Martial Law – Everything You Need to Know

Martial law. The concept itself is vaguely ominous. A declaration of martial law is usually taken as an obvious sign that things have gone from bad to worse in the wake of a disaster, or it may be viewed as a disaster all on its own.

The popular depiction in media is checkpoints manned not by uniformed cops but by camouflaged, gas mask wearing soldiers. There are no longer police cars with their flashing lights at the intersections bit instead huge battle tanks and other armored behemoths bristling with machine guns and ordnance.

police officer putting helmet during riot

It is a striking and scary image, and worrisome to think that they might not be bound by the same code of conduct that police are when interacting with civilians. But what is martial law, really?

How would a declaration of martial law affect your life and plans, especially in the aftermath of a crisis? Does martial law suspend or ignore civil rights? Are there additional risks you must avoid in a state of martial law?

All good questions, and in the interest of clearing up a lot of concern and myth surrounding the topic this article will equip you with a basic understanding of martial law and its expected effects on a populace operating under its tenets.

What is Martial Law?

Martial law is simply speaking a military assumption of control over typically civilian functions of law enforcement and government. Under martial law, military rule and law will typically apply to civilians, and so will military legal proceedings.

The reasons that martial law may be declared vary, but it simply means that the military is now formally in charge. Perhaps the most important change in legal proceedings for U.S. citizens will be the suspension of habeas corpus and subjection to military courts martial instead of the civil court system we all know and (ostensibly) enjoy, as well as suspension of civil liberties for the duration.

Deployment of military troops for various tasks or purposes domestically does not mean that martial law is in effect as is sometimes thought.

National Guard deployments are frequently ordered by state governors to aid with all kinds of disaster relief efforts as well as maintaining order in times significant civil unrest. This does not mean martial law is in effect.

An area under martial law will see the ranking military leader in charge of the situation acting as the de facto head of civilian government in the area. Martial law may be declared at the city, state or federal level. The scope will play a part in determining your strategy for coping with life under martial law.

A state of emergency that may see National Guard forces deployed is not the same as martial law, as civil rights are not being suspended, though police and others may have the power or writ to force evacuation, all other civil laws still apply.

Take for instance the relatively recent Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunts in the U.S., or state responses to terror attacks in France and Belgium. People were being rousted from their homes, some were detained and movement was curtailed for the duration.

While not martial law in the explicit sense, all of these events and others like them offer valuable glimpses in to just how tense and inconvenient martial law could really be, in addition to dealing with the disaster that trigged it.

When is Martial Law Declared?

Martial law is typically declared to either consolidate government control over a riled-up populace or to ensure safety, stability and order in the aftermath of severe crises or invasion. Martial law is enacted fairly commonly around the world, but is thankfully a rarity in the U.S. and much of the West.

You should expect martial law to be enacted in the event of invasion, after any severe disaster on a regional scale, or locally in cities or regions where civil unrest is widespread, constant and becoming violent. Any failed or imminent overthrow of the government will almost certainly see martial law instituted.

Effects of Martial Law

As mentioned above, if declared you should expect martial law to suspend most or all civil rights for the duration. Curfews will be a certainty and enforced with prejudice.

You will probably not have freedom of movement or the right to assemble in any group larger than a few handfuls of people. Random or regimented searches of people, vehicles and dwellings may be commonplace. You may no longer have any lawful right to carry or even possess a weapon, especially a firearm.

You will be expected to obey orders of member of the military and any associates without hesitation, protest or delay. Any guff to the contrary could see you detained. Serious resistance may be met with significant, even lethal force.

If things are bad enough for martial law to be declared, you can count on not getting any representation or even a hearing with a military tribunal for any infractions. You will be detained to make sure you aren’t causing any more trouble or making things worse and that is that.

It is difficult to estimate how all of this will impact your day to day routine and efforts to survive after or during a major crisis, but we will examine some likely possibilities and give you some considerations for dealing with it.

Living Under Martial Law

At its least intrusive, martial law will likely entail no more hoop-jumping and adherence to authority than on w would expect from law enforcement in turbulent times. At its most intrusive, you may be essentially confined to your house under threat of detainment, all other considerations be damned.

This may mean you cannot travel to get out of town, try to find missing family or friends or attempt to help anyone in need. If you are lacking something, tough. Await further instructions, citizen.

This presents an obvious dilemma. If your current status at your shelter location is untenable or deteriorating, you may have to risk punitive force to try and improve it. In really scary times it is not out of the question that you could be shot if you attempt to force your way past a checkpoint or are discovered in a strict no-go zone.

The nature of the event that saw martial law declared will likely have some impact on the type of response you can expect from military personnel. A major terror attack with follow-on violence and subsequent bedlam will see any suspicious or verboten activity dealt with very harshly.

Compare that to it being declared in response to a mundane but terribly severe disaster and you will probably see strict but less draconian enforcement.

Many preppers have serious questions about the potential ethical conflict that may result from military servicemen and women being “deployed” against their fellow citizens. This is understandable, but I will spare any grandstanding about the greater moral issue and simply stick with practical application.

The million dollar question asks if the bulk of military personnel would follow orders that would see them suppressing civilians en masse. Some argue that they would have no issue following orders due to their training. Others say they absolutely would not engage in such activity as most are freedom-loving patriots same as you or I.

I take my standard third-way option and answer, “it depends.” It depends on quite a lot. Members of the military are trained and expected to follow orders from superiors.

Barring an order is so out of alignment that it creates suspicion that the order is unlawful, most will probably follow orders to enforce martial law with no qualms for a few reasons.

First, it will not be difficult to sell the idea that it is necessary and reasonable to enable martial law to halt further destruction and loss of life.

The idea that, while distasteful and perhaps overly strong-armed, martial law is “heavy medicine” against chaos, and though they would not appreciate being on the receiving end the pursuit of a law, ensuring order and stability is a noble enough mission that they won’t have their consciences nibbling at them.

Second, martial law is lawful if enacted lawfully. If congress orders it and requests suspension of habeas corpus it is accommodated by the laws of the United States, like it or not.

We will probably not see the stereotypical banana republic example of a military coup and subsequent installation of a junta and nationwide military rule in our lifetimes, and hopefully ever, in the U.S., but that is not exactly what we are worried about either.

If by some stretch the military was ordered to fire on civilians or engage in some other monstrous deed with no outstanding reason behind the order, I do not think too many would comply. If some citizen or citizens were to skyline themselves by action or omission of action as troublemakers or rabble rousers things may turn out differently.

How Should You Deal With Martial Law?

The answer depends on your situation and goals. If you want to move and interact with people freely as you have always done in an area under martial law, you should either revise your expectations or prepare to live in a gray area of skating the law and evading military and other law enforcement personnel. As mentioned above, the breadth of martial law and the concentration of forces present will greatly affect how martial law impacts you.

If you live in a populated area, or martial law is declared for your region or nationally, generally the best answer is, if you are able, follow the instructions of military personnel and don’t make trouble. The sooner a situation stabilizes the sooner martial law will be lifted. Go along to get along.

If it only declared for your city or state, your chances of scooting out from under its purview is much simpler, and more attractive. The rub, of course, is how you will accomplish either if martial law is resulting in an untenable situation for you and yours.

What if supplies are being confiscated for redistribution? What if you are being forcibly moved somewhere without knowing the status or whereabouts of your family?

Promises that “everyone will be accounted for” don’t mean jack; you are responsible for yourself and your loved ones, and no one else. What of reports that people are being driven out of their homes in pursuit of some important objective? It’s situations like this that make many preppers justifiably nervous about the concept.

Understanding that areas with larger populations are more likely to be affected by martial law in day to day life, if you live in a rural, remote or off-grid home you probably won’t be bothered unless you need to head into town or word gets out that Prepper Pete out on the back 40 has hundreds of gallons of water and a warehouse full of food that may better be put to use for the common good. Then you can expect a visit from Uncle Sam. Another good reason to keep your mouth shut about your lifestyle and preparations.

If you live in a populated area you will have few choices; obey and take your chances, bug-out to a place less supervised or disobey and risk punishment. If laws and rules are reasonable, I suggest you obey. Martial law will probably not turn dystopian or totalitarian. You can make a bad situation worse by getting detained or shot.

If you want to and are able to leave you may certainly do so, as there will likely be a gap between declaration and organization of martial law and influx of enough manpower and materiel to the proscribed area before there are no more gaps to squeak through.

The trick is seeing the signs; any event disruptive enough to society may trigger martial law as a standard response, but it may be packaged in media and government communiqués as something less serious, like relief efforts supported by the military, National Guard deployment or similar.

Speaking of squeaking and sneaking, if you decide to buck authority and ignore curfews, travel freely or generally make yourself a pain in the ass as far as Big Green is concerned, understand you will be dealing with professional soldiers equipped with all the technological marvels and support that that entails.

You may think you are invisible during your nightly snoopings, but airborne or man-carried night vision and thermal imaging systems will make you as visible as can be.

Drones, cameras, real time tracking or jamming of communications systems and other high-tech solutions to their anticipated problems will be the rule.Things won’t be as simple as sneaking out of your high-school bedroom, that’s for damn sure.

Your best bet is to simply abide or leave for greener pastures while you can still do so easily enough. Also consider that depending on where you live, the severity of the disaster and the local populations actions in the aftermath, martial law might be a net improvement to your survival situation, as distasteful as it might sound to red-blooded Americans.

I am still a firm believer that most of our servicemen and women are decent Americans, and will not follow the orders of a command or government that has gone completely off the rails.

Tips for Getting Through Martial Law With Your Stash and Sanity Intact

1. As always: BE PREPARED. The less you need to move or leave your house the better. If your shelter location is well-provisioned and equipped, you not need to interact with military personnel as much. Any interaction may be a cause for interview, inspection, search, seizure or worse.

The less you need to move or leave your house the better. If your shelter location is well-provisioned and equipped, you not need to interact with military personnel as much. Any interaction may be a cause for interview, inspection, search, seizure or worse.

2. If you do leave your house, a BOB containing your most vital supplies should be mandatory. Should you be detained, moved or stopped from returning, those supplies will be all you can truly count on for the time.

3. Look nice, be nice, play nice. Don’t antagonize or badger soldiers no matter what your opinions are. Most of them are still just doing a job. That being said, anything that pisses them off or makes you for a troublemaker will draw significant derision, buttstocks and then bullets, hopefully in that order. You may think you are tough, but you sure as hell aren’t going to dislodge a military presence, or scare professional soldiers.

4. Avoid like the plague any rabble-rousing, demonstrations, known agitators, loudmouths and any other groups who will likely be near the top of the “Preemptive Detainment” list. You get lumped in with their lot and you will likely be on a bus before you can say “But muh rights!”

5. SHUT. UP. Just because the military personnel may not be evil does not mean they cannot ruin your day as a matter of doing business. If the call comes to round up vital supplies from the populace (or disarm them) that’s what they are going to do.

The teacher’s pet and hall monitor from high-school will happily dole out a juicy tip to the local commander about your prepping ways for a pat on the head. This starts right now: it is nobody’s business but yours!

6. As a corollary to #5, if you think it prudent to hide all your preps, it will be a double-or-nothing proposition: if your obviously hidden stash should be discovered by investigating personnel, you will likely be in trouble (see my comment about being a pain in the ass).

What may be more effective is being obviously helpful. Show them to your obvious but meager stash with your regards. Content to “check the box” and leave with goodies, they will not know about your actual stash that is well-hidden. Never underestimate a decoy. Control perception, control events.


Martial law is not some boogeyman situation to be feared as another disaster unto itself that you will have to endure in after an already devastating crisis has happened.

That being said it pays, like everything else, to know what to expect and who you’ll be dealing with. Just as important is knowing what is expected of you. If any of what was discussed sounds intolerable to you, it is time to assess the probability of it happening to you and planning accordingly.

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6 thoughts on “Martial Law – Everything You Need to Know”

  1. Someone has to play devil’s advocate here. We all know the cities will be the first targets, suburbs next. By the time they get to the rural areas, wonder what to expect? A bunch of pissed off military, tired of dealing with the city/suburban ppl and ready for a fight? Or will they be tired of fighting, and hoping for a home cooked meal? Or will offering that home cooked meal means you are also targeted? I get ‘hiding’ your preps, but if you farm, it’s kind of hard to ‘hide’ what you have unless you have large acreage and the ability to move your stock around ahead of any type of searches. Not gonna happen with gardens/crops. You can hide your stores, but you can’t hide what you are currently raising, and that in and if itself is going to raise flags.

    Sorry, I got a bit off topic, but an enlightening article.

  2. Martial law in the united States isn’t likely to be as drastic as some people think, in most cases. Having spent 21-years in the military, active and reserve, with 19-years of that in military police. I also spent over 20-years in civilian policing, retiring as a deputy police chief of a suburban department right next door to the worst precinct in Detroit.

    In the majority of martial law scenarios, the military commander is going to want to get things back to as close to normal as possible as fast as possible. This includes trying to get the civilian police back to work and doing their jobs just like before. Water and sewerage operating. The commander will also want to get civilian business life back to normal too. Farmers farming, distributors distributing, stores open and selling. As soon as possible, the commander will want the civilian court system working as well, especially to handle the routine law matters.

    Soldiers and Marines don’t make good cops. We see the difficulties when they have to perform similar duties in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places. They are at their best killing bad guys and breaking their things. That’s why, in a martial law situation, street gangs and other groups of criminals will have sucky, short lives if they misbehave. As pointed out in the article, it is hard to hide and run from the modern US military with every grunt and MP equipped with night vision and lots of ground and air thermal sensors.

    Sure, hide in a seemingly stout building and resist “the man.” That will get you one warning to surrender (maybe), followed by Hellfire missiles or 120mm HEAT rounds from an Abrams tank. See how stout that building is then. The grunts will come in and police the ruins afterward.

    If the citizenry behave themselves, wide-spread house-to-house searches for weapons won’t be necessary. If the food distribution system can get back to some semblance of normal, wide-spread searches for food stashes won’t be necessary. Even though the US military is powerful, and assuming the soldiers and Marines will go along with most of their orders, they do know the American populace is heavily armed and heavy-handed door kicking and searches will result in gunfights that will cause high military casualties. Yeah, they’ll still win the gunfights decisively, but they will be hurtin’ winners.

    Look to history for how martial law was conducted in other countries. In WWII, most countries Nazi Germany occupied, martial law existed, but the Germans got as many of the normal civilian functions operating as they could, including civilian police and courts, food distribution, etc. Yes, when the Germans got involved in some law enforcement, they were pretty heavy-handed, but until later in the war when food supplies in The Fatherland ran low, the people were generally OK for food supplies. Yes, some countries (Poland and occupied Soviet Union are prime examples), the Nazis ran things with an iron fist, but still used as many civil functions as possible when they cared to.

    More recently, in Thailand, the government had problems with a rebellious group called the Red Shirts. At one point, martial law was declared and the police and army got into some fierce gun battles with the Red Shirts, particularly in Bangkok. Funny thing in Thailand, the populace has much greater respect for the army than they do for the police. So the army got a lot of cooperation from citizens. A military junta took over the country, and immediately as many civil functions as possible were restarted and things went back to normal pretty quickly. Door kicking was targeted against Red Shirt locations, and regular citizens were left alone. Now Thailand is mostly governed by civilians, but some things still have to be cleared by the military. Army troops are rarely seen in the streets anymore except for ceremonies and such. In fact, Thailand is in the midst of civil elections now, but like our elections, it is a real cat fight between political parties.

    So my advice in case of martial law, is to follow instructions, behave, and see where things go.

    • I was in Haiti in 2010 as part of a team to help rebuild homes after the earthquake. Soldiers from various countries were in charge of law enforcement. I stayed directly across the road from the Pakistani troops. It was an unusual experience to see armed soldiers everywhere. We did as you stated. We behaved, and they left us alone. However, I know that our hosts worked to establish a positive relationship with the troops. Not everyone in PAP had the same experience as we did.

      • Prepared Grammy,

        Haitians, as a general group, learn quickly not to mess with US Marines when they are sent in to help out for whatever reason. The Marines will take good care of the general citizenry who behave. However, there are gangs who take offense at Marines being in their territory and seem to have to be re-taught why the average citizen goes along and does OK. After a couple of dozen of them get blasted into pieces, the lesson has been re-taught.

        There is a reason why Marines still roll the sleeves up on their utility uniforms the way they do and it comes from duty in Haiti when all branches of the US military wore the same BDUs. The Haitian gangs called Marines “White Sleeves” and once they learned their lesson, steered clear of them and messed with the US Army or other foreign troops instead. Reputation matters.

    • I was in the Philippines in the ’70s when they were under martial law. It was business as usual except for cops on every corner armed with M-16s. Never saw any troops in the street, or anywhere else for that matter. The only effect I saw was that the bars closed at around 2330 and we had to be off the street by midnight.

  3. BEING A KOMRADFORNIAN I would welcome Martial law on the southern border. Might give then pesky illegals reason to clean up there act.


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