Jade Helm 15 is a special forces training exercise scheduled to take place this summer across seven Southwestern states. It has sparked strong opposition and elaborate conspiracy theories. When Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria answered questions about the operation at a public meeting last month in Bastrop County, Texas, he heard inquiries about everything from whether the troops might leave a gate open on someone’s property to whether they planned to put the area under martial law. Last week Gov. Greg Abbott asked the Texas State Guard to monitor the operation, saying he wants “to ensure that adequate measures are in place to protect Texans.” Two Texas counties have withdrawn from the exercise altogether.
Such reactions have produced both amused and alarmed commentary. One former Texas legislator, Todd Smith, accused the governor of “pandering to idiots.” Esquire’s Charles Pierce attributed the opposition to the “alternate reality that has been created on the American right.” But what’s happening is a bit more complicated than a mere outbreak of ideological hysteria.
First, and most important: There are perfectly good reasons not to want a military training operation in your community. People are worried about noise. People are worried about road damage. People are worried about safety.
In 2011, Bastrop County was hit by the most devastating wildfire in Texas history, with nearly 1,700 homes destroyed. Some residents are understandably anxious that soldiers might accidentally set off another blaze. “Many of us, our neighbors here, went through a very traumatic experience with the fires,” one man pointed out at the Bastrop meeting. “Several of us are still not over that psychologically, and we know our neighbors are not over that. Why would we want to subject us to this level of anxiety on the heels of that kind of catastrophic event?”
The military has not ignored such concerns. They have promised to keep extinguishers on hand, for example, and they’ve said they won’t use smoke grenades any day they think there’s a risk of a brush fire. Different residents will feel differently about whether those assurances are enough. Ordinarily, such disagreements would be hashed out politically, but in this case public concern didn’t take hold until after the local government had already approved the exercise.
Not every argument raised by the opposition is that well-grounded. I’ve seen speculation, for instance, that Jade Helm might be part of a plot to give Texas and other border states back to Mexico. A more common rumor — certainly the one that came up most often at the Bastrop meeting — is that the Pentagon is plotting to impose martial law. For the record: If a cabal of fascists ever does suspend the Constitution, it probably won’t precede the coup by going around asking county governments for permission to bring soldiers into the area.
But even when conspiracy theories are flatly wrong, they don’t come out of nowhere. When a story catches on, it can tell us something true about the anxieties of the people who believe and repeat it. Sometimes those anxieties are ugly. (It’s not hard to imagine the xenophobic sentiments lurking behind that Mexico rumor.) But sometimes the anxieties are rooted in reality.
Think of the medical conspiracy theories that have circulated in the black community over the years, such as the notion that white scientists were deliberately infecting black babies with AIDS. There was no truth to that story, but given that medical institutions often did mistreat African Americans — sometimes even in conspiratorial ways, as in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment — it’s hardly surprising that it took hold.
And this time? One Bastrop man opposed to Jade Helm told the Austin American-Statesman he was worried that people would get used to “the appearance of uniformed troops and the militarization of the police.” He went on to offer some more dubious arguments, but that first comment contained a valid point.
We live at a time when the Pentagon distributes surplus military equipment to small-town police forces; when cops present themselves to the public as soldiers fighting a war; when officials respond to unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore with curfews and other illiberal, heavy-handed tactics. It’s not crazy to complain about militarization. The conspiratorial version of the complaint literalizes it: A genuine shift in how people are policed becomes a plot to impose martial rule.
Jade Helm’s defenders point out that this is hardly the first time the military has trained soldiers on civilian soil. The flip side is that this is hardly the first time Americans have objected. One example is Operation Urban Warrior, a 1999 Marine Corps exercise in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some locals were so angry about it that they staged a sit-in at the office of Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.
The opposition in 1999 tended to come from the left, not the right. But the complaints were similar in character.
There were concerns about noise and disruption and pollution. There was fear of an increasingly militarized America. And then as now, that fear produced conspiracy theories. The San Francisco Bay Guardian, one of the area’s two leading alt-weeklies at the time, ran an article arguing that the Urban Warrior trainees were “preparing themselves to contain popular uprisings — including uprisings in U.S. cities.”
It’s easy to dismiss the theories embraced by nervous people. But that doesn’t mean you should dismiss the reasons they’re nervous in the first place. Sometimes even paranoids have a point.
Jesse Walker, the books editor at Reason magazine, is the author of “The United States of Paranoia,” a history of American conspiracy theories.