Is the Pentagon Messing with Texas?

The U.S. military may not be using a summer exercise to institute martial law in Texas, but Governor Greg Abbott isn't taking chances.

Tony Gutierrez / AP

Texas has the rare distinction among U.S. states of having been, for a decade in the 19th century, its own nation. That history of independence, that lingering pride of sovereignty, has never really left the state, and every so often it arouses a certain suspicion of outside forces—be it Mexicans, ISIS fighters, or most frequently, the federal government. So when the U.S. military announced plans to hold an eight-week joint exercise it called Operation Jade Helm 15 in Texas and five other western states this summer, the people of Bastrop County quickly—and with the help of radio host Alex Jones and—saw it for what it really was: a preparation for the military to impose martial law in the Lone Star State.

Those fears grew over the course of a month, fed in part by the Army Special Operations Command's release of a map for the exercise that labeled Texas as "hostile territory."

It got to the point where the Army sent Lieutenant Colonel Mark Lastoria to brief residents of Bastrop—which is about 30 miles east of Austin—at a community meeting last month. The briefing did not go well. "We just want to hone our skills," Lastoria told the citizens, according to a clip of the meeting posted by the Austin American-Statesman. "We just need to get back to the basics and make sure we review on soldiers, our special operators, in all of their core tasks, and this exercise will help do that." He said the military was "invested in everybody's personal rights and their privacy." When one Bastrop resident spoke up to oppose the exercise and referred to it as "a martial-law program," the packed room cheered.

Lastoria tried to win the crowd back with an appeal to patriotism and pride in the military:

I would just ask everybody not to mix apples and pumpkins, ok? Let's do it that way. This institution right here has been around for over 240 years. I have transition in this uniform, various shades of it, under five presidents—all of it peacefully. You may have issues with the federal government. You may have issues with the administration. So be it. But this institution has been with you for over 240 years. Period.

Some in the crowd applauded, but not everyone was convinced. When Lastoria explicitly told one man that the exercise was "not a preparation for martial law," the skeptical Texan (who was holding a dictionary the size of a small child) replied: "That's what you say."

It appeared to be that April 27 meeting in Bastrop that persuaded Texas's rookie governor, Greg Abbott, that he had to step in. Did Abbott issue a statement reassuring his constituents that the federal government was not, in fact, laying the groundwork for a Texas takeover? No, he didn't. Abbott announced that he was directing the Texas State Guard to monitor the military exercise and ensure that Texans' “safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed.” Amid a predictable backlash, the Republican governor on Monday said the state guard would merely be "a communication facilitator" and that he had "seen nothing to worry about what was going on."

Abbott's actions might just be a good example of responsive governance. Surely you can't criticize him for being out of touch with the people of his state. (The same goes for Ted Cruz, who told Bloomberg that his office had dutifully sought and received assurances from the Pentagon that Jade Helm was, in fact, just a benign exercise.) And some constituents applauded his move. "What’s under question are those who are pulling the strings at the top of Jade Helm 15 back in Washington," cheered Chuck Norris. "The U.S. government says, 'It’s just a training exercise.' But I’m not sure the term “just” has any reference to reality when the government uses it." (When Chuck Norris endorses conspiracy theories, they become real.)

Abbott joins other recent Lone Star leaders who have indulged the fantastical fears and whims of conspiracy-minded Texans. Remember the NAFTA Superhighway that Ron Paul said would lead to the creation of something called the "North American Union"? Or how about the time in 2009 when Rick Perry, Abbott's predecessor, suggested that Texas's secession from the union was not totally, completely, entirely out of the realm of possibility?

And now the federal government expects Texans to believe that the military wants to spend two months outside its capital city just for "training"?

Nice try. Texas patriots won't be fooled that easily.