Most sensible Americans realize that the U.S. military is not planning to invade Texas and declare martial law there, that the Department of Defense does not consider Utah hostile territory, and that the enemies of liberty do not generally announce their coups in press releases before they execute them. If you do not consider these truths to be self-evident, then you might be either conspiracy-pumping radio host Alex Jones, or one of the many people in this fascinating country who have become very upset over the military’s decision to stage a monthslong training exercise this summer, known as Jade Helm 15, across seven states in the Southwest. The Jade Helm hysteria is a South Park episode come to life, filled with hysterical townspeople hoisting odd signs and yelling cartoonishly. But the furor shouldn’t be wholly dismissed as a joke. There is something off-putting about these vast military exercises that will take place way out in the desert, not to mention the secrecy of the military division that is running them—just not in the way the conspiracy theorists think.
A primer: In March, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command announced it would hold a two-month-long training exercise to give Special Forces personnel experience operating on “unfamiliar terrain.” As part of this exercise, USASOC released a map of the Southwestern U.S. with various states, including Texas and Utah, marked as “hostile” territory. A reasonable person, looking at this map and knowing the context, would accept it as a document created for this alternate-reality simulation, like a Model United Nations conference with more guns. But many unreasonable people saw this map and concluded that it is how the Obama administration really feels and that the military was on its way to do … something or other, probably involving gun confiscation, or ISIS, or Walmart, or all of them. The fury over Jade Helm 15 has grown to the point where the governor of Texas has ordered the State Guard to keep tabs on the exercise in order to guarantee Texans’ safety and constitutional rights while federal officials have had to repeatedly reiterate that nothing nefarious is afoot.
It’s easy to mock the Jade Helmers as cranks—jowly, wind-burned conspiracy nuts who get their news from CAPS LOCK email forwards and paranoid banner ads. Like all stereotypes, there is some truth in this one, but it’s also more than a little unfair. In the rush to condemn and dismiss these dumb people and score political points off their inarticulate paranoia—one blogger at Daily Kos wonders whether the conspiracy theory is “the single stupidest thing to come out of Texas in 20 years,” which is really saying something—some commentators are missing what seems like a fairly obvious point. My colleague Dahlia Lithwick had a very smart piece in Slate on Thursday noting the connections between the Jade Helm uproar and the recent Freddie Gray protests in Maryland, both of which are rooted in “fears of a militarized police state, anxiety over lawless authorities, worries about privacy and personal property, a yawning gap between haves and have-nots. These grievances are fueled by what we know about police, the military, and the collapse of the line between them.” This collapse is evident to any resident of a major American city. The high-profile police shootings that have dominated America’s headlines over the past year—and the often-violent standoffs between protesters and police that have ensued—certainly seem to indicate that America’s order-maintenance personnel are better armed and less discreet than ever.
“It’s not crazy to complain about militarization,” wrote Jesse Walker in a good Los Angeles Times op-ed the other day, and the Jade Helmers’ fears of creeping governmental authoritarianism are similar to those expressed by people on the left, albeit filtered through a very different lens. It is perfectly valid to become unnerved by a monthslong military training exercise on domestic civilian territory, both in practice and in concept—especially when it is being planned and implemented by a group that is barely even accountable to Congress, let alone the public.
The Jade Helm truthers are not the first people to be frustrated by the U.S. Special Operations Command, the Department of Defense division in charge of USASOC and, ultimately, Jade Helm 15. SOCOM oversees America’s Special Forces, as well as things like drones, information warfare, and other secretive tactics. The division gets a lot of money every year—it has asked for a $10.547 billion budget in fiscal year 2016—and it doesn’t waste too much time bothering to explain exactly how that sum is spent. In 2013, Time reported that the House Appropriations Committee had complained that it was “unable to conduct meaningful oversight of SOCOM’s budget requirements as the current justification does not include the necessary level of detail.” Last year, the Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher wrote that “very little is known about the scope and purpose of [SOCOM operations], given the extreme secrecy that often shrouds them.”
The public hysteria over Jade Helm 15, embarrassing though it may be, is nevertheless imposing a measure of accountability on a war games project that nobody else is going to evaluate. Whom does this exercise serve: the American public? Special Forces soldiers training for some current or future mission? Defense contractors peddling new weapons for wars that are increasingly being fought by remote control? SOCOM surely wasn’t going to volunteer this information before the Jade Helmers began complaining, and while it still might not, there is at the very least more public attention now being paid to this organization, and that’s a good thing.
Finally, while this particular conspiracy theory is very stupid, most of the people scoffing at its adherents would likely admit that, under the Obama administration, federal security forces have engaged in plenty of unrighteous activity. You shouldn’t trust the Pentagon to respect Americans’ civil liberties. The federal government does keep secrets from its citizens, and if it finds the antics of the lunatic fringe tiresome, well, it should try being more transparent and direct in its governance, and perhaps refrain from the sorts of real-life rights violations that lend credence to the more outlandish theories.
“Whatever Jade Helm 15 actually is …” was how Chuck Norris began one sentence in a column on Jade Helm at WND.com. But we sort of know what Jade Helm 15 actually is. It’s a drawn-out, expensive military training simulation ostensibly designed to train soldiers to fight in wars that this country should not be fighting, supervised by a marginally accountable and lavishly funded Defense Department office that can afford to dick around in the desert for two months while countless other federal programs and agencies struggle to make do with their meager allocations. Isn’t that worrisome enough?