Without nationalism, war loses its mask. Without patriots, war loses its most reliable tools. If we accept that Metal Gear is “anti-war”, do we accept that it’s also anti-patriotism?
Have you ever thought about the wordplay and themes around “patriotism” in Metal Gear? I mean, The Boss is called a “patriot” on her tombstone, despite officially defecting to the side of the enemy and being killed by her own government. She carried a special gun called a “Patriot”, which must have some importance. After losing sight of what The Boss’ self-sacrifice meant, Big Boss says he is a gun, but rejects his home country and refuses to become the tool of the self-titled “Patriots” organization. Later in the timeline, the “Sons of Liberty” struggle to free themselves from control of the Patriots, wanting a free world. When the Patriots finally do gain total control, they wield the entire military like mindless puppets: weaponized humans, referred to as “Guns of The Patriots”. Patriots, guns, soldiers, and control. See a pattern?
We’re all taught from a young age that soldiers are brave heroes fighting for the greater good, and that to become a soldier is a great service to your homeland. We have Remembrance Day/Memorial Day to honor the veterans who’ve paid the ultimate price for our freedoms, and we endlessly hear the story about how their courage changed the course of history for the better. In many places, questioning the integrity of the military is asking to be knocked out, and there is never a shortage of videogames, movies, toys, and public education reinforcing the idea that the military is a force of good that protects us from evil. Even critics of various administrations rarely question the military in a fundamental way, or attempt to expose it as a corrupt institution.
Kojima isn’t a critic by trade, he’s a storyteller, but his stories are packed with political themes that question popular perception, especially when it comes to war and, in particular, the role of Special Forces. These stories ask if loyalty to your country means fighting in wars without knowing why. They ask if it’s possible to be a true patriot without obeying the government. They ask if we should even be loyal to nations first, or to the world and humanity.
I typically focus on the “meta” aspect of the series and stay away from deep lore analysis or political commentary, but Ravi Singh’s discussion of Outer Heaven as an “anarcho-militant” government system inspired me to give my own thoughts on where Kojima might be coming from on the real-world side of things. There’s no doubt that by now the story of Big Boss’ soldier paradise is at the core of the Metal Gear franchise, as we follow the tragic life and aftermath of a patriotic Special Forces soldier who loses faith in the world he was meant to protect and embody. This story of disillusionment with patriotism (and the rise of the “Patriots” as the embodiment of evil) is always handled with grace by Kojima, who is careful to express his ideas through characters and open-ended questions, more than heavy-handed commentary. And while Kojima is famous for ripping off Hollywood cliches in order to construct his spy stories, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take the messages seriously, which is why I want to explore where the real-world basis for an “Outer Heaven” might come from.
Special Forces Cynicism
The apolitical and even amoral attitude of Special Forces has been part of pop culture for decades. The idea of elite military units going “rogue” is a classic premise, because these groups are unconventional, removed from the usual oversight and chain of command. They get called on in times of desperation, and yet are able to overcome huge odds when needed. They are perfect mercenary material, so of course their political ideologies are always in question. Special Forces vets have long abandoned the squeaky clean image of the army and evolved into well-paid killing machines who fight for their commander and their unit, not for the flag or the men in suits. Autobiographies and fictionalizations of what these people are like — including the Rogue Warrior series of novels created by the founder of SEAL Team Six himself, Dick Marcinko — paint a picture of patriotism that has lost its sheen, if there’s any left at all.
If you think about it, Special Forces know better than anyone how misleading the media headlines and cover stories can be — how incomplete and twisted the narrative becomes by the time the average person sees it on the news. They know that public perception is a joke, and that heroes and villains are never so easily labelled. Those who’ve seen enough killing know that justice doesn’t really exist in the world of combat, only power struggle and score-keeping. In truth, they respect their enemies more than idealists who talk about peace, because they know that if you can’t enforce your beliefs with victory, your morals are meaningless. As an idealist himself, I think Kojima finds this brutal pragmatism to be troubling and yet inescapable, and society’s glorification of war and anti-heroes (like Solid Snake) to be sad. Many wonder why Big Boss has become the main character of the series, but Kojima himself has said that he’s more “human”, which means he’s less accepting of the status quo — and therefore a better vehicle for discussing everything Kojima wants to confront. Big Boss has problems with (literally fighting and getting involved with) everything Kojima has problems with (ideologically).
On the lore side of things, once you understand the cynical Special Forces attitude, I think Big Boss’ ability to recruit and build his own army makes more sense. All the patriotism, flags, heroes, villains, and justice that soldiers care about are nothing more than convenient lies which can change with the winds of the times, but Big Boss, having witnessed the duplicity of those charged with commanding the greatest military in the world, transcends nationalism and becomes an icon of pure military leadership. Outer Heaven was always supposed to be a haven for soldiers who are tired of being used like tools by politicians who’ve never tasted combat. A place free from corruption and hypocrisy.
