On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

Conspiratorial Territorial Theory: Jade Helm and Anti-Federalist Paranoia (May 22, 2015)


The United States Army’s eight-week (July 15-September 15, 2015) military exercises called Jade Helm have provoked some rather intense reactions from various individuals who hold deep-seeded suspicions about the US Federal government as a threat to state- and individual freedom. Dan Lamothe, in his Washington Post analysis of responses to the Jade Helm Operations, offers an excellent description of the exercises, as well as a survey of the range of panicked and conspiratorial responses to the  operations. As Lamothe explains (and see also Russell Berman’s excellent Atlantic article on responses to the operations), the reaction among Texans went beyond garden-variety extremist paranoia about an alleged federal government take-over to actual panic when US military representatives released a map of the exercises describing Texas (as well as Utah and a small section of extreme southern California) as “hostile territory.” Of course, responses to the Jade Helm exercises went well beyond the usual channels for paranoiac thinking about the US Government (such as talk radio, blogs, and pamphlets), when the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, ordered the Texas State Guard to, as Dan Lamothe reports, “monitor” the US operations. Talk about a grand theater for conspiratorial theories to be played out!

What is especially fascinating in responses to the Jade Helm exercises is the refusal of many to accept the distinction between the virtual and the real. The aim of such operations is, from the US military’s perspective, to offer an intense sort of training in actual physical spaces that is governed by the systematic fiction that these spaces include territories held by hostile forces, For those reacting with alarm at these exercises, the alleged line between the virtual and the real is really an illusion—and one that offers a special glimpse into the actual motivations of a US government that harbors desires to eradicate the protections of state sovereignty that exist in places like Texas (though many of these voices have entirely different views of Texas as a fully sovereign nation—as I shall discuss below).

As preposterous as the claims of many of those fearing that the Jade Helm operations are some sort of practice-run for a US federal takeover of states such as Texas and Utah, I find it hard not to think about the many observers who have noted how analogous such conspiratorial thinking is to the habits of literary (and other academic) criticism. We, too, often insist that, behind the façade of this or that cultural phenomenon lies a range of powerful social forces that are responsible for and sustain such fantasies. We, too, often refuse to accept the text (whether we call it surface or form or whatever other term) as what it seems, and consider it the very mission of criticism to distrust the superficial and penetrate to what is really behind the textual face that meets us. In short, we critics often practice what has become known as the paranoid style of critique called the “hermeneutics of suspicion”—and I, myself, would usually count myself (when it comes to literary texts) among the perennially suspicious. (For some interesting discussion so of the relations of criticism and conspiracy theory, see Rita Felski’s essay on the “Hermeneutics of Suspicion”; Timothy Melley’s review of works on conspiratorial theory by Chun, Flieger, and Farrell; Jodi Dean’s Theory and Event review of works on conspiratorial logic by Fenster, Marcus, and Melley; and Neville Morley’s blogpost “Criticism as Conspiracy Theory” on responses to Thucydides.)

Those reacting so passionately and paranoiacally to the US military exercises are not acting in a vacuum. Indeed, there is some rationale to their paranoia, if you consider how often the presence of “military exercises” are often used as an aggressive tactic. Russia and the United States often antagonize each other, for example, by performing planned military drills in sensitive areas. For a recent example, as this Telegraph article recounts, the Baltic has become the scene of simultaneous military exercises, with each side menacing the other through military exercises conducted in a potential site of conflict. Examples could be multiplied—and, indeed, broadcasting military exercises, while carefully pointing out that their being planned, has become a key tool in global territorial politics. Shows of force and military posturing are, of course, part of the tool-kit of militarism—and every parade showing off military equipment, every theatrically staged missile test, and every staged visit of a leader to a war shrine or in the company of macho, uniformed soldiers serves the larger agenda of aggressive states.(And that theatrical performance is a vital part of territorialism is a topic I have written about several times in this blog, such as here, here, and here.) Conducting exercises in actual terrain or in waters proximate to a potential enemy seems to be a particularly intense statement of militarist intent—and so it is understandable why some conspiracy theorists, despite the seeming extreme improbability that the Jade Helm operations are anything but a training exercise making convenient use of domestic spaces (indeed, most likely to avoid the aggressive implications of doing such exercises outside American territory).

