Growing up, the video game Metal Gear Solid made a significant impression on me.
Looking back now, it’s amusing to remember how much the series deals with the topic of genetic determinism. The core of the plot revolves around a number of characters who eventually discover that they were created as part of a government project to create genetically enhanced soldiers by cloning the DNA of Big Boss, “The Greatest Warrior of the 20th Century.” In essence, the whole theme of the entire series revolves around a kind of twin study.
Dr. Naomi Hunter leads the medical support crew assembled to assist lead character Solid Snake in the first entry to the series, briefing him between and during missions. Naomi is a Rhodesian whose parents were killed by Frank Jaeger in the Rhodesian Civil War, who was subsequently adopted by him (without knowing he was her parents’ killer) years later. Unaware of her real parents, ethnic origin or birth name, she develops an interest in genetics in the hopes of understanding more about herself, and ends up achieving a doctorate in genetics, specializing in gene therapy.
Somewhere around halfway into the first game, this conversation between you, Solid Snake; Naomi Hunter; and Roy Campbell, the Colonel in charge of the operation, happens:
Naomi: Snake, is there a woman in your life?
Snake: After you’ve been through as many wars as me, it’s hard to trust anyone.
Snake: Roy Campbell . . .
Campbell: Huh? You’re still calling me friend?
Naomi: Is that it?
Snake: No, there was another . . . Frank Jaeger.
Campbell: Big Boss’s most trusted lieutenant and the only member of FOX–HOUND to ever receive the codename “Fox”. Gray Fox.
Naomi: . . .
Snake: I learned a lot from him.
Naomi: But . . . didn’t you try to kill each other?
Snake: That’s true. We did. In Zanzibar. But it was nothing personal. We were just professionals on opposite sides, that’s all.
Naomi: And you still call yourselves friends?
Snake: Hard to believe? War is no reason to end a friendship.
Naomi: That’s insane.
Snake: I first met him on the battlefield. He was being held a prisoner of Outer Heaven. But he didn’t look like a prisoner to me. He was always so cool and precise. I was still green and he showed me the ropes.
Naomi: You knew him well?
Snake: No. We never talked about our personal lives. Sort of an unwritten rule. The next time I saw him on the battlefield, we were enemies. We were fighting barehanded in a minefield. I know it sounds strange to most people. But we were just two soldiers doing our jobs. It’s like a sport.
I haven’t played these games in years now, but this scene was brought to mind by the campaign to destroy Confederate war memorials. The emotion Snake discusses—of being capable of trying to kill someone, who is simultaneously trying to kill you, and yet still consider it “nothing personal” and still consider yourself “friends”—is a real one that many of us today won’t recognize, and maybe won’t be able to feel, simply because we haven’t been introduced to the concept. In fact, calling this “friendship” is awkward and sloppy precisely because to explain this idea in English, the writer had to make use of terms that exist in the English language to try to explain one that simply doesn’t. If anything, the concept deserves its very own word. The term “frenemies” comes close, but represents something far more trivial.
As best as I can tell, this is an emotion that only men—and for that matter, only particular kinds of men—are capable of feeling. Men who possess and are driven by a sense of honor; who are comfortable with themselves in violent conflict; and who see themselves as part of, rather than as detached from and somehow ‘above’, the inevitable cycles of nature and history. These are the kinds of men who will be capable of fighting for their side of a violent conflict, without needing to dehumanize their enemies in order to be able to do it. And if they don’t need to dehumanize their enemies in order to fight, there’s a whole range of emotions they may be left capable of feeling towards their opponents instead: friendship, and even respect. Ever since I very first heard this brief discussion from a video game as a child and the emotion itself worked its way in my mind, I found it fascinating and admirable.
C. S. Lewis says something similar in Mere Christianity:
Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment—even to death. If one had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy. I always have thought so, ever since I became a Christian, and long before the war, and I still think so now that we are at peace.
. . . What I cannot understand is this sort of semipacifism you get nowadays which gives people the idea that though you have to fight, you ought to do it with a long face and as if you were ashamed of it. It is that feeling that robs lots of magnificent young Christians in the Services of something they have a right to, something which is the natural accompaniment of courage— a kind of gaity and wholeheartedness.
I have often thought to myself how it would have been if, when I served in the first world war, I and some young German had killed each other simultaneously and found ourselves together a moment after death. I cannot imagine that either of us would have felt any resentment or even any embarrassment. I think we might have laughed over it.
. . . We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating.
And it hit me today that comprehension of this one basic emotion is the core of what’s missing on all sides of the debates around whether federal government buildings should or shouldn’t display monuments to the Confederacy.
It is telling that while some people have tried to take the middle ground stance that whatever one feels or doesn’t feel about Confederate monuments, they should be kept out of federal property, nobody actually stopped to wonder why they are being hosted on federal property in particular in the first place.
It doesn’t exactly make sense that the federal government would think, “Yay, the Confederacy!”
It doesn’t make sense that the federal government would think, “Yay, slavery!”
It doesn’t make sense that the federal government would think, “Yay, Robert E. Lee!”
The aim of the Confederacy was to break away from the federal government.
And as Michael Cushman details in Our Southern Nation, this made some sense because in practice, the American South was really more continuous with the civilizations it found itself north of (Brazil, the Spanish colonies of the Caribbean, and other parts of the New World) than it was with the American North to begin with.
Lest one think that only Southern states contain these monuments to the Confederacy, New York (at least until recently) contained a memorial planted by Robert E. Lee, as well as streets named after both Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Ohio’s Camp Chase cemetery contains a memorial to dead Confederate soldiers whose arch is inscribed with the word “AMERICANS.” There are other memorials in Sandusky and Ottawa County, and multiple roads. Wilboughy High School even had a Confederate rebel as its school mascot until recently.
The United States Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection includes Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and several others. The Lee Highway goes from New York City to San Francisco. The Union states of Maine, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Nevada, Indiana, Illinois, and Vermont all have memorials of some kind; Pennsylvania, California, Kansas, Ohio, and others all have or have had Confederate monuments in public spaces.
So I ask again: why? None of these were Confederate states. These are the states that defeated the Confederacy, and the public spaces displaying these monuments are owned by the federal government the Confederate states didn’t want to belong to.
The answer is that, when high schools in Ohio or Vermont use Confederate rebels and plantation owners as their mascots, they do so in the same spirit in which so many others adopted symbols of the Indigenous peoples—in the same spirit in which C. S. Lewis believed he would laugh in Heaven with his German opponent from WWI—and in the same spirit in which Solid Snake would call Frank Jaeger his “friend.”
You’ll note, of course, that when American Indians are used as mascots, this is considered evil because it’s “appropriation”; whereas when Confederates are used as mascots, this is considered evil too—but not because the cultures of the North shouldn’t “appropriate” the symbols of the South.
In any case, the only reason anyone can interpret these monuments as representing a simplistic sentiment of “Yay, slavery!”—with the absurd implication that areas owned by the federal government, in states that played major roles in providing soldiers and supplies to the Union, must be celebrating the very cause they defeated—is because they’ve grown detached from the nature of conflict, and have therefore grown detached from any natural understanding of the magnanimity that can be found in the sentiment of respecting one’s enemies even in victory.