tle for Falujah in Iraq, the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion did not have the chance, or oppor­tu­ni­ty, to escape. I am not talk­ing about nar­ra­tive, so much as embod­i­ment and played expe­ri­ence — the game’s mech­a­nisms. Here is where intel­li­gence is turned into a pan­tomime.

In MGS5: Ground Zeroes — in an unsub­tle ref­er­ence to US mil­i­tary pol­i­cy in the Middle East — Snake (Big Boss) res­cues orange jumpsuit-wearing pris­on­ers from a deten­tion facil­i­ty, in Cuba, which nat­u­ral­ly alludes to the Guantanamo Bay facil­i­ty. In this instance, it is Snake doing the res­cu­ing from the US mil­i­tary who have detained these sus­pects, some of whom break down in tears upon their release. Kojima has argued that:

Hollywood con­tin­ues to present the US army as being the good guys, always defeat­ing the aliens or for­eign­ers. I am try­ing to shift that focus. These movies might not be the only way to view cur­rent affairs. I am try­ing to present an alter­nate view in these games.

Snake, a US oper­a­tive of a vast, secre­tive, and seem­ing­ly autonomous pri­vate mil­i­tary unit (MSF) oper­at­ing with min­i­mal over­sight, is cast as the hero, when in real­i­ty bod­ies such as the CIA and MI6, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with local counter-terrorism units and pri­vate secu­ri­ty agen­cies, in coun­tries such as Pakistan and Egypt, had ren­di­tioned those sus­pects in the first place, had inter­ro­gat­ed and tor­tured them, and gath­ered ‘evi­dence’ which led to their cap­ture. Kojima explic­it­ly tar­gets this at the ‘US army’, while intel­li­gence bod­ies and strate­gies with diaphanous over­sight and lethal pow­ers are let off the hook. This extends to pri­vate secu­ri­ty com­pa­nies, where evi­dence sug­gests they have fre­quent­ly played a crit­i­cal role in ren­di­tion and tor­ture. Placing Snake in the ranks of the emer­gent pri­vate mer­ce­nary com­pa­ny, Militaires Sans Frontieres, does­n’t quite obscure the fact that the strate­gies deployed and the envi­ron­ment in which he oper­ates is one which has the con­sent and sup­port of par­al­lel secre­tive state insti­tu­tions. Kojima seems to have no sense of irony when it comes to depict­ing MSF as the heroes in this sequence.

In this way, Metal Gear fetishis­es the design and exe­cu­tion of wet ops and sur­veil­lance oper­a­tions, mak­ing them appear inward fac­ing and removed from actu­al, extant human pop­u­la­tions. Or, if they do encounter civil­ians, they are cast as the ‘good guys’ that Kojima is so keen to dis­miss. Historically, through­out the series, mis­sions are focused with­in a small cadre of elite “boss” char­ac­ters such as Snake, Psycho Mantis, Ocelot, and Liquid. Even if their designs are on glob­al dom­i­na­tion or polit­i­cal manip­u­la­tion, the only direct vic­tims (i.e. those who are killed and kill), are with­in that ‘inner cir­cle’ or its imme­di­ate sup­port­ers: the too-easy masked sol­diers who obstruct Snake’s mis­sions. The illu­sion of total mil­i­ta­riza­tion in which there are no civil­ians polaris­es the sce­nar­ios of the games and writes over the actu­al pro­duc­tion of ter­ror and anti-civilian oper­a­tions which are per­pet­u­at­ed nor­mal­ly in these kinds of oper­a­tions, and have been since the emer­gence of the first state secu­ri­ty ser­vices in the early part of the 20th cen­tu­ry.1

(c) Konami.

© Konami Digital Entertainment.

As a series, Metal Gear sim­ply does not engage suf­fi­cient­ly with the reper­cus­sions of sur­veil­lance and intel­li­gence oper­a­tions direct­ed against civil­ians and civil­ian infra­struc­tures. In the world of Metal Gear, the inser­tion and wet ops mis­sions con­duct­ed by the play­er, even if they unfold in nom­i­nal­ly civil­ian areas, take place in aban­doned locales in which sur­veil­lance and espi­onage are only ever direct­ed against mil­i­tary or quasi-military tar­gets. The immense machin­ery and tac­tics of FOXHOUND, and the oppo­nents they are arrayed against, resist any impli­ca­tion in the ter­ror­is­ing, mon­i­tor­ing and con­trol of ordi­nary civil­ian pop­u­la­tions, even if those pop­u­la­tions have been, in his­to­ry, those most sub­ject to these tac­tics and tech­nolo­gies. When we enter build­ings in MGS4, they are invari­ably desert­ed; Kojima points the fin­ger at a war with­out intel­li­gence, but in fact this is to neu­tralise the deci­sive role of intel­li­gence oper­a­tions in these destruc­tions of lives and of civil­ian infra­struc­tures. We always arrive ‘after’ the event of mur­der, and have no hand in its arrival. Snake must con­stant­ly have the basics of this ‘new world order’ in MGS4 explained to him (yes, this is a tuto­r­i­al mech­a­nism, but it’s done so ‘igno­rant­ly’ on Snake’s behalf that we sus­pect he’s had his head in the sand since Shadow Moses, and never once watched the per­va­sive news TV or picked up a paper).

