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Thoughts on the American Withdrawal from Afghanistan, Primarily Informed by MGSV

Afghanistan's a big place.

It's become something of a cliche to say that recent events are "just like Metal Gear games," but this is often the case with science fiction. Good works are always about the time in which they were made, but with a focus on exploring certain aspects. Where it might go. As time goes on and these aspects develop, science fiction can feel eerily prescient. The Metal Gear series has incorporated real-world politics since the 2D days, portraying the governments of western nations, particularly the United States, as duplicitous and capable of monstrous atrocities... all while playing a character working on those governments' behalf. 1998's Metal Gear Solid was fundamentally about the fallout from the Cold War arms race, the dangers of the weapons created for a war that never came (which included Snake himself), and lengths to which the military-industrial complex will go to maintain its fiscal and political dominance in a world without an enemy superpower. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty even gave these forces, or rather, the momentum behind them, a name: the Patriots, implicating the American system all the way back to its founding. And when the world changed immediately before the game's November 2001 release, the aspects creator Hideo Kojima chose to explore broadly were drawn directly into the public consciousness, making the series another example of "prescient science fiction."

Up to this point, the series had centered around "shadow wars" - proxy conflicts, routine bombing campaigns, industrial espionage. But in the years following 9/11, conflict was pulled from the shadows to the front page, and directly into people's lives as more and more American troops were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq. So it makes sense that the next installment of the Metal Gear series, released in 2004, would center around an open and widely recognized conflict: the Cold War itself, while still keeping the series' trademark focus on the effects brought about by individual actors. We were living in a world reshaped by the actions of a handful of individuals aboard planes, and this made the story ring weirdly true, despite the superpowers and impossible technology.

By the time Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was released in 2008, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had been going for years with no end in sight. "Abu Ghraib," "Guantanamo," and "Fallujah" were all household words, and through the actions of a company called "Blackwater," a new term entered the popular consciousness: "Private Military Contractor," or "PMC." Here was an incarnation of the "war for profit" theme that had undercut the whole series, and they play a major role in the game's grim story. Moreseo than before, Kojima seemed to be reacting directly to contemporary events, and expressing a resignation that the system is self-perpetuating and unbeatable despite the happy (?) ending. As a smaller game for a mobile system (and featuring a "T for Teen" rating), 2010's Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker seems to be something of a breather following the funerary tone of MGS4, marking a return to the "shadow conflict" of the series' early installments, but now with a decidedly "real world" historical aspect to its Central American setting. This time, our protagonist is directly opposed to the American government, working with leftist Sandinista groups against the CIA and even quoting Che Guevara. But the stage was also being set for the series' most direct commentary on contemporary events, presenting an analogue of our own era through lens of the past.

Afghanistan's a big place.

Even now, it amazes me that Ground Zeroes, the first installment of Metal Gear Solid V, was not met with vocal resistance in the US. Maybe it was the cachet of an extremely successful franchise, or weariness of the War on Terror's ultra-nationalism by 2015, but the fact remains that this is a game where you rescue prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, albeit in 1975. And the enemies here are not PMCs, mercenaries in employ of the CIA, or even American soldiers gone rogue, but United States Marines following their official orders. Tonally, there is a complete reversal from the lighter Peace Walker into a brutal wartime harshness far removed from the melancholic fantasy grimness of MGS4. The kids from the previous game undergo some of the most horrifying visuals I have seen in a video game, driving home the reminder that this is what war looks like. Gratuitous? Yes, without a doubt. But consider also the vast gap between this depiction of fictional characters' suffering and the Obama era's incredibly bloodless (and increasingly infrequent) real war coverage. Regardless of how one feels about these scenes, they certainly can't be ignored.

As with Ground Zeroes's Cuba, all the locations in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain are colonized, divided, or occupied. Following an introductory chapter set in Cyprus, the game proper begins in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. It's 1984, and the Soviets are five years into their occupation of the country with few goals save fighting insurgents. The parallels with the American occupation at the time of the game's release are immediately obvious. The troops are exhausted, feeling forgotten by their own people and overwhelmed in a country they don't understand and care little for. The leadership frequently has to struggle to keep soldiers in line and class issues within the ranks are rampant. Most of their facilities are situated in places built by previous occupiers, some recent, some from millennia past, and, as I've noted before, all in a landscape completely devoid of actual Afghan people. Recently, when I saw historical footage of the Soviet occupation, I found myself gasping at how much it matched the game. (Although, to be fair, the creators probably drew on this exact same footage, themselves.) Of course, aside from uniforms and facial hair, it also matches most footage of the American occupation of the past twenty years.

The parallels are not limited to the Soviets, though - your character is just as much of an outsider, and it's significant that you're there ostensibly on a quest for revenge, complete with numerous references to Moby Dick. But, just as with the hunt for Osama bin Laden or the titular white whale, there is ultimately no respite or closure. The dead remain dead. The bloodshed caused in the thrashing aimless wake of the original attack far outweighs that event's death toll. And, perhaps the most significant of all, there is no ending to the game. You can continue your operations in Afghanistan and Africa forever or until, finally, you decide to quit. Notably, in the absence of actual missions, these operations are financial and involve the exploitation of equipment and natural resources. Kojima remains a master of narrative discomfort. He showcases the horrific acts of a government, then has you play as an agent of that government. He expounds on the evils of PMCs, then puts you in charge of one, in both military and business capacities, to experience implication firsthand.

Afghanistan's a big place.

The Afghanistan portion of the game takes place in a relatively small (despite Ocelot's description) fictional area, which itself belies the way the region was broken and divided by outsiders for their own ends, ignoring its numerous peoples and customs. In a sense, the country of "Afghanistan" is, to the people that live there, as "real" as a video game map, drawn, appropriately enough, as part of the "Great Game" between the British and Russian empires. The real borders, based on geography and history, are there no matter who is in charge, whether they be British, Soviet, American, or Taliban.

The withdrawal was always going to be messy and ugly, no matter which administration ended up holding the bag. The Soviets remained to the point where the war became a major factor in their country's dissolution. But here, it would seem that Kojima's analogy fails, as the player is spared the pain of exiting. It is always 1984. Afghanistan and Africa are always available for recruits and supplies. But, on the other hand, if the exploitation is divorced from region, the depiction becomes timeless, and, ultimately, far bleaker than MGS4's techno-nihilism. The locations may differ, but the occupation and exploitation continue. Afghanistan is the biggest place - it is the whole world. War, to quote Smedly Butler, remains a racket. And, despite the opening lines of MGS4, that never changes. 

- B

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