By the time he establishes Outer Heaven officially, Big Boss carries the timeless pride of the warrior king, leading by example and not answering to anybody. Without those fairy tales about peace and justice, his leadership is far better than fighting and dying for sneaky politicians who sit back home and wave the flag to induce hypnosis. He is the Alpha Male, and he’ll fight his own soldiers to prove his dominance. Even among the elite, his respect is earned and his command is unquestioned.
If you need help understanding this cynical attitude, read the book “War Is A Racket”. (here, highly recommended by me personally). It was written by a decorated US Army Major General named Smedley Butler, who bluntly spelled it out for people way back in the 1930’s:
WAR is a racket. It always has been.
It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.
A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.
In the World War [I] a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.
How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?
That may as well be a speech from the mouth of Big Boss to all those Fulton-Recovered recruits sitting in the brig of Mother Base. It’s haunting, actually. General Butler gave a similar speech on this subject in 1933, in which sums up the operation in terms of old-fashioned racketeering, including a definition of who the “Big Boss” of war is:
There isn’t a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its “finger men” to point out enemies, its “muscle men” to destroy enemies, its “brain men” to plan war preparations, and a “Big Boss” — Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism.
Yes, “Big Boss” was once a popular term for a secret mastermind of an illegal operation: a person who everybody obeyed but even those at higher levels were ignorant of. This matches the dual role of Big Boss in the original MSX game, where we follow our commander without knowing he’s secretly the villain.
In this case, we’re told that “Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism” (today called Ultranationalism) is the “Big Boss” of the American war machine. This means it’s beyond accountability from even Generals like Smedley Butler, who are ostensibly in a position of high authority. Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism is what actually calls the shots, and everybody listens like obedient goons. Of course if anyone doesn’t listen, they are replaced while the Big Boss stays safely in the shadows.
Decades before Eisenhower warned about the “military industrial complex”, Butler warned about the same thing in a different way. Secret powers in the financial sector who use their deep connections in the intelligence community, military, and government to mobilize armies for huge gains in the name of nationalism. Butler even gives specific examples of campaigns designed to turn huge profits for specific banks — something they certainly won’t teach you in history books! Now ask yourself, how could anyone who’s witnessed this murderous abomination not become cynical to the point of hating traditional notions of patriotism?
If a racket is an operation that isn’t what it seems to be, nobody is more tragically blind to the war racket than “patriotic” soldiers who we claim to honor.
Outer Heaven is anti-patriotic in principle. In it, soldiers leave their countries behind and serve Big Boss, a legendary soldier who has abandoned the traditional notions of good versus evil, in order to fight instead for money, glory, and their own independence. Hideo Kojima doesn’t necessarily endorse the wisdom of Outer Heaven, but he certainly validates it by showing how wrongfully soldiers are used in each game. Throughout the series, almost everyone who’s loyal to their government ends up getting betrayed, often fatally, and those who survive usually still feel betrayed when they realize their patriotic mission secretly served private interests. We usually learn that the “bad guys” we’re sent to stop were actually trying to challenge the hegemony of power held by evil men bent on world control. Our real mission is always to maintain the status quo.
On the civilian side of things, we’ve heard President Johnson reveal that democracy itself is an illusion. We hear that elections are nothing more than entertainment for the masses, and that society is trapped in a comprehensive bubble of manipulation. This bubble is what Big Boss refers to as the “inside” during his last speech to Old Snake. To maintain his own “Outer” paradise — outside the bubble of lies and control — requires a Special Forces commander with the willingness to take on the whole world, equipped with the ultimate trump card: Metal Gear.
The “Patriots” want Big Boss on their side, as the ultimate enforcer, which means he’s not allowed to live in his quaint little Outer Heaven, with his mercenary methods. Sovereign powers are a threat to total central control, especially when they can upset the balance. Big Boss is an icon to soldiers everywhere, and icons must be harnessed. He’s supposed to be an icon of “Patriotism”, but instead he dares to be an icon of an “Outer Heaven” where soldiers are no longer tools of secret agendas.
The “hell” that awaits Big Boss is a taste of how dangerous and ruthless the “Big Boss of war” — Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism — can be.
When heavens divide
What do the Patriots want? Societal, financial, and military control in the name of stability and order (ie. status quo). War and nationalism have their predetermined roles in the world order, and so does everything else. Control is key. The vision of the world order is motivated by a belief that people cannot be trusted to take care of themselves, as their AI explains perfectly. This belief is extremely relevant to our own world, as you should know by now. Social engineers, respected thinkers, and ideologues throughout the last few centuries have created their own twisted vision of the world — a utopian dream — where the stupid masses are properly harnessed under the loving care of the elite. You should read “The Underground History of American Education” to get a solid grasp on who these intellectuals were, and how they shaped the school system most of us were forced to go through.