Edward Snowden’s leaks of NSA spy­ing doc­u­ments, com­bined with evi­dence of GCHQ’s mon­i­tor­ing of inter­net and other com­mu­ni­ca­tions in the UK, and the obscure oper­a­tions of bod­ies such as JSOC in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan, reveal a ‘true his­to­ry’ of intel­li­gence and espi­onage that is almost always direct­ed against civil­ians and its inter­de­pen­dence with con­ven­tion­al war­fare and police actions. Because, how­ev­er, it has lit­tle obvi­ous glam­our, Kojima elects instead to sup­press that very real, and ongo­ing, trau­ma in favour of a fic­tion­alised and ulti­mate­ly clin­i­cal­ly iso­lat­ed sphere of spe­cial oper­a­tions which almost never impli­cates civil­ian pop­u­la­tions. Despite its famous­ly com­plex and seem­ing­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry back-story, Metal Gear still relies on a prin­ci­ple of ren­der­ing geopo­lit­i­cal actors into a polarised ‘either:or’. While the series fea­tures a lot of double-crossing and secret agen­das, there’s never any ques­tion that these agents belong either to ‘us’ or ‘them’. Its grey areas are, in truth, very shal­low, and not at all grey.

In this vein, many aspects of the Metal Gear games allude to or reflect real world anx­i­eties and risks relat­ed to intel­li­gence and wet ops work, but not inten­tion­al­ly, as if they have never had any inter­ac­tion with civil­ian pop­u­la­tions. Psycho Mantis, an oppo­nent both in MGS (PSOne) and MGS4 (PS3), uses psy­cho­log­i­cal con­trol and dis­rup­tion to ter­rorise and dom­i­nate his oppo­nents (who are always sol­diers or enemy oper­a­tives). It reflects the tech­niques of audio-visual tor­ture direct­ed against many of the inno­cent who have been round­ed up since 9/11 and sub­ject­ed to illic­it tor­ture and ren­di­tion regimes. It reflects the Cold War emer­gence of psy­cho­log­i­cal research in US uni­ver­si­ties which were intend­ed to devise tech­niques of “fear­some new ways to attack the men­tal health, the very san­i­ty, [of] vic­tims”. When in 1977 doc­u­ments from the MKULTRA project were released (but were destroyed before Congress could review the major­i­ty of them), evi­dence of research into ‘brain­wash­ing’, hyp­no­sis and amne­sia were revealed — a ter­ri­fy­ing future echo to the trau­mas utilised by Mantis in the MG series. Further doc­u­ments from the reports revealed, in 1963, that there was a “firm doc­trine in [test­ing] of mate­ri­als under accept­ed sci­en­tif­ic pro­ce­dure [which] fails to dis­close the full pat­tern of reac­tions and attri­bu­tions that may occur in oper­a­tional sit­u­a­tions”. These intel­li­gence prod­ucts includ­ed radi­a­tion, elec­troshock, psy­chol­o­gy, psy­chi­a­try, soci­ol­o­gy, anthro­pol­o­gy, harass­ment sub­stances, and more. The immense arma­ture of coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence and espi­onage prod­ucts could not be ade­quate­ly bound­ed from civil­ian pop­u­la­tions, while projects such as MKULTRA argued that the ulti­mate ‘test’ for any tech­nique was its “appli­ca­tion to unwit­ting sub­jects in nor­mal life set­tings”. Metal Gear’s iso­la­tion of effects from human sub­jects (it takes place on desert­ed facil­i­ties, ships at sea, aban­doned cities, and so on) obscures the real­i­ties of the deploy­ment of sim­i­lar, ‘real world’ tech­niques which did, and con­tin­ue, to fre­quent­ly blur into inno­cent and unwit­ting pop­u­la­tions. The “whole­sale infil­tra­tion of soci­ety” by intel­li­gence organ­i­sa­tions, and their over­ar­ch­ing mon­i­tor­ing and fil­ter­ing of per­son­al com­mu­ni­ca­tions, means that the intel­li­gence and espi­onage com­mu­ni­ty to which Snake belongs can never be con­sid­ered un-implicated in the ‘real world’. While the Patriots rep­re­sent a major threat to human free­dom in the series’ over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive, the actu­al tech­niques, tac­tics, and oper­a­tions of secu­ri­ty and intel­li­gence oper­a­tions are free from any and all cri­tique and over­sight by the game. If noth­ing else, they are glam­or­ised.

