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Conscription is a general term for involuntary labor demanded by some established authority, but it is most often used in the specific sense of government policies that require citizens (often just males) to serve in their armed forces. It is known by various names—for example, the conscription program in the United States was known colloquially as "the draft." Those who believe in a world of peace and harmony have suggested that involuntary labor of this sort is akin to slavery.

Many nations do not maintain conscription forces, instead relying on a volunteer or professional military most of the time, although many of these countries still reserve the possibility of conscription for wartime and "crises" of supply. Others, regarding military service for a minimum time period to be the responsibility of every citizen, maintain the requirement. Arguments in favor of this system go beyond defense of the nation, and include such benefits as providing a rite of passage into adulthood and citizenship, engendering community-building and camaraderie among peers, and promoting patriotism.

While such outcomes may indeed be beneficial, both to the individuals and society as a whole, there are alternative methods of accomplishing them that do not involve training in the use of weapons of war, and the danger of patriotism that becomes intolerant of those from other nations. While it has been necessary in the past for nations to develop defense forces for the protection of their citizens, the establishment of a peaceful world requires that we be "conscripted" into training that breaks down the barriers between different nations and teaches all people to live in harmony.


Conscription is the act of forcing someone into military service. It derives from the more general term of involuntary labor demanded by an established authority. The word derives from the Latin conscriptionem, which refers to the gathering of troops by written orders, and conscribere, which means "to put a name on a list or roll, especially a list of soldiers." A person who becomes a member of the armed forces through the process of conscription is called a conscript.

Referring to forced service in the armed forces, the term "conscription" has two main meanings:

  • Forced service, usually of young men of a given age, such as 17–18 years, for a set period of time, commonly 1–2 years. In the United Kingdom and Singapore, this was commonly known as "national service;" in New Zealand, "compulsory military training" and later national service; in Norway, Safeguard Duty or 1st time service.
  • Forced service, for an indefinite period of time, in the context of a widespread mobilization of forces for fighting war, including on the home territory, usually imposed on men in a much wider age group (such as 18–45). This was referred to in the United States during the Vietnam War as "the draft;" in the United Kingdom this was commonly known as "call-up."

Strictly speaking, "the draft" is the process by which individuals are chosen for conscription; conscription being the actual compulsory induction of individuals into the armed services.

The term "conscription" refers only to the mandatory service; thus, those undergoing conscription are known as "conscripts" or "selectees" in the United States (from the Selective Service System or the Selective Service Initiative announced in 2004). This differentiates those who have volunteered for service, known as "enlisted" in the United States, in roles other than as commissioned officers.

Conscription typically involves individuals who are deemed fit for military service. At times, however, governments have instituted universal military service, in which all men or all people of a certain age are conscripted.


Required service in the military has existed since ancient times, including warriors in the Aztec Empire, citizen militiamen in ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire. Many countries in medieval Europe used a similar system to develop their military forces.

In Scandinavia, the institution known as Leidang was a public levy of free farmers that were organized into a coastal fleet for the purpose of defense, coerced trade, plunderings, and aggressive wars. Normally, the fleet levy was on expeditions for two or three summer months. All free men, namely the peasants, were obliged to take part in or contribute to the Leidang, and all Leidang were called to arms when invading forces threatened the land.

In Anglo-Saxon England, compulsory military service was employed on the local level in the fyrd, a militia of all able-bodied men that was called up from the districts threatened with attack. The system was developed by Alfred the Great in the ninth century. Service in the fyrd was usually of short duration and the participants were obliged to provide their own arms and provisions.

Corvée labor was an administrative practice primarily found in feudal societies, a type of annual tax payable as labor by the serf to the monarch, vassal, overlord, or lord of the manor. In addition to being used to complete royal projects, to maintain roads and other public facilities, and to provide labor to maintain the feudal estate, it was also used to conscript men into the military. The corvée was abolished in France on August 4, 1789, shortly after the beginning of the French Revolution, along with a number of other feudal privileges accorded to French landlords. From that time, most countries restricted corvée labor to military conscription and prison labor.

In the sixteenth century, Machiavelli, in his discussion of The Art of War, proposed that states should develop citizen militias, which would be much more reliable than the untrustworthy mercenary soldiers. Machiavelli despised the use of mercenaries and professional armies, which at this time were ravaging the divided Italian states. He argued that every able-bodied man in a nation was a potential soldier and could by means of conscription be required to serve in the armed forces. He recognized the connection between conscription and the creation of a nation, successfully bolstering patriotism.

Most governments have used conscription at some time, usually when the voluntary enlistment of soldiers failed to meet military needs. Conscription by national governments became widespread in Europe during the nineteenth century.

Origins of modern conscription

Modern conscription was invented during the French Revolution, allowing the Republic to defend itself from European monarchies' attacks. Deputy Jean-Baptiste Jourdan gave its name to the September 5, 1798 Act, whose first article stated: "Any Frenchman is a soldier and owes himself to the defense of the nation." It enabled the creation of the Grande Armée, what Napoleon Bonaparte called "the nation in arms," which successfully battled European professional armies.

