In the summer of 2015, a routine U.S. military exercise called Jade Helm 15 led to mass hysteria over an imminent invasion of Texas. Now, we might know why — and the reason is frightening.
When the U.S. military prepared to run a routine training exercise between July and September 2015 called Jade Helm 15, suspicious Americans in Texas and beyond took notice; at first with concern, then with panic.
Some saw the exercise as the first step toward the long-awaited imposition of martial law in the U.S., with the official story about the exercise serving as cover for the U.S. military’s mobilizing to invade Texas and seize citizens’ guns. There was even talk of moving people into FEMA concentration camps in abandoned WalMarts, if necessary.
Members of the Texas congressional delegation expressed concern over the exercise as well, including Senator Ted Cruz and U.S. Representative Louie Gohmert. It got so bad that Texas Governor Greg Abbott even ordered the Texas State Guard (TSG) — which is separate from the Texas National Guard — in April 2015 to monitor the exercise.
“It is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed,” he wrote to the TSG commander.
Then, after much consternation, the exercise began, ran its course, finished up without much of a fuss in September 2015. Commentators took the opportunity to use the exercise for partisan purposes or as an excuse to mock those who bought into the panic about it.
But that was then. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it is becoming clearer by the day that there was something nefarious going on, just not what anyone thought.
What Was Operation Jade Helm 15?
Jade Helm 15 was a U.S. military training exercise sponsored by the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and was comprised of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and various other military units.
It involved around 1,200 service members, drawn from various branches of the military and held across several U.S. states — including Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas — all coordinated from Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) out of Eglin Air Force Base in Valparaiso, Florida.
According to USASOC itself, the purpose was “to improve the Special Operations Forces’ capability as part of the National Security Strategy.” In normal-person speak, its goal was to train soldiers to effectively operate in combat environments overseas, including simulating wary civilian populations.
The exercise ran for eight weeks and became one of the largest ever performed by the U.S. military on domestic soil.
U.S. Army special forces units and members of the 82nd Airborne Division comprised the bulk of the exercise’s participants, along with a smaller number of Air Force personnel and other supporting units.
Participants carried heavy weapons during the exercise but reportedly only used blank ammunition. Some soldiers controversially used civilian vehicles and wore civilian clothes during the exercise, increasing the suspicion around the safety and purpose of the operation. Meanwhile, USASOC claimed that there were exercise monitors ensuring safety measures at all times.
“It’s a training exercise,” said USASOC spokesperson Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria in the spring of 2015, trying to stamp out the burgeoning conspiracy theory. “Just a regular training exercise.”
Special Operations Command said in a statement, however, that “the size and scope of Jade Helm sets [it] apart” from previous, comparable training operations on domestic soil. The movement of heavy vehicles and equipment on half-mile-long rail transports was certainly conspicuous enough to get people’s attention and they shared plenty of photos and videos of this mass build-up online.
While the nature of the exercise and its scope were large, it was conducted in areas that have traditionally been friendly to a large U.S. military presence. In fact, the exercise took place mostly in Texas in large part because Texans have been historically welcoming to the military.
So what made these typically pro-military citizens convinced that that same military was about to usurp America’s constitutional order by force?
Alex Jones Rises From The Gutter And Finds His Moment
Though a multi-state exercise, Jade Helm’s largest maneuvers took place in Texas owing to its large tracts of undeveloped land, low population density, and ready access to surrounding population centers.
Texas is also the home of a man named Alex Jones, a far-right-wing talk radio host who peddled conspiracy theory programming on his website and broadcast, InfoWars. Though he had struggled for years to gain traction in the lucrative world of conservative talk radio, Jones had been steadily gaining an audience following the election of President Barrack Obama in 2008.
But while Fox News and other conservative media outlets online may have conditioned their audience to mainline outrage and anxiety like they were drugs, there was still some level of journalistic standard to their content. They might spin or downplay major news stories in a particular way, but they did not fabricate stories out of whole cloth.
Alex Jones and others like him had no such compunction. Calling himself a “performance artist” at one point, Jones’ InfoWars program had all the trappings, tone, and structure of the tried-and-true conservative talk radio format but with one essential difference.
