A few weeks ago, a worried reader contacted me with a question: Why did he keep seeing formations of C-130 cargo planes headed toward Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania? He knew from the author bio in my novels that I had served as a C-130 flight engineer with the Air National Guard.
I assured him the flights were entirely routine--and nothing new. I flew training drops at Indiantown Gap so long ago that the pages of the old tactical checklist I used have begun to yellow and fade. C-130 crews have practiced airdrops there for decades, and that training stood us in good stead in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wondered what prompted my reader's concern. Had he just moved to the area?
A few days later I learned the source of his anxiety. He sent me a link to a "news" website, and he asked for my opinion.
I won't name the website because it doesn't deserve the publicity. Suffice to say it was a cesspool of crackpot conspiracy theories: The government wants to use Ebola as a doomsday virus. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is secretly building concentration camps. Guillotines--I kid you not, guillotines--are being prepared to execute patriots and Christians.
The website included an ad for gold coins--presumably the only investment worth anything after America's imminent collapse.
But what occupied most of that site's waste of electricity was a military exercise called Jade Helm 15, scheduled to begin July 15. The multi-service war game will take place across several states for much of the summer, and there's nothing about it that's remotely sinister. However, in an alternate reality spun by talk radio hucksters and fringe websites, Jade Helm has ignited fears that, as the New York Times puts it, "traverse the outer edges of political paranoia."
To conspiracy addicts, Jade Helm is a prelude to martial law. A rehearsal for rounding up American citizens. The beginning of Barack Obama's dictatorship for life. The final takeover by a single world government.
Rather than calming unfounded fears, some politicians have pandered to them. Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert released a statement saying the exercise needs to change "so the federal government is not intentionally practicing war against its own states." Texas Governor Greg Abbott called on the Texas State Guard to monitor the exercise. Abbot later said he received assurances that Jade Helm is a normal operation. Senator Ted Cruz said he contacted the Pentagon and received similar assurances.
Responsible leaders never would have taken such ridiculous paranoia seriously in the first place. Instead, they'd have reminded their constituents that these kinds of exercises happen all the time. Such war games have taken place for years under various names such as Robin Sage, Bold Alligator, Derna Bridge, and Purple Dragon.
Purple Dragon, back in 1998, would have really freaked out Obama-era wingnuts. It involved all branches of the military, operated across a wide swath of the Eastern U.S., and culminated in the airdrop of thousands of paratroopers. I remember that night well; I helped fly one of the planes.
You get the point. For the military, these operations are as routine as roll call. Jade Helm just happens to be the one the nut jobs have heard about.
An ignorance of military operations helps drive these conspiracy theories--and demonstrates a rich irony: Most of the raging patriots who peddle this foolishness have never found the patriotism to serve our country.
That's too bad. If they'd worn the uniform, they might have learned something. For one thing, they'd know better than to think my brothers and sisters in arms would take part in some wacky plan to hand over America to the United Nations.
And if they'd traveled with the military, their world might have become bigger than the angry, frightened Internet/talk radio echo chamber they now occupy. Like teenagers who've spent too much time on video games, they've lost touch with the difference between reality and fantasy.
Conspiracy-mongering Facebook pages about Jade Helm express a pattern of fear and suspicion of the U.S. military. They frequently show mislabeled photos of military aircraft (not every helicopter is a Black Hawk, for crying out loud) as evidence of nefarious doings by those of us who've risked our lives since 9/11. One page posted a picture of a stack of Meals Ready to Eat and presented it as a sign of an evil plot.
The wild statements about Jade Helm on the Internet and right-wing radio are a grotesque insult to those who go into harm's way for this nation. The people behind these wild statements want you to believe we would violate our oaths of enlistment, or that our loyalty is to a particular administration and not the country itself.
Vietnam veterans had to deal with hatred from the far left. Who would have thought my generation of troops would get figuratively spat upon by the far right?
I give my concerned reader a lot of credit. Rather than swallowing these conspiracy theories whole, he reached out to someone with relevant experience. I think I put his fears to rest, but I worry that others who visit that website won't have his initiative.
In the meantime, I'll make a prediction: Jade Helm will come and go, and it won't end American democracy. But conspiracy websites and talk shows--hawking bomb-shelter supplies and high-commission gold coins--will find other ways to terrify their audiences.
So the next time you hear an Orwellian tale of impending martial law, ask yourself: Whom do you trust? The people who put everything on the line in your defense, or a talk-radio blowhard spouting nonsense?
Tom Young served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Air National Guard. He is the author of a series of military novels published by G.P. Putnam's Sons. His latest novel, The Hunters, will be released on July 7, 2015.