What did The Boss want? She believed that the world was valuable, connected, borderless, and oppressed mostly by the illusion of difference; an illusion maintained by nations, war, and patriotism. Ravi Singh suggests that The Boss’ model of government was fulfilled by Solid Snake’s “Philanthropy” and their motto of “To Let The World Be”. If this is true, then the phrase wasn’t about giving up and being apathetic, but rather preventing controlling forces from achieving domination. “Letting the world be” translates into “letting the world be free from control”: to let it exist without fear and division. After all, division and fear are exactly what control requires — and patriotism is excellent at maintaining both.
The Boss: “So then, what is an enemy? Is there such a thing as an absolute, timeless enemy? There is no such thing, and never has been. And the reason is that our enemies are human beings, like us. They can only be our enemies in relative terms. The world must be made whole again.”
Kojima expresses his hatred of war and nationalism through The Boss, who represents an enlightened warrior fighting for peace, using everything available to her. She wants to re-establish The Philosophers and create a world without a mindless cycle of war, because she has seen the world without borders, from space:
The Boss: “I could see the planet as it appeared from space. That’s when it finally hit me. Space exploration is nothing but another game in the power struggle between the US and the USSR. Politics, economics, the arms race — they’re all just arenas for meaningless competition. I’m sure you can see that. But the Earth itself has no boundaries. No East, no West, and no Cold War.”
We should never forget that Kojima is a Japanese patriot, and that his anti-nuclear emphasis is directly connected to that country’s experience of the WWII nuclear bombings by the supposedly heroic USA. Does he hate the USA’s Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism for dropping nuclear bombs on innocent people and justifying it with racism and patriotic revenge? Of course he does, like we all should. Considering that Japan and the USA were considered allies soon after the war, those millions of people died for no reason thanks to the politics of the times. The unforgettable ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are enough to fuel hatred and revenge for a lifetime, and Kojima wants us to understand how extreme the cost of nationalism and war can truly be, through his stories.
We don’t know how The Boss intended to use The Philosophers to unite the world or prevent needless wars in the future, but Philanthropy is a utopian model we can study.
Philanthropy consisted of independent people who were united voluntarily, as needed, to accomplish the same goal despite differences in their ideologies. This kind of organization is organic and cooperative, not a cult of personality or a rigid unit. The members aren’t kidnapped and brainwashed into becoming recruits like in MSF, but joined by a common purpose and free to decide for themselves what’s important. When applied to society, this becomes “voluntarism”, as labelled by Ravi Singh. It’s a rather libertarian view, but considering The Boss says she wants to see a world without communism or capitalism (which are both corrupt), it’s possible that Kojima endorses this kind of view.
We see how the Patriots create the “Sons of The Patriots”, which is a system of ultimate control, and I think it’s no coincidence that its abbreviation is “SOP” — which is usually a reference to “Standard Operating Procedure”. Therefore, taking down the “SOP” (ie. status quo) is the job of Philanthropy, Philosophers, and peace-loving humanity. Not a bad idea.
Fear and division are bigger themes than ever in The Phantom Pain, where we witness the horrific cycle of revenge and prejudice that traps its victims in the grip of hostility, cultural misunderstanding, and racism. When we realize that the Patriots are inspired by real forces in our own world, and that their method of orchestrating conflict to consolidate power is also true to life, we see that Kojima is challenging us to show how “patriotism” and racism are used to divide and conquer mankind throughout history; it’s the “Standard Operating Procedure” of the military industrial complex.
It’s interesting how Kojima has The Boss carry out her mission despite knowing about the fickle and tragic rules of the game Special Forces play. She carried out her duty to “humanity/the times” without wavering, even in the face of both deaths: physical death, and erasure from existence. She talks about death without regret and feels content. Considering her status in the series, should we interpret her attitude as being what Kojima respects from soldiers, or selectively pick apart her speeches for commentary? Is she his definition of true patriotism according to Kojima? If so, is he saying that Special Forces should transcend traditional patriotism in order to stop as much destruction as possible? Does The Boss merely wield the “gun” of patriotism as a tool, without being a gun herself?
Writing this has made me appreciate how logical a sequel Snake Eater is to Sons of Liberty, despite seeming so different at the time. It also helps me appreciate the role of Guns of the Patriots and the upcoming Phantom Pain, by forcing me to look at the theme of nationalism versus philanthropy. I’ve never considered myself to be patriotic or pro-military, but I hope you feel inspired to question your loyalties as well by looking at the system that dominates and tears apart our world today.