Military Conscription: Definition, History & Debate

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn how to define military conscription, discover its origins, and gain an understanding of why it is often a controversial public and political issue.

What is Military Conscription?

Throughout the 1960s, Americans were bitterly divided over the ongoing war in Vietnam. Some opposed the war on moral or ethical grounds, while others felt that it was the duty of the United States to fight against communism in Asia. For many young men, opposition to the war was, in some part, related to the fear that they could be drafted into the military and forced to go to Vietnam. The draft was a common part of what is known as military conscription, which is when a person is required to participate in their country's military service.

Though it is no longer active in the United States, military conscription is a common practice in countries such as Egypt, Cuba, and Brazil. The modern form of military conscription dates back to the French Revolution (1789-1799), in which young men were relied on to build the country's military. Throughout modern history, many countries have used systems of conscription that are modeled after the French.

U.S. Military conscription being determined through a lottery system, 1917.
1917 draft lottery

Although military conscription requires certain people to participate, there are a number of exceptions made for people with a chronic illness, college students, and other legitimate reasons for non-participation. One well-known reason that a person could be exempt is their status as a conscientious objector, which is a person who, for moral or religious reasons, refuses to engage in the military. For example, Mennonites, whose religion is fundamentally pacifist, would be exempt from military conscription.

Who Uses Military Conscription?

Though the United States abolished military conscription in 1975, it remains an important part of the nation's history. The U.S. has officially relied on military conscription on a number of occasions, including the Civil War, World War I and II, and the Vietnam War. Unofficially, the federal government has resorted to drafting citizens into military conscription during other times of war, such as the Revolutionary War.

In many countries, military conscription is only used during times of war. In some countries, however, military conscription is required regardless of whether or not the nation is at war. For example, in South Korea all young men between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to serve between 21 and 36 months in the military. There are few exceptions to this rule; however, individuals with a chronic physical or mental illness are not required to participate.

Another variation of conscription is practiced in Finland, in which military participation is required, but individuals are given the option of active military or civilian service. If someone chooses not to participate in active military service, they are given alternative service options, which could be an administrative or humanitarian role.

Opposition to Military Conscription

Though it is a significant part of many countries' military operations, military conscription can be a controversial issue. In the United States, for example, some people have criticized the practice on the grounds that it is a form of forced labor, which is prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Others who oppose military conscription do so because of economic reasons. From this perspective, military participation - particularly during peacetime - limits a person's ability to make a good living, which has a larger effect on that person's family and the nation's economy.

Nearing the close of the Vietnam War, the U.S. government came to the conclusion that opposition to the draft was damaging to military support structures and the war effort. This prompted President Nixon to begin lobbying Congress to deactivate the conscription system.

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