The Military Draft

The Army is the only branch of the US Armed forces which has relied on conscription, popularly known in the US as "The Draft." In 1973, at the end of the Vietnam War, Congress abolished the draft in favor of an all-volunteer Army (AVA).

The Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard are not meeting recruiting goals, and junior officers are not re-enlisting. Soldiers have been forced to fight in Iraq for long tours of duty, with little relief in sight.

These pressures have caused some leaders to insist that reinstating the draft is inevitable.

The draft was abandoned in 1973 in large part due to protests and a general belief that the draft was unfair: that it targeted less affluent members of society because, for example, of college deferments. However, that was not the first time Americans had protested a draft; that distinction belongs to the Civil War, with the most famous riots occurring in New York City in 1863.

Today the all-volunteer Army is criticized because its ranks of minorities are disproportionate to the general population and because recruiters target less affluent teenagers who have poor job prospects after graduation. It is also criticized for its access to the nation's youth; high schools and colleges that receive federal monies are required to allow recruiters on campus.

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"Army lieutenants and captains left the service [in 2004] at an annual rate of 8.7 percent — higher than any year since 2001," according to Seattle Times and yet "grunts" find their contracts extended for decades through what has been called a backdoor draft.

Stop-loss orders prevent soldiers from departing at the end of their contract. The military says this practice was authorized by Executive Order 13223 issued by President Bush on Sept. 14, 2001.

The government's fiscal year ends September 30, so the Army is two-thirds through its recruiting year. According to the Pentagon, the Army is 17 percent under goal; the Army Reserve, 20 percent; and the Army National Guard, 24 percent.

Moreover, 40 percent of the AVA are minorities; 23 percent are black.

However, the decline in recruitment has hit the minority component hard. The percent of blacks in each year's recruits has dropped steadily since 2001 (22.7 percent). For 2004, the percentage was 15.9 percent. In February 2005, the percentage was 13.9, closer to proportional representation.

Although this decline counters the argument that the all-volunteer Army is not representative, it does little to relieve the pressures on active duty servicemen.


Conscription for military service is a classic debate between individual liberty and duty to society. Democracies value individual liberty and choice; however, democracy does not come without costs. How should those costs be shared?

George Washington makes the case for mandatory service:

  • "... it must be laid down as a primary position and the basis of our (democratic) system, that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free Government owes not only a proportion of his property, but even his personal service to the defence of it.”

    It was this ethic that led the US to adopt mandatory militia service for white males in the late 1700s.

    The modern equivalent is voiced by Rep. Rangel (D-NY), a veteran of the Korean War:

    • I truly believe that those who make the decision and those who support the United States going into war would feel more readily the pain that's involved, the sacrifice that's involved, if they thought that the fighting force would include the affluent and those who historically have avoided this great responsibility...

      Those who love this country have a patriotic obligation to defend this country. For those who say the poor fight better, I say give the rich a chance.

    The Universal National Service Act (HR2723) would require all men and women aged 18-26 to perform military or civilian service "in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security, and for other purposes." The required term of service is 15 months.

    This differs from a draft lottery, however, as its goal is to apply equally to all.


    Modern warfare is "high tech" and has changed dramatically since Napolean's march to Russia, the battle of Normandy or the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. There is no longer a need for massive human cannon fodder. Thus one argument against the draft is that the Army needs highly skilled professionals, not just men with combat skills.

    When the Gates Commission recommended an all volunteer Army to President Nixon, one of the arguments was economic. Even though wages would be higher with the volunteer force, Milton Freedman argued that the net cost to society would be lower.

    In addition, the Cato Institute argues that selective service regisration, which was reauthorized under President Carter and extended under President Reagan, should also be eliminated:

    • The sign-up was always intended to quickly generate a large conscript army--similar to America's 13-million-man military in World War II--for a protracted conventional war against the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact centered in Europe. Today that kind of conflict is a paranoid fantasy. Consequently, the premium for registration "insurance" would be better spent elsewhere.

    And an early 1990s Congressional Research Service report says an expanded reserve corps is preferable to a draft:

    • A requirement for major increases in combat forces could be met much more quickly by activating more reserves than by instituting a draft. A draft would not provide the trained officers and non-commissioned officers to man effective units; it would only turn out freshly trained junior enlisted recruits.

      Where It Stands

      Even though there is a bill in Congress which would provide for compulsory national service for men and women age 18-26, the political climate for reviving the draft is hostile. President Bush has said:

      • Our all-volunteer army will remain an all-volunteer army... We will not have a draft... The only politicians that supported a draft are democrats, and the best way to avoid a draft is to vote for me.

      However, the nation is divided on the topic of the war in Iraq. A Nebraska Republican has joined in calling for a draft in order to spread the pain of service (sacrifice). Sheldon Richman expresses an uneasiness towards the draft in the same breath as uneasiness with the war:

      • The draft is a monstrous violation of individual liberty, and even a good motive cannot make it otherwise. In a free society no one should be compelled to take up arms, or be forced to kill or risk being killed... But who can blame prospective volunteers from doubting that there is a threat from Iraq? The Bush administration has yet to make a persuasive argument to that effect.

        And some are taking on Friedman's economic argument as well, noting that "informed consent" is missing from the equation as are any externalities associated with either compulsory or voluntary military service. An externality is an unintended or collateral cost (or benefit) to society as a whole that result from an action.

        Nevertheless, it is unlikely that a Republican-led Congress with a Republican President will pass and sign the legislation needed to reinstitute the draft ... at least not without a societal attitude shift along the lines of WWII.

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        Your Citation
        Gill, Kathy. "The Military Draft." ThoughtCo, Oct. 30, 2015, Gill, Kathy. (2015, October 30). The Military Draft. Retrieved from Gill, Kathy. "The Military Draft." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 24, 2017).