Estimated reading time: 15 minutes
There’s no lack of opinions and articles on martial law floating out there on the Internet and social media. Yet there’s still confusion about exactly what martial law is and who, how or when it would be implemented.
A bit of history seems to be in order to at least clarify why martial law has become such a hot button with so many people.
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What is Martial Law?
The general definition of martial law is when civilian government is replaced by the military. As a result, military commanders take the place of elected officials to make and enforce laws.
The police are replaced by soldiers and anyone defying any rules, laws or regulations imposed by the military will be potentially arrested, detained and tried by a military tribunal rather than a civilian court.
A Brief History of Martial Law
Martial Law (in varying degrees) has been imposed in the United States 68 times since the American Revolution. In most instances it was imposed on a local or state level.
In many of those instances, the words “martial law” were never used, but the sudden and abrupt use of military troops to impose order made the term “martial law” the only available definition of the activity.
The reasons martial law in the U.S. has been imposed in the past varies. Here are some of the instances and events that resulted in the military moving into areas to take control:
- 2 times for war or invasion (Civil war and Pearl Harbor)
- 4 times following natural disasters
- 7 times for domestic war or insurrection
- 11 times for riots or civil unrest
- 29 times for labor disputes
- 15 time for varied and complex reasons
Martial Law was Rarely Imposed by the Federal Government
The immediate assumption that many people make is that martial law was somehow imposed by a combination of the President and/or congress in the past.
That has happened on a few occasions, most notably following the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941. What’s curious is that martial law has been mostly imposed by a broad and obscure range of individuals and groups over the years.
Incidents of Martial Law
- Both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (both leaders of Mormon Sects) declared martial law using their own militias. Brigham Young was the governor of Utah and imposed it in 1857 to protect the Utah territory from the federal government in 1857. Young eventually backed down after a year and that was the end of it. Joseph Smith wasn’t so lucky and was imprisoned and later hanged.
- Abraham Lincoln imposed martial law throughout the civil war and also suspended Habeas Corpus. Habeas Corpus is a law the requires that anyone detained by law enforcement and the local judiciary be brought before a court to determine if the person’s arrest and detention is lawful. Lincoln only applied this exception to confederate rebels and not the general population.
- Andrew Jackson imposed martial law in New Orleans during the War of 1812. It was the first time that martial law as an expression was imposed and Jackson applied it this way: “Those who are not for us are against us, and will be dealt with accordingly.”
- Chicago Mayor Roswell B. Mason imposed martial law after the Great Chicago fire in 1871.
- Idaho governor N.B. Wiley imposed martial law against striking mine workers in 1892.
The list goes on but what becomes apparent is that the imposition of martial law can be imposed by a broad range of authorities for a variety of reasons with little recourse for the local population under its authority. What’s apparent is that many people from individuals to governors, mayors, generals and Presidents have imposed martial law for one reason or another.
There is No Clear Legal Definition
What’s troubling about the concept of martial law is that there is still no clear legal definition of what it is or how and when it can be applied, let alone by who. We could fill a book, and some people have, trying to trace the evolution and confusion of martial law on a legal basis.
One of the bigger questions is whether or not martial allow violated “Posse Comitatus?” Posse Comitatus is an act of congress that prohibits federal troops from participating in civilian law enforcement.
The loophole as we’ve already discussed is the number or times that martial law has been imposed by state and local governments. There are also exceptions to Posse Comitatus that would even allow federal exceptions.
The confusion and lack of legal definition for martial law is where the real challenge and potential threat emerges for everyday people.
Is Martial Law Ever a Good Idea?
There are times when martial law may seem like a good solution to a unique and imposing challenge. Times following catastrophic natural disasters or widespread civil unrest often leave local law enforcement and other resources overwhelmed.
The appearance of soldiers in the streets seems like welcome relief to some confronted by arson, looting and general lawlessness but there’s a few potential problems with a military presence.
To begin with, consider the power that is granted to the military and what they can impose:
- Impose curfews and media blackouts across all media.
- Suspend the writ of habeas corpus disallowing a court hearing
- commandeer businesses at anytime for any reason
- prohibit certain sales (like alcohol) also firearms and ammunition
- control hospitals and emergency facilities and their use
- require mandatory fingerprinting and identification of any or all civilians.
- regulate wages and working conditions
To some of us, the only thing on that list that sounds like it has any purpose is the use of a curfew to at least manage the volume of people on the street especially at night. After that, the powers granted to the military sound like the conditions you would encounter in a dictatorship including the first amendment violation of blackouts of all media.
But beyond the specific and objective powers granted there is a subjective factor affecting military behaviors during martial law.
- Soldiers are trained for war and not the disciplined application of local law enforcement. They would no doubt cooperate with local police, but to what degree and who is really in charge?
- Individual soldiers vary in terms of their beliefs, ideas and behaviors. The 4 students killed during the Kent State riots in 1970 were shot by National Guard troops who fired for reasons still undetermined. War training is often a shoot first behavior path.
- Local judiciary authority will be constantly challenged by military tribunal authority particularly if martial law continues for a long duration.
- Questions surrounding Habeas Corpus will constantly emerge as individuals are possibly detained without an appearance before any type of court.
- A common defense for martial law is defined as the “law doctrine of necessity.” In other words, if putting troops in the streets to take over for local authority seems like a necessity, martial law should be imposed. The big question is who decides it’s a necessity and why?”
- Who defines the threats that martial law needs to manage and control? Suffice it to say, martial law occurs at a time of chaos when threats (both real and imagined) seem to emerge from varied directions. But there is nothing in writing legally defining threats or threat levels.
