In Jade Helm operation, Texas gives early lessons on the 'human domain'
By J. DAVID MCSWANE | Austin American-Statesman (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 9, 2015
The official slogan of Operation Jade Helm 15, "Master the Human Domain," is just one of many oddities surrounding the eight-week Pentagon training that's fomented anger and suspicion in Bastrop County and other rural parts of Texas.
In bile-green text, the phrase is placed beneath the operation's logo of a double-edged sword, two crossed arrows and a translucent wooden clog — yes, a clog — all of which have become fodder for widespread, baseless conspiracy theories that the Army Special Operations Command is planning a martial law takeover of Texas come July.
Theories aside, the lingo points to an underlying objective of Jade Helm: The mastery of an emerging Special Forces doctrine called the "human domain," a renewed push to study the "social and economic conditions" in conflict zones following lessons learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But if one objective of Jade Helm is to better understand human behavior, Texas is providing a learning experience months ahead of schedule.
Responding to outrage from residents of Bastrop County, which military analysts and Pentagon officials insist is misguided, Gov. Greg Abbott last month ordered the Texas State Guard, a branch of the Texas National Guard, to monitor Jade Helm, a move those same analysts and officials also said was misguided.
The governor's action elicited swift criticism from Todd Smith, a Republican lawyer and former state legislator, who accused the governor of "pandering to idiots" and legitimizing what some say are paranoid right-wing machinations. The governor defended his action last week, saying he wanted to ensure someone was gathering information for concerned Texans.
In lay terms, the military is teaching soldiers to apply the soft sciences of sociology and anthropology to understand distinct groups of people — their values, beliefs, behaviors — and thus prevent and win conflicts in hostile territories across the globe.
"You have to understand the human terrain — Who do I talk to? Where do I go?" said Paul Floyd, a senior military analyst for Stratfor, a global intelligence firm based in Austin. "You have to put yourself in their shoes as people and understand their motivations. Jade Helm is essentially practicing that."
Floyd, a former Army Ranger who led a Special Operations squad on 35 missions in Afghanistan, said such training is crucial to better prepare troops for unconventional warfare, where it's not always easy to tell civilians from soldiers, good guys from bad guys.
"It's very important to understand how the politics of a place contribute," he said. "There is a lesson to learn here, that sometimes communities can react in unexpected ways."
That has proved especially true with Bastrop County, where residents' fervent support of all things military has been placed at odds with a pervasive distrust of the Obama administration.
More than 1,200 service members from three military branches will participate in Jade Helm exercises in seven states, with 17 locations in Texas. But Bastrop became a focal point last month as several hundred residents leered at Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria, whose visit to a county government meeting was meant to quell fears and dispel rumors.
It was thought, Lastoria said, that Texas communities were a good place for such training because they've been historically supportive of U.S. military operations.
Instead, some locals who subscribe to theories of a federal takeover or an impending economic collapse accused Lastoria of lying or skirting questions. Others, the more subdued residents from the ashen hills outside the city of 7,000, left the meeting exasperated, no less skeptical than before.
"I would argue that the military was probably unaware, when it chose this site, of the trauma," Floyd said, "And it goes back to not understanding the population. I think it was an unintended consequence."
Before the 2011 Bastrop County Complex fire, towering lost pines blocked out the sunlight.
But now the sparsely populated Heart of the Pines neighborhood is a naked swath of charred stumps and half-built homes where the people are on edge and the wind still smells like campfire. More than once, the fire-orange glow of a sunset has sent mothers running to swoop up their children or to call 911.
Mizzy Zdroj, 47, cries as she explains: The collective trauma of those who survived the most destructive wildfire in Texas history is the missing context in the hysteria surrounding Jade Helm.
"Our lives were splayed open, just like the forest was," says Zdroj, an assistant chief with the volunteer fire department.
Zdroj's hands are hardened from the toil of cutting down and moving dead trees from her property. She lost her home in the fire, along with 68 animals, most of them rabbits which she and her family farmed. After the fire, a reality TV show gave her a large, new home behind the fire station, but she sold it because she and her husband couldn't afford the taxes and upkeep with their combined $25,000 annual income.
She and her neighbors live here for a reason, to be left alone, and after a few disappointing dealings with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, "we've learned not to trust people too much on the outside."
Add to the mix many Texans' distrust of the Obama administration and the stock photos of soldiers and tanks accompanying much of the Jade Helm social media chatter.
"The way it's been playing out is that this place has lost its rocks or something," she says. "People aren't crazy around here. People have just been through a lot."
"You have to be careful when you take things to a place that's had mass trauma," Zdroj says. "You're going to get a reaction."
To be sure, she's heard of backyard meetings where some are plotting their defense against whatever Jade Helm may bring. That's a small and vocal minority, she says.
Among those with heightened concerns is Bob Wells, who brought a sign to last month's Bastrop County Commissioner's Court hearing that read, "No Gestapo in Bastropo."
"They're trying to make this look like it's a normal thing," he said in an interview. "That's what's bothersome to me."
He says Jade Helm is reminiscent of the early days of Nazi Germany and wonders if the federal government plans to slowly inure civilians to the presence of troops as part of a slow establishment of a police state. He also wonders about the awkwardness of the Pentagon's announcement of Jade Helm, with the release of a map that labeled Texas, perhaps aptly, as "hostile territory."
