The Military Draft

Updated: August 18, 2020
In this Article

    In the 21st century, the United States of America has never experienced a situation that required the use of military conscription, also known as “the draft,” which is a slang term for the American system called Selective Service.

    Is there still a draft and are America’s service-age citizens at risk for being drafted? The answers might surprise you.

    The American Selective Service System

    Many countries have used conscription to fill the ranks of their military forces. Conscription is generally defined by Merriam-Webster as, “compulsory enrollment of persons especially for military service” with an emphasis on the compulsory aspect. Citizens are traditionally subject to punishment (which often includes imprisonment) for evading conscription.

    The Selective Service is the branch of government responsible for signing up citizens for the draft; most adult male citizens and immigrants between the ages of 18 and 25 must register even today.

    We’ll explain why that may be a surprise to some below, but what you should know about the Selective Service as it operates today is that while registration is required, there is no active draft at press time. The Selective Service requires registration but no placement or draft lottery (see below) is active.

    That means that when you register for the draft, you meet the legal requirements of all American citizens and immigrants, but are not subject to having your name called to enter military service.

    That does NOT mean a draft will never happen again in the future, but it does mean that for all intents and purposes (in conditions present for the entirety of the 21st century to date) you are signing your name to a roster and little else.

    Naturally that changes if the country enters a full-scale war requiring mobilization of a vast number of troops. But as things have existed to date, the draft is a formality. An important one, but a formality nonetheless. Why?


    A Brief History Of The Military Draft

    Conscription has happened in America from the earliest days of its existence. Conscripts served during the Revolutionary War, and a draft system was used in World War One.

    The difference in those two cases is that the systems used were not maintained at war’s end. Ironically, the first American “permanent” draft system was developed in peacetime, just before America’s entry into the Second World War.

    At the end of World War Two the draft was allowed to expire as in years past, but two years later the system was revived due to Cold War issues and it has remained ever since. The draft was active in this version from 1945 to 1973.

    America’s experiences in Vietnam led to a major shift in thinking about conscription and there were voices among DoD leadership discussing the importance of an all-volunteer force to maintain good order, discipline, and to avoid problems associated with conscription that were unique to the Vietnam War, but that could crop up again should similar conditions arise.

    The draft was placed on “standby” mode.

    Suspended Sign-Ups

    During this time, registrations where actually suspended and the Selective Service official site describes a period of time in this era where the program was considered to be on “deep standby” until an overhaul of the system began at the end of the 1970s.

    Registration resumed in 1980, and at the time of this writing all U.S. males are required to register within 30 days of their 18th birthday.

    You read the above correctly; in spite of many changes to the United States military including the use of women in combat and other important ways the military has evolved with society the Selective Service only registers U.S. males.

    Lawmakers have introduced measures to change this, but at the time of this writing the Selective Service official site still refers only to requirements for male citizens and immigrants to register.

    Trouble With The U.S. Draft

    The U.S. draft has not been without controversy. The Vietnam War saw many college-age students burning their draft cards, fleeing to Canada or elsewhere, and basically refusing to serve. Part of this came from a feeling that America was involved in an unjust war, or that America was involved in a huge waste of lives and resources by participating.

    There were also arguments that the draft disproportionately affected the poor, people of color, and those who could not buy their way out of the draft (a common perception at the time) or otherwise legally obtain an exemption.

    The anti-war movement was so strong that it forced DoD leadership to rethink conscription altogether. But lest we repeat history by denying it, a look back to the Civil War Military Draft Act of 1863, which called for all men between 20 and 45 to register to serve in the war.

    But this act affected the poor disproportionately thanks to the fact that it was possible for moneyed citizens to pay someone else to take their place, and there was also an option to pay $300 Civil War-era dollars for an exemption.

    Civil War-Era Draft Riots

    The fact that the poor were bearing the brunt of Civil War service in this way caused outrage and rioting. In fact, the term “draft riot” is often used to describe circumstances where these tensions boiled over.

    More than 100 people were killed in the New York Draft Riots in July of 1863. It’s easy to assume that riots, protests, and civil unrest of such scale is a 21st century phenomenon and that today’s unrest has no real historic precedent. A look back to the Civil War riots proves otherwise.

    Today the draft still technically exists; registration is required and a roster is maintained. But no draft lottery (the means by which people on the list are selected to serve at random or by a specified system of impartial selection) does not occur. That means that when you sign up for Selective Service, your name and contact information is on a list “just in case.”


    Do You Need To Register For The Selective Service?

    If you are a male in the United States, you are required by federal law to register with the Selective Service unless you meet one of the categories where exemptions are made. Members of the active duty military, regardless of age, are not required to sign up, for example.

    Nor are cadets and midshipmen at the Naval Academy or other military service academies. Reservists, Guard members, Civil Air Patrol members, and others who are not on active duty are required to register.

    Seasonal agricultural workers, lawful non-immigrants on current non-immigrant visas, and transgender people who identify as male are also exempted. Transgender people who identify as female are NOT exempt from the Selective Service according to the Selective Service official site, which adds that illegal immigrants are also required to sign up for the draft.

    Those who are incarcerated, hospitalized, or institutionalized for medical reasons are also exempt but must register within 30 days of release unless the patient is 26 years old on release.

    Why Was I Contacted By Mail By The Selective Service?

    You may be prompted by mail to register; the Selective Service may get contact information about you from a variety of government agencies and you could get mail from the agency as a result of shared personal data from the following agencies:

    • Department of Motor Vehicles
    • Department of Education
    • Department of Homeland Security
    • Department of Labor’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act or Job Corps Program
    • Department of Defense recruiting agencies
    • Public high schools

    What Happens If You Do Not Register

    Those who do not register are in violation of the Military Selective Service Act. This is a felony, but it has been many years since a case was prosecuted. Those who are successfully convicted of evading the draft can be incarcerated for up to five years and fined up to a quarter of a million dollars. However, there are more direct penalties for failing to register–you can be declared ineligible for certain federal programs that include, but are not limited to, the following:

    • Federal jobs
    • Citizenship programs
    • Federal Pell Grants
    • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants
    • Direct Stafford Loans/Plus Loans
    • National Direct Student Loans
    • College Work Study

    Where To Register For The Selective Service

    All U.S. males who are required to sign up for the Selective Service should explore the registration page at the Selective Service official site.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team