- Soldiers just follow orders. They rarely are offered reasons or explanation for those orders and if ordered to evacuate a set of neighborhoods immediately, they will follow those orders. That is going to complicate everything for anyone asking for an explanation as to why, or begging for a little time to at least gather some belongings before abandoning their home.
- There is often a quick rush to judgment when martial law is imposed. The nature of events make for a time of increased impatience and paranoia affecting everyone including the military authorities. That has the potential to make many people targets of suspicion and that’s never a good idea.
When you’re living in an area (or country) under martial law there appear to be few alternatives. It’s pretty much a stay or go proposition. Then again, if you stay what should you do?
The bigger question is if you choose to go, where exactly are you going to go to avoid the range of threats that can emerge from the chaos of the situation?
1. Disappear Into Your Current Location
If you choose to stay in an area under martial law here are few common sense things to do:
- As much as possible, do what military authorities mandate. If they impose a curfew – stay inside your home. If they close streets –don’t go down those streets. These are common occurrences based on past rules and mandates during martial law and for the most part they’re not that hard to follow.
- Be the grey man, or woman. Keep a low profile. Avoid belligerent political statements, protests, crowd gatherings, or any other behaviors that cause you to stand out. In an environment where everybody is looking for trouble, don’t look like you’re going to be the cause for more of it.
- Avoid dressing in military gear or camouflage. You will not look like another soldier in the street and any of the troops that spot you will recognize you are not one of them, and most likely assume you are a potential threat. It’s also easy to assume that someone dressed in khakis is also armed and possibly dangerous.
- Stay off of social media or any other Internet venue where anything you say can be monitored or shared. It’s like standing on your roof with a megaphone and contradicts the idea of keeping a low profile.
- You should never brag about any stockpile or collection of anything to prepare for disaster or emergencies. One of the keys to being an effective prepper is to not tell anyone you are a prepper. If it’s general knowledge that you have a basement full of food, a safe filled with firearms and ammunition, and a closet full of medical supplies you will make yourself a target for anyone in desperate need. It could also make you a perceived threat by the local military authority who may see that kind of activity as preparation for violence, rather than a common sense effort to protect yourself and your family.
Hit the Road and Disappear
This is when the definition of “bug out” becomes a true demonstration of the term. It’s not about evacuating from an area under threat from a natural disaster, it’s literally escaping from an area that has become a threat for any number of reasons including martial law.
A lot has to do with how and why the military has taken over from local authorities. It’s understandable when the military shows up after a widespread natural disaster or following an existential threat like Pearl Harbor, but when civil unrest, labor strikes or other chaotic events caused by individuals becomes the motivation for martial law –anyone can be potentially perceived as a threat.
For some, that alone is a good reason to simply get out of the area.
Then again, some people may feel they are emerging as a potential target from the new military authority because of their past political activism, reputation in the community, or even the size or appearance of their home or property.
When the rule of law is no longer defined in legal terms and becomes a subjective decision it may be time to find an alternative location. Here are some possibilities:
2. Move in with relatives
Think about living with relatives in an area with a smaller population or not affected by martial law. Most incidences of martial law have been localized historically and if that’s the situation with martial law in your area – get out of the area.
There’s no reason to tell anyone where you’re going with the exception of close and trusted family members, but pack what you need and go.
3. Relocate to your bug out location
This assumes you have one. It could be a vacation home, a trailer on lake, even a plot of land where you can set up a campsite. In extreme situations, it could be any remote area where you think you’ll be safe until the situation calms down or recovers.
Here again, there’s no reason to tell the world you’re going let along your destination. Just go.
4. Leave the country
This is a fairly extreme alternative but millions of people have done it in the past. Some are called refugees while others are called migrants.
How you get to your destination and the distance will have a lot to do with how much you can bring with you, but emigration is a time-tested solution for many people trying to escape areas where the rule of law has become capricious if not unbearable.
5. Disappear to anywhere
If for any reason you feel you have become a target for persecution and possible false imprisonment with due process or habeas corpus, it’s time to fade into the background. Where you go is less important than getting somewhere anonymously. It could be a remote campground, a small motel, even an abandoned building.
Don’t carry your cell phone with you, even if it’s off. Cell phones are easily traced. So are computers and any Internet access to anything from your bank, to email to that bane of anyone trying to be invisible: social media.
You should also be very careful about contacting anyone even from a pay phone or a quick and cheap burner phone. If a rogue or irrational military authority is pursuing you for any reason, they will both bug and put surveillance on your friends and family members and possibly trace your contact location.
Your hope is to wait it out until things return to some semblance of normalcy. Hopefully.
What About All that Stockpiled Stuff?
Bugging in or staying home during martial law means you can hold on to anything you’ve stored, although a common concern is that stockpiled goods can be seen as a product of hoarding and confiscated. One solution is to find ways to hide some items but that all has to do with how desperate or lawless the situation becomes.
The bigger challenge is figuring what you could take with you if you bug out. Complicating everything would be military checkpoints and roadblocks. In a time of martial law, those will be common sight, and depending on the rules and/or disposition of the soldiers at the checkpoint – most anything could be confiscated, particularly weapons and medical supplies, although there is plenty of historical precedent for soldiers commandeering food from local populations.
Ultimately, hiding what you need to survive in addition to yourself may be the best way to wait out the chaos of martial law. The best decision is to keep a low profile whether you try to stick it out or bug out.
Hopefully any declaration of martial law is a short-term decision to deal with a clear and present danger, and not the result of a military coup or vicious political decision to seize control of a country or territory and its population.
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