5 Things to Know About Martial Law

The official definition of martial law allows for the seizure of all government and civil authority by a nation’s highest-ranking military member. This type of scenario often evokes images of chaos, lawlessness and instability which sane people hope never play out in real life. However, world history reminds every society that these situations can and do occur given the right socioeconomic and political climates. Here are five common catalysts for martial law.

#1 Threat or Occurrence of a Coup d’Etat

A coup d’etat occurs when a group of people within a national government illegally seizes power from government and civil authorities. These people could include elitists, military factions and even highly dissatisfied every-day citizens.

The threat or occurrence of coups usually happens within countries that operate under official dictatorships. They can also take place when elected or appointed government and civil authorities perform as dictators while hiding behind democratic facades.

Recent examples of coups that led to the declaration of martial law are the 2006 military take-over in Thailand and the failed 2016 coup attempt by military members in Turkey.

#2 Suppression of Political Opposition

In extreme cases, opposition to political ideologies and agendas can lead a nation into civil war. This is especially the case when either side of the political spectrum chooses to use violence to gain an advantage. Before conflicts escalate into civil wars, certain governments use their military forces to restore order.

An example of the use of military forces to silence political opposition was seen during China’s Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Thousands of China’s young people gathered in Tiananmen Square to call for economic reforms, freedom of speech and freedom of press for their countrymen. They also decried the nation’s political corruption that they saw. Even though their protests were described as peaceful sit-ins and hunger strikes, their message was considered a formidable threat to their government, and hundreds were killed by the country’s military.

#3 Major Natural Disaster

Most natural disasters result in temporary damage that only requires state of emergency declarations. This type of declaration is implemented to restore the necessary infrastructure for normal community operations.

However, when a natural disaster occurs that devastates large areas, military forces could take charge over government and civil authorities. For example, a powerful earthquake on a fault line such as the New Madrid could trigger earthquakes in other places. If these earthquakes knock out power indefinitely and highways become impassable, military forces could take over to provide security and essential services to affected areas. Military forces can also be called upon to implement quarantine measures in cases of pandemic disease outbreaks.

#4 Country Under Attack by Foreign Entity

The United States has traditionally enjoyed a certain amount of natural security because of its large ocean borders and alliances with its neighbors. However, today’s military weaponry is more sophisticated than ever, and declarations of war by foreign entities could lead to attacks on U.S. soil. If critical infrastructure such as transportation systems, hospitals or leading government agencies are destroyed, the nation under attack could declare martial law to restore services and provide security.

#5 Invasion or Occupation of Foreign Military Powers

If a nation experiences an invasion of foreign military powers, it could declare martial law to gain the necessary resources to help combat enemy forces. During this type of scenario, the government through its military can seize private land or other resources. They also have the power to arrest persons who resist having their property or resources taken.


When citizens recognize the high probability that any of the described events can happen, they should take the necessary steps to reduce the impact that these events could have on their lives. These preparatory steps include reducing stress levels through prayer for peace and wisdom as well as ensuring basic human needs are met by planting gardens for food and obtaining adequate water purification methods. While a temporary set-back within a region usually results in the imposition of a state of emergency, the declaration of martial law has more far-reaching effects, and it often reflects much deeper national issues.