In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Occupations and Military Government

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Data Sources
  • Early Modern Period to the French Revolution
  • Napoleonic Wars
  • Mexican War
  • American Civil War
  • Spanish-American War
  • World War I
  • Occupations of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Timor
  • War in Afghanistan
  • War in Iraq

Military History Occupations and Military Government
Bianka Adams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0102


According to international law, a territory is under occupation when hostile armed forces assume authority over it. An occupying power exercises executive, legislative, and judicial authority over that territory if and when the legitimate government is absent, unable to perform its functions, or fails to perform its functions. The administration of an enemy’s territory by an occupying power is generally referred to as a “military government,” which may consist of military or civilian personnel, or of a combination of military and civilian personnel. In recent years in the United States, successive administrations have sidestepped the term “military government” as too fraught with negative connotations and have, in effect, replaced it with “reconstruction and stabilization” and “nation building.” While politically expedient and more palatable to a skeptical American electorate, US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular, were and are military governments that have engaged in reconstruction and stabilization in combination with attempts at nation building. An occupation, even if it lasts for years, is of limited duration and ends when the occupying power withdraws its occupation forces after returning authority over a territory to a legitimate, sovereign government. To avoid confusing occupation and military government with other forms of military engagements on foreign territory, this definition does not cover cases in which military forces have been stationed in neutral or friendly territory and share with local civil authorities the responsibilities of administration; humanitarian assistance or peacekeeping missions; military interventions; or occupations for the purpose of annexation or colonial exploitation. Other distinctions necessary to aid in the understanding of military governments and occupations are the legal premises. International law as codified in the Hague Convention of 1907 and the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) provides guidance for military governments and occupations. The relevance of these conventions in specific situations must be distinguished from the use of military law and martial law. Military law is the code that regulates the conduct of members of the armed forces, whereas martial law is the temporary government of a civil population through military forces, and it is invoked only in domestic territory.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government, the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, or the US Army Corps of Engineers.

General Overviews

The history of military government and occupation is usually limited to the study of either the occupying power, which may or may not occupy several countries at the same time, or the occupied nation or nations. Treatments that take a broader approach to the topic will generally consist of case studies of individual occupations and military governments, on which the authors base their conclusions about success or failure, philosophy, legal underpinnings, or other aspects. Three of the volumes discussed are the published proceedings of conferences on military government and occupation held in Germany, Canada, and the United States. Prete and Ion 1984, Neumann and Rogge 2006, and US Army Training and Doctrine Command and Combat Studies Institute 2003 provide succinct analyses of a wide array of international occupations and of the most important US experiences with occupation and military government. Dobbins, et al. 2003 and Dobbins, et al. 2005 concentrate on United States and United Nations post–World War II occupations, concluding that the UN generally achieved better results. Edelstein 2010 and Stirk 2009 arrive at conclusions about the inverse relationship of the length of an occupation to its success, while Gannon 2008 focuses on resistance to occupation.

  • Dobbins, James, Seth G. Jones, Keith Crane, et al. The UN’s Role in Nation-Building: From the Congo to Iraq. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2005.

    This study complements Dobbins, et al. 2003. It compares and contrasts US and UN approaches to nation-building, with a pronounced bias in favor of UN efforts.

  • Dobbins, James, John G. McGinn, Keith Crane, et al. America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2003.

    Good introductory treatment, including “lessons learned,” of post–World War II US-led occupations in Germany, Japan, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

  • Edelstein, David M. Occupational Hazards: Success and Failure in Military Occupation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010.

    Very useful overview of twenty-six occupations since 1815, including four recent examples in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Edelstein’s analysis concentrates on the difficulties occupations present for both the occupied and the occupying nation the longer the occupation lasts.

  • Gannon, James. Military Occupations in the Age of Self-Determination: The History Neocons Neglected. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008.

    Despite its provocative title, the book offers a scholarly analysis of the US occupation of Iraq in the context of other post–World War II occupations that met with serious resistance from indigenous insurgent groups.

  • Neumann, Markus, and Jörg Rogge, eds. Die besetzte Res publica: zum Verhältnis von ziviler Obrigkeit und militärischer Herrschaft in besetzten Gebieten vom Spätmittelalter bis zum 18. Jahrhundert. Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2006.

    Dutch, French, and German authors explore a diverse array of occupations, from the Mongolian conquest of Bukhara, to the Dutch occupation of Lille, to a Branschweigian garrison in Canada. While most chapters focus on European occupations, they examine different aspects within the context of these occupations, such as occupied populations’ allegiance to their foreign military occupiers and local administrative innovation.

  • Prete, Roy A., and A. Hamish Ion. Armies of Occupation. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1984.

    Collection of seven essays dealing with experiences of different armies of occupation, including the 18th-century British occupation of New France in Canada, the late-19th-century French occupation of Sudan, the German occupation of Poland and Norway in World War II, and the postwar US occupation of Japan.

  • Stirk, Peter M. R. The Politics of Military Occupation. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748636716.001.0001

    Using case studies, the author examines the relationship between occupiers and occupied and draws conclusions about the inverted relation between an occupation’s duration and its success. The longer the occupation lasts, he concludes, the less successful it is.

  • US Army Training and Doctrine Command, and Combat Studies Institute. Armed Diplomacy: Two Centuries of American Campaigning; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 5–7 August 2003. Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2003.

    This volume presents concise analyses of the most significant US occupation experiences, ranging from the American Civil War to Afghanistan.

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