Jones didn’t spin stories, he just made stuff up to portray political opponents as not just misguided or wrong, but as an evil, existential threat to America itself.
While the post-9/11 militarization of police in America is a legitimate bipartisan concern, in Jones’ telling, the jackboot of left-wing authoritarianism was already here — and it was stomping on the faces of his listeners.
“This is just a cover for deploying the military on the streets,” Jones told his audience regarding the upcoming Jade Helm exercise. “I’ve hardly ever heard of something joint like this unless they’re planning an invasion.”
Jade Helm: A Conspiracy Theory-Media Complex Coming Of Age Story
Where the first green shoots of the Jade Helm conspiracy theory began isn’t known, but Alex Jones first got his hands on it on in March 2015, publishing an article on his website titled “Jade Helm: Troops to ‘Operate Undetected Amongst Civilian Population.'”
What clearly appealed to Jones about this conspiracy theory was that Jade Helm offered him the perfect opportunity to push a story with himself on the “front lines” of the action.
Jones made wild, unsubstantiated claims about the exercise — such as the one where the “Helm” in Jade Helm was an acronym for “Homeland Eradication of Local Militants” — and speculated that Jade Helm was going to disarmed patriotic citizens in anticipation of President Obama’s canceling elections and ruling as a dictator.
He also had a field day with a map from an unclassified military Powerpoint presentation about Jade Helm that was posted online. The map laid out a realistic roleplay scenario where U.S. forces would be in the middle of a conflict zone between two sides, one labeled “friendly” and the other “hostile.”
One of the areas marked as hostile was the entire state of Texas, however, and Jones highlighted this to prove that the government was preparing to invade the area.
“They’re going to practice breaking into things and stuff,” said Jones in one characteristic broadcast. “This is going to be hellish. Now this is just a cover for deploying the military on the streets…this is an invasion…in preparation for the financial collapses and maybe even Obama not leaving office.”
While Jones’ program was growing organically, it also benefitted significantly from the efforts of other right-wing media personalities who boosted the show’s profile by sharing Jones’ content in a powerful new way that no one had truly prepared for.
How Social Media Quickly Spreads The Disinformation Contagion To The ‘Normies’
Posted to social media as short video clips or links to fabricated “news” pieces, the Jade Helm conspiracy theory soon reached beyond Alex Jones’ InfoWars audience. Social media algorithms populated the news feeds of conservative Texans with the conspiracy theory in large part because the most durable conspiracy theories have some tangential elements of truth to them.
In this case, the conspiracy theory merged legitimate conservative viewpoints with deliberate misinformation, but all social media algorithms saw was that it had strong similarities to traditional conservative commentary. So even though Fox News is not InfoWars, they were similar enough in the eyes of Facebook and Twitter that InfoWars content would be suggested or pushed to normal Fox News viewers, helping the story inject itself into mainstream channels of information.
As a consequence, public anxiety about the exercise started to grow until it reached a fevered pitch in April 2015 during a military informational meeting in Texas’ Bastrop County. There, Lt. Col. Lastoria listened to about 150 Texas residents and protesters raise concerns — and voice defiance — against whatever secret plans the Obama administration was preparing to spring on them under the guise of Operation Jade Helm.
When news of this meeting made headlines in the Texas media over the following days, the fallout prompted Governor Abbott’s notorious order to the TSG, hoping that it would reassure concerned Texans. What it did instead was give the conspiracy theory an important sliver of legitimacy in the eyes of some who might otherwise have shrugged it off as nonsense.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest responded with exasperation to news of Governor Abbott’s order in a press briefing on April 29, 2015: “I have no idea what he’s thinking. In no way will the constitutional rights or civil liberties of any American citizen be infringed upon while this exercise is being conducted.”
Worse still, it looks like the Jade Helm hysteria might not have been entirely organic either.
Recently, it has been alleged that operating in the background of all of this hysteria over Jade Helm was an army of Russian bots, pushing misinformation into the mix to keep stoking the chaos.
To what end isn’t clear, but according to C.I.A. director Michael Hayden, the exercise might have been a practice run for Russia’s cyber warfare capabilities. He even speculates that the success of the Jade Helm conspiracy theory may have even inspired these operatives to aim for a much bigger prize: interfering with the upcoming 2016 election.