"Is this part of the psychological operation — to fuel this sort of suspicion?" Wells said.
Zdroj and her neighbors refer to Lastoria only as "the man," yet she says most believe his assurances that the 800 landowners of Heart of the Pines won't be adversely affected by the exercises, which Lastoria said will take place only on private property and with the consent of landowners.
"Do I think it's going to be a big deal? No," she says. "Do I believe 100 percent of what the government tells me? No, of course not."
Little trouble in Big Spring
In the West Texas city of Big Spring, 300 miles northwest of Austin, Mayor Larry McLellan can't help but chuckle. He's reading one of the eight emails in his inbox that bash him and the City Council for welcoming the Pentagon.
"This one didn't say anything about being stupid yet," McLellan says. "Oh, here's one."
He reads: "Obviously you aren't competent as a mayor. When the hell is it ever OK to let the federal government into your town? This will be the end of you."
His city of about 28,000 residents has been featured prominently in right-wing blogs, which gave the impression of widespread consternation there, but the bulk of the noise is coming from beyond Texas, McLellan said.
Big Spring's association with Jade Helm was amplified following suggestions of a link between the military exercise and the unexpected closure of five Wal-Mart stores, including two in Texas and one in nearby Midland. Wal-Mart executives have said suspicions that the stores are either holding grounds for troops or an entry point for a series of secret underground tunnels are absurd.
Chad Williams, the police chief in Big Spring, is annoyed.
"I'm not dealing with anything," he said. "I don't give any credence to these conspiracy theorists. Not at all."
"Whenever the media gives it credence and gives it legs, that's what happens. I'm not interested in even talking about the subject. It's going to make the problem worse for us."
Old is new again
The civilian response to Jade Helm has been a baffling overreaction, says Steven Bucci, a 26-year U.S. Special Forces veteran who served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense under President George W. Bush.
"This kind of exercise happens all the time," said Bucci, now an analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Bucci points to the Robin Sage exercise in North Carolina, where Special Forces troops have trained with the help of local government officials and civilians since 1974. Civilians participating in war games there do so knowingly and are contracted by the military, analysts say.
Offering an example of how an average person in a Jade Helm town could help, Bucci said a civilian might provide "a nondescript vehicle for clandestine transport or a house for a safe house. They could also be recruited to help the good guys make a communications drop. That sort of thing."
The push to expand the Special Forces foray into the social sciences can be traced to a 2013 white paper dubbed "Strategic Landpower: Winning the Clash of Wills." It was penned by Gen. Ray Odierno, head of Special Forces command; Gen. James Amos, a Marine Corps commandant; and Navy Adm. Bill McRaven, now chancellor of the University of Texas system.
Part military doctrine, part response to budget constraints in Washington, the white paper makes the case for investment in Special Forces human domain efforts because, while the blunt force of the U.S. military apparatus is unrivaled, it is often not enough to achieve strategic goals in conflict zones.
A review of dozens of military policy documents, scholarly articles and congressional transcripts show McRaven was the vanguard in the push for more human domain training. In March 2014 testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Armed Forces, McRaven said: "As we look at the human domain, it's kind of the totality of the cultural, the ethnic, the social fabric that makes up the people that live in a particular area. You have to know that before you can make any decisions."
McRaven did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Lastoria and three others involved in the planning and implementation of Jade Helm.
Failure to communicate
The uproar surrounding Jade Helm might have been tempered if the Pentagon had run a better public relations campaign, said retired Lt. Col. Dougald MacMillan, with the Army War College Fellowship at the University of Texas.
"The scope and the size of the exercise are what is unprecedented," he said. "It calls for and it's worthy of a more proactive public relations effort."
On that front, residents say they've received mixed messages.
Lastoria, the public information officer, told Bastrop County residents last month that civilians would not be involved in the operation, that aside from two Humvees and one night-helicopter mission, the presence of soldiers would go mostly unnoticed.
But his description differs from a presentation that Thomas Mead, a contractor representing Special Forces, gave local government officials last year.
On a presentation slide titled "Why Texas," Mead described the precepts of human domain: "Operating in and around communities where anything out the ordinary will be spotted and reported (Locals are the first to notice something out of place)," the presentation said. "The opportunity to work with civilians to gain their trust and an understanding of the issues."
Gaining that trust may prove difficult here, said Jo Watts, who has lived for 15 years on a 23-acre ranch in the Heart of the Pines community, a lush tract that was barely spared from the fire four years ago, where Tom tends to the weeds and Jo operates a ceramics workshop with a kiln. "It's almost like they're trying to get people worked up."
"There were a lot of inconsistencies," said Tom Watts, 71, an Air Force veteran who says he spent decades as a computer engineer for NASA and the National Security Agency.
Jo Watts, 68, says she wants to be clear that she and her husband are ardent supporters of the military, even though they have deep distrust for the Obama administration. She's worried about a long, slow incursion on civil liberties.
"It's like the frog in the boiling water," she said. "I don't think it's going to be a big deal, this Jade Helm thing, I really don't. But is it a precursor to something more?"
Tom Watts says he doesn't subscribe to conspiracy theories, but having worked for decades in the defense community, he has a thought about the logo with the sword, the arrows, the translucent clog and the ominous slogan. It's nothing nefarious, he said.
"That doesn't surprise me at all," he says. "These people who are up there, cooking up this stuff — they're idiots."
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