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
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 MGS4 — these 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.Notes:
- 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. [↩]