Survival Basics

Martial Law

In an earlier piece, we discussed civil unrest in the form of mass rioting. These situations generally pit a semi-organized portion of the population against government authorities with a very emotional “us versus them” theme.

In this article, we will bump it up a notch into the territory of full martial law.

What is Martial law?

Martial law is a Constitutional allowance to temporarily cede the power of the civil government to military forces when the civil government becomes absent or ineffective.  It is a last-resort act to maintain order during times of extreme crisis.  Such crises may include natural disasters, mass civil uprising, and warfare. Martial law has been enacted only once on the national level (by President Lincoln in 1861), and a handful of times at the state level (such as Hawaii and the Pacific states in 1941-1942). The level of authority placed in military hands may be limited, such as law enforcement and safety operations, or it may be unlimited, to the point of appointing a political leader and lawmaking body.

Martial Law

A number of dystopian films depict martial law as the ultimate sign of oppression over the populace, pitting a protagonist group of rebels against the tyrannical forces in power. This is certainly one potential, albeit unlikely, outcome. Should a military takeover of this scale ever occur, whether lawful or unlawful (as in a coup d’etat), political checks and balances disappear as firepower and numeric superiority emerge as the dominant forces. 

The controversial military exercise Jade Helm placed military forces in an apparent civil unrest scenario, and inspired countless conspiracy theories. Particularly in the American southwest, governors and local militias observed the military’s operations with keen interest. It would be naïve to believe that the U.S. military does not have contingency plans in place for a variety of domestic crises, some of which are likely to include some assumption of government control.

Martial Law

Doomsday scenario

Let us consider the doomsday scenario described by Hollywood. Whether by Presidential or Congressional directive, or even as a coup d’etat, imagine that the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed to supplant the U.S. government of its power, and took over all lawmaking and law enforcement activities across the nation.  Who would oppose them?

The first group of opposition would be the National Guard and Air National Guard. These military organizations fall under the operational control of state governors, and can only be nationalized with the consent of the governor (aside from a brief period in 2007-2008 that allowed nationalization against a governor’s consent). Should the national government fail to repel evil military forces, the state governments retain some means to defend their lands with their own guardsmen.

The next line of defense would be state militias. These are also military organizations that report to the governors, but unlike the Guard, cannot be nationalized. Most states have laws that authorizing the retention of a militia, and 22 states currently have standing forces. Like the Guard, militiamen are typically not full-time warriors, but serve on an as-needed basis.

The third line of defense is state and local law enforcement. Federal law enforcement (Customs and Border Patrol, U.S. Marshalls, FBI, DEA, Secret Service) may or may not be stripped of their power at the national level, but state and local police derive their authority from more local governances. Some even have a modest air support and armored vehicle capability to bring to bear.

Before going into the last line of defense (guerilla warfare), let’s take a look at the numbers:

  • Size of U.S. Military (Active + Reserve): 2,100,000
  • Size of National Guard: 450,000
  • Size of State Militias: 15,000
  • Size of Law Enforcement: 800,000

While there is inevitably some double-counting and inherent error in these figures, the combined U.S. military outnumbers the domestic defense forces by almost 2:1.  This is in addition to the enhanced firepower found in our military organizations.

Now, let’s add in the final line of defense: ourselves.

  • Firearm Owners: 99,000,000

While there is plenty of double-counting in this figure, the implication is that there are more private firearm owners in the U.S. than all military, guard, militia, and law enforcement agencies combined.

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Returning to the dystopian future portrayed on the big screen, let us again ask how likely it is to occur?  Not very likely. Simply getting one military branch to agree on a new uniform has proven to taken years in some cases.  Getting all branches to agree to conduct coordinated tyrannical actions against U.S. citizens is a different story altogether, and also requires the full support of 2 million troops.  With this decision made, they potentially face 1 million professional and semi-professional defense troops, and some 90 million armed citizens that are not keen to the hostile takeover.

Time for my monthly rifle cleaning.

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