What emerges is a kind of mythol­o­gy in which the god-like, hyper per­son­al­i­ties of the game (Snake and his allies and boss ene­mies) are in per­pet­u­al war only with each other, while civil­ians are only ever a nar­ra­tive proxy. The bat­tles of Metal Gear, even if they allude to con­se­quences for human pop­u­la­tions, are cast and con­duct­ed as secret oper­a­tions which are entire­ly inward-facing and only ever refer to con­se­quences for var­i­ous groups with­in the sphere of these actions. A war among the gods, tak­ing place on Mount Olympus. Kojima’s games claim that had Snake and his allies not stopped the plot, human­i­ty would have suf­fered. Not, as in the real world of intel­li­gence and sur­veil­lance oper­a­tions, human pop­u­la­tions are always already vic­tims. Snake’s actions pre­vent a civil­ian pop­u­la­tion from becom­ing vic­tims, thanks to a series of espi­onage actions they never learn about, thus pro­vid­ing an indi­rect jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the exis­tence of such secret oper­a­tions and their obscu­ra­tion from the pub­lic sphere. Kojima proves their value to an imag­ined civil­ian pop­u­la­tion who have and will never ‘become’ vic­tims in his uni­verse.

While Kojima does rep­re­sent vic­tims of war — such as the series of Beast boss­es in MGS4these are vic­tims of often asym­met­ri­cal or con­ven­tion­al war­fare and not intel­li­gence oper­a­tions, as if the lat­ter has no capac­i­ty to harm them or to pro­duce them as ene­mies (the Beast’s vio­lence can be traced to their vic­tim­i­sa­tion in ‘reg­u­lar’ mil­i­tary sce­nar­ios). As we have seen, this is an obscur­ing of the real his­to­ries of the 20th cen­tu­ry and of the ran­cid bal­loon­ing of state secrets and secret oper­a­tions to which bil­lions have been sub­ject­ed through informer net­works, sur­veil­lance, tor­ture, ren­di­tion, and poor­ly planned counter-terrorism oper­a­tions which have fre­quent­ly harmed or false­ly con­demned the inno­cent, as well as cre­at­ing and pro­duc­ing new oppo­nents through rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion. Kojima turns espi­onage trans­par­ent both in its nature and its effect; in real­i­ty, espi­onage is a trans­paren­cy that hurts and pro­duces very real, very dam­ag­ing effects on inno­cent pop­u­la­tions. We need look only at the pat­terns of extra­ju­di­cial killing and civil­ian casu­al­ties from secret oper­a­tions and NSA-backed drone war­fare in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen since 2001 as tes­ta­ment of this. Operations con­duct­ed by bod­ies that Naomi Wolf calls ‘com­plete­ly unac­count­able US assas­sins’.

In real­i­ty, we live in a world where civil­ian pop­u­la­tions are con­stant­ly vic­timised by secret oper­a­tions and diaphanous pub­lic order and polic­ing laws which strip away and dis­solve many of our basic rights in vague promis­es that this is nec­es­sary for our col­lec­tive ‘secu­ri­ty’, while mil­lions of oth­ers live under the threat of death and muti­la­tion in secret mil­i­tary pro­grams. Metal Gear, despite evolv­ing onto the PS4, did not mature and evolve along­side these sit­u­a­tions as the series devel­oped, despite allu­sions to this ‘new world order’ offered in MGS4. It was appro­pri­ate that MGS5 slipped back into the fake and polarised cer­tain­ties of the Cold War, for the series was unable to con­front the fact that its rep­re­sen­ta­tion of espi­onage and ‘spy work’ was all The Eagle Has Landed and no The Lives of Others. It was unable to con­front a world in which Snake is nec­es­sar­i­ly a per­pe­tra­tor, and there­fore com­plic­it in the war crimes Kojima has been so keen to reject.

  1. As a game, I think MGS4 came clos­est to offer­ing this kind of cri­tique but too read­i­ly lapsed into polar­is­ing and often inco­her­ent story-telling. It is the game that comes clos­est to offer­ing a cri­tique of increas­ing­ly diaphanous, mod­ern mil­i­tary indus­tries, such as through the inclu­sion of civil­ian rebels fight­ing the PMCs in an unnamed Eastern European coun­try, but these too are vol­un­tary troops recruit­ed in much the same way that the PMC sol­diers are recruit­ed, and ulti­mate­ly answer to EVA (the Paradise Lost Army). As war orphans, they too are vic­tims of con­ven­tion­al war, not of secre­tive oper­a­tions which EVA her­self has been a per­pe­tra­tor of in her life as a (plant­ed) KGB agent and later PLA spy. Again, spy­ing is reduced to a ‘benign’ or hero­ic effort, and war as the only true aggres­sor and oper­a­tor of vio­lence. []