Jade Helm Is Ending Today

A look back at an exercise and the anxieties it inflamed


THE CURSE OF THE JADE HELM is Woody Allen's strangest movie.

Remember Jade Helm 15? It was a special forces exercise conducted in several states this summer, and it inspired a lot of opposition. Much of that opposition involved conspiracy theories, most of them centered around the idea that the whole thing was a cover for a plot to impose martial law. That freakout in turn inspired a sort of counter-freakout in the press, and the story got a ton of attention in the spring. But once the actual exercise was underway, attention started to fade, at least as far as the national media were concerned. The exercise officially ends today, and many of you have probably already forgotten that it was happening in the first place.

If you want to take one last look back at what the fuss was about, here is something I wrote for the Los Angeles Times about Jade Helm back in May, here is a Hit & Run post I did about a 1999 exercise that set off similar protests in California, and here (starting at about the 8:42 mark) is a conversation I had about the issue on Chris Hayes' TV show. And if you don't feel like following links, here's the heart of my argument, taken from that L.A. Times piece:

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 [community's meeting with a military spokesman about the exercise]. "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?"…

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….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.

Put more concisely: When nervous people embrace dubious theories, you should reject the theories. But you should also pay attention to the reasons they're nervous.