Of course, if one holds alternative views about the sovereignty status of such spaces, then the Jade Helm exercises take on a very different appearance—gathering up all the energies of the aggressive military exercises done on foreign spaces. And Texas harbors disproportionate number of such theorists. Nowhere in the United States, it seems to me, does intra-American separatist nationalism play a more significant role than in Texas. In saying “intra-American,” of course, I am operating under the standard geo-political assumption that Texas is part of the United States, as one of the fifty states. I accept the standard story of Texas’s territorial history, which can be usefully tracked in that important repository of standard information, Wikipedia: after winning independence from Mexico in 1836 and existing as an independent Republic of Texas for some 9 years, Texas became the 28th state of the United States on December 29, 1845. Of course, this status as a state is complicated by the US Civil War: from at least March 4, 1861 (when Texas, after earlier legislative and popular votes, officially joined the Confederate States of America) to at least the April 9, 1865 official surrender of the Confederacy’s armed capabilities (though it is difficult to assess when each state officially returned to the United States, given the anarchy that often accompanied the path into Reconstruction in each state), Texas was a state in an active state of separation from the United States. While 1861-1865, thus, dopes complicate things, most observers would view Texas as simply one of the fifty states—entities with certain rights and obligations, as is clear, say, from the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution, which, as this Cornell Legal Information Institute article shows, is key to establishing federalism even as it acknowledges state’s spheres of influence— of the United States.

Such a viewpoint flies in the face of Texas secessionists such as the Republic of Texas, an organization that, as Manny Fernandez shows in his New York Times article, claims to function as a Texas government that stands due to the counterhistorical claim that the Republic of Texas never legitimately joined the United States. As Fernandez shows, the Republic of Texas group operates with much of the machinery of a state: it has minted coins, holds legislative sessions, sends legal summonses, as well as diplomatic letters to such foreign locations as Oklahoma’s government. It is not difficult to assume what the Jade Helm operations must look like to a group such as the Republic of Texas; it does more than just support paranoiac suspicions about an overreaching US Federal government that wants to stamp out all states’ rights; it confirms their views of Texas as indeed a foreign entity.

It is a function of how cohesive that the United States has been for so long that phenomena such as the responses to the Jade Helm exercises can appear so ridiculous to so many—even when they reach the level of a Texas governor ordering state military responses to a federal exercise. Since Reconstruction, after all, there have been very few actual efforts to foment anti-US secession movements—outside, that is, of the ongoing efforts from numerous Native American would-be nations to achieve full sovereignty. However, anti-federalist conspiracy theories are often related directly to violence, and can quickly turn violent: we need only remember the shocking violence of the April 19, 1995 Oklahoma City bombings to think how dangerous such anti-federal movements as the “sovereign citizen” movement can be.  As the Southern Poverty Law Center shows in this chilling survey, right-wing terrorism has been incredibly destructive within the United States—and its shockingly high rate of activity makes one wonder why we so readily look to foreign entities when questions of terror arise.  At the heart of much of this extremism is territorial politics—a refusal to accept the standard stories of political power, and to suggest that some work must be done to change them. Such thinking always involves powder kegs. If we turn to places such as Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, Yemen, or Nigeria, we can see how horrific, violent, and destructive nationalist-separatist movements can be—whether in times of open conflict or in the constant tension created by unresolved calls for separation.


Author: Randy P. Schiff

I am an Associate Professor of English currently at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I specialize in Middle English literature, with special interests in alliterative verse, medieval romance, Scottish poetry, Old French poetry, Arthurian literature, ethnic identity, imperialism, nationalism, ecocriticism, courtly love, and literary history.

2 thoughts on “Conspiratorial Territorial Theory: Jade Helm and Anti-Federalist Paranoia (May 22, 2015)

  1. Pingback: Keeping Lands Green by Keeping Them Ours: Gerry Rising on Federal-to-State Land Transfers (May 24, 2015) | Terri-Stories

  2. Pingback: The Possibility of Post-Brexit Ethnonational Fragmentation across Europe (part I; 03/29/17) | Terri-Stories

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