“[It was] Russian bots and the American alt-right media [that] convinced many Texans [Jade Helm] was an Obama plan to round up political dissidents,” Hayden said in an interview.
Considering that the C.I.A. has historically been a world-class disseminator of misinformation itself, there is plenty of reason to distrust a statement such as this; but, in hindsight, the spread of the Jade Helm conspiracy theory does look very familiar to anyone who lived through the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
The Paranoia Of Conspiracists: Warranted Or Worrisome?
The Jade Helm conspiracy definitely sounds absolutely nuts, especially in hindsight when we know that nothing happened, but sometimes being proven wrong about a conspiracy can reinforce the false narrative rather than dislodge it.
Counter Jade Helm, a volunteer organization formed to monitor the exercise, saw very little cause for concern during its 8-week run, but that didn’t lead them to reconsider the conspiracy theory as you would expect.
Eric Johnston, the group’s Texas director, said:
“If a group of a couple hundred citizens could spot a special operations force, then they wouldn’t be very good at doing their job because it was supposed to be covert infiltration, but it also showed that a number of American citizens, American patriots, are willing to give up their time to try to keep tabs on the military when it’s on our soil.”
While Johnston’s group claimed it never bought into Alex Jones-level hysteria over Jade Helm, these were still native Texans that would usually have fallen all over themselves to show respect and deference toward the military. How was it then that these people — of all people — could so quickly believe that that military was also capable of betraying the American people in such an ugly fashion?
One obvious explanation is the Commander in Chief: President Obama. As the victim of probably the most unhinged slanders in recent politics, Birtherism, he is obviously the target of some ugly rhetoric. But if you’re just making stuff up about your political enemies, it wouldn’t be hard to turn the caricature people already had of Obama into the villain of the Jade Helm conspiracy theory and have many people believe it quite readily.
This is probably the most worrying consequence of the heightened partisan divide in our country; it makes us quick to believe our opponents capable of the absolute worst possible behavior.
That conservative Texans and others on the right thought that President Obama would even be inclined to do something like this — much less be able to successfully order an institutionally conservative U.S. military to carry it out — shows the extent to which commentators like Alex Jones and others had pervasively misinformed large parts of the public.
If Jones and others have found success seeding their conspiracy theories, it may also have a lot to do with the soil in which they were planted.
According to a study published in the journal Association for Psychological Science, conspiratorial thinking is the consequence of “slaking curiosity when information is unavailable, reducing uncertainty and bewilderment when information is conflicting, finding meaning when events seem random, and defending beliefs from disinformation.”
This last need, defending their beliefs from misinformation, unfortunately only furthers the divide between people of different parties or belief systems. The study also found that Americans prone to believe in baseless or fairly thin explanations often think “that people who try to debunk conspiracy theories may, themselves, be part of the conspiracy.”
Naturally, this divides those who are genuinely trying to explain events in a rational manner and those who’ve already decided that the mainstream explanation is nonsense. In other words, Jon Stewart labeling worried citizens as “Lone Star Lunatics” may push them even further into the conspiracy as they quickly believe that he, too, is involved.
Ultimately, this disruption is creating our current political deadlock as both sides talk past each other and any contact between the two only pushes everyone further into their own trenches. In this environment, commentators like Alex Jones or foreign intelligence services intent on social disruption end up filling in a lot of the gaps that we would normally fill in ourselves using a shared forum for conversation.
The rise of this post-truth world in the era of social media is one of the most urgent issues we currently face. It is the subject of a new HBO documentary, After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News, as well as countless articles, studies, and books, but none seem to know a way out of this impasse.
So now, looking back with hindsight, Jade Helm 15 stands out as a crucial red flag that everyone missed, the dead canary in the newsroom that warned us what was coming in the years ahead. We were either too anxious or too condescending to see it then, but, hopefully, we’ll learn our lesson, whatever it is — and the sooner the better.
After learning about Operation Jade Helm, read about the conspiracy theory that the Apollo 17 moon landing was fake. Then, learn about the four most enduring conspiracy theories.