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What is Martial Law?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Martial law is a term used to describe a temporary military takeover of government within a specific area. This is usually undertaken to protect public safety and order when civil authorities are no longer able to retain control. However, martial law has sometimes been criticized by people who believe that it can also be used to suppress dissent and political activities among the civilian population, and sometimes the imposition of military control is controversial.

Many nations have measures in their legal codes which allow martial law to be declared. The classic reason to declare it is because of a natural disaster which has overwhelmed civil authorities. The military can step in to provide security and governance until things stabilize. It may also be used at a time of war. More controversially, some nations have declared martial law after populist uprisings, with the military suppressing the uprising and restoring government control, and in some cases a military takeover of government has been total, with all civilian officials including the head of state being replaced with military officers.

In full martial law, the military serves as police, legislature, and courts. Civil rights are typically suspended, and people may be subject to the military code of justice and expected to adhere to military law. In other cases, the military takes over some tasks, and leaves others in the hands of civil authorities. For example, the civilian legislature may be left intact while soldiers provide policing because the civilian police force is not capable.

Martial law may be declared by a head of state, and in some cases by legislative bodies. Usually the term of military control must be clearly defined; instead of declaring it to be indefinite, time limits must be set. It may be necessary to declare a state of emergency before the military can be brought in, so that there is a clear justification for bringing in the military.

Declarations of martial law are rare. Because there are legitimate fears about the potential for abuse of power, civilian leaders are hesitant to bring in the military unless they feel that there is a genuine security risk which must be addressed. Civilians also usually like to retain control of key areas of government during periods of martial law, although they will work with military officials to ensure that things run as smoothly as possible. The imposition of military control may also be accompanied with civilian monitors who are tasked with ensuring that the military does not overstep its bounds.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon243437 — On Jan 27, 2012

Everyone should think about what is going on in the world today. Don't think this can't happen because it can. I believe its closer than we may think. Look at the UK's financial status. Not good. Everyone needs to really think about this and become informed. It's closer than we think. And yes, it can happen!

By CaithnessCC — On Aug 09, 2011

I was caught up in a martial law situation a few years ago. I'd taken a year out to travel and was in Thailand, having a great trip overall.

Stupidly I didn't keep myself up to date on the political tensions, and stumbled into the wrong area just as a coup took place.

It was a heck of an experience, and not something I'd want to repeat. The hardest thing was trying to contact my folks to let them know I was alive and well.

These days I'm a much more cautious traveller. Even though some people think I'm mad, I would like to go back to Bangkok and see it under better circumstances than I did.

By B707 — On Aug 08, 2011

It can be argued that martial law might be misused. All democratic countries have the right to free speech. But the question is how far can it be taken? The government doesn't want to deny free speech, but if it gets out of hand in a big way, would the government want to declare martial law. It's a thorny question.

I'm not positive, but I think there were a few situations in the early years of our country that martial law in certain regions was declared for a short time.

By Esther11 — On Aug 08, 2011

I think it would take a crisis of enormous proportions with no end in sight, for the United States to declare martial law. Chances are, it would never happen, at least for the whole nation. Maybe in a certain region, it might be put in place if a real catastrophe happened.

Some unstable countries have been controlled and governed by martial law. In the case of a dictatorship and an uprising against the government, martial law is used to try to bring about control. It is difficult to bring about stability without loss of life.

By strawCake — On Aug 07, 2011

@ceilingcat - I definitely don't think a declaration of martial law should be taken lightly. But, I do think it's appropriate sometimes.

For example, during the Civil War the state of Maryland was under martial law. This was done to prevent Maryland from joining the Confederacy and taking the capital city with it! Yes, it did infringe on people's rights-but it was the best thing to do in the long run.

By ceilingcat — On Aug 07, 2011

I don't think there is ever a reason martial law should be declared in the United States. We are a free country for goodness sakes! Martial law goes against everything that our country stands for-a fair trial and a legal system with checks and balances.

I don't see why the military couldn't assist the civilian police force during an emergency. But that should be it. The military doesn't have to be completely in charge to lend a hand during a tough situation.

By bythewell — On Aug 06, 2011

People often think that martial law was declared in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but in fact it wasn't. It probably would have been, but the state didn't have a law allowing that.

Instead they declared a "State of Emergency" which amounts to basically the same thing.

People might have been thinking about how the mayor declared "martial law" by saying that police no longer had to follow the normal procedures when stopping looters, including protecting their civil rights.

I'm not sure he was actually allowed to do that, but at least he tried. It's hard to know whether he was in the right, but you can definitely see why he did it.

By croydon — On Aug 06, 2011

The idea of martial law is scary, and a difficult one pick a side on. On the one hand, if you have a corrupt government, it leaves your country completely vulnerable to being basically taken over if people are trying to overthrow it.

On the other hand, there are situations where it is the best measure to take. If a leader doesn't have legal authority in a time of crisis, it can lead to bad things happening.

So, I think it is the best option of two dangerous choices, myself.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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