The sending of conscripts to foreign wars that do not directly affect the security of the nation has been highly contentious in democracies. For instance, during World War I, bitter disputes broke out in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand over conscription. Canada also had a political dispute over conscription during World War II. Similarly, mass protests against conscription to fight the Vietnam War occurred in several countries in the late 1960s.

Communist countries, particularly the Soviet Union and its satellites, used conscription. The tradition continued in Russia and in numerous other countries formed in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Small countries often have mandatory military service, citing the inability to form a professional army of sufficient size. Israel is a small nation that maintains its Israeli Defense Force through conscription, deemed essential as a result of the various threats facing it in the Middle East. Neutral countries, in particular, institute conscription to organize an independent defense, that is, to eliminate the need for foreign support.

Large countries are able to create large professional armies. Possession of nuclear weapons also enables the country to use nuclear deterrent instead of a large regular army as the mainstay of defense. An alliance with others, such as a NATO membership, may also provide a "nuclear umbrella" that also allows a country to eschew large-scale conscription.

In the United States, the increasing emphasis on technological firepower and the sheer unlikelihood of a conventional military assault, as well as memories of the contentiousness of the Vietnam War experience, made the government unwilling to consider mass conscription. Also, the United States has a considerable nuclear weapons arsenal, and relies on nuclear deterrent. Nevertheless, the possibility and value of conscription as a deterrent to acts of war has been suggested on occasion.[1] Several developed nations, however, do not rely on nuclear deterrent and maintain conscription.


Arguments for conscription

The main arguments in favor of conscription normally center on rites of passage, manpower requirements, and improving quality.

Rites of passage

In many countries, conscription serves as a rite of passage. The prospective man is tested to see whether or not he can endure the hardships of military training and earn the right to be called a man. Military service, in countries that have it, may then be seen as the test of manhood. Conscription may inspire camaraderie, unifying a people: All able-bodied males together as a union have had the same experience and are soldiers, and that may create unity and team spirit within a nation. Some communitarians argue that peacetime conscription is an ideal tool for teaching the general population basic survival skills such as first aid, swimming, wilderness survival, and so on.

Some ideologies and cultures, especially in the East, and those based on collectivism or statism, value the society and common good above the life of an individual. Just as cells form a body, people form a society, and the interest of the society overcomes the interests of the individual, including his freedom and human rights; cells must die so that the human body can live. Those ideologies and world-views justify the state to force its members to protect itself and risk their lives and limbs for the common good. In states based on society-centered ideologies, world-views, and religions, conscription is the natural way of raising the army.


Small countries have several options to raise a sizable army. One is to put every able-bodied man under arms. This is how Switzerland managed to stay independent despite repeated attacks throughout history. The Swiss militias were so successful that their fighting style and weapons (especially the halberd) were quickly adopted by their enemies. This in turn made the Swiss very popular as mercenaries; many rulers even raised Swiss Guards. The rich Flemish trade cities of the early fourteenth century raised huge militias that could even defeat armies of knights. The famous Battle of the Golden Spurs (1302) is a good example.

Conscription becomes necessary in a total war. Total war means harnessing the entire nation for warfare. In that viewpoint, the citizens exist solely to support the nation, and citizens are nothing but resource supplies for the nation's war machinery. The conscription can be seen as the natural way to rely on man's role for the society: Each and every able-bodied male is first and foremost a soldier and only secondarily a citizen. In the extreme, peace can be seen as nothing short of preparation period for new war and repairing the damage and re-arming the armed forces.


The personnel diversity of the conscript force is considered its greatest strength. Admittedly, there are persons who would not be employed by a professional force, but these are a minority and in extreme cases can be discharged for medical reasons. The conscript force may also receive the best of the youth, who would never join a professional army.

Many conscripts are from such social strata that they would have much more lucrative employment or would be studying, were they not obliged to serve. These persons provide talented manpower that can easily be trained for technical and leadership duties. As junior and commissioned and non-commissioned officer positions are filled with leadership-trained conscripts, the size and cost of the professional cadre is much smaller. As these ex-conscripts, as reservists, mature and lose their fighting fitness, they can be subsequently retrained and given emergency positions corresponding to their civilian expertise. For example, a transport manager who is a reserve officer might serve as a battalion logistics chief during wartime.[2] The leadership-trained conscripts can also be recruited to the regular forces. The Israeli Defense Forces are based on conscription and its excellent performance is often explained by the quality of the manpower.

Conscripts come from various backgrounds and might have differing opinions and views. A diverse group is arguably more likely to succeed at any task. Still, the frequently lower morale and experience of conscripts may make them less useful in actual combat situations. This was witnessed in the Vietnam War and Soviet-Afghan War.

Arguments against conscription

Arguments against conscription focus on issues of slavery, discrimination, and discipline problems.


Conscription subjects individual personalities to militarism. It is a form of servitude. That nations routinely tolerate it, is just one more proof of its debilitating influenceAlbert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, and Thomas Mann in Against Conscription and the Military Training of Youth—1930

Some groups, such as libertarians, say that conscription constitutes slavery, since it is mandatory work.[3] Under the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, slavery or other involuntary servitude is not allowed unless it is part of punishment for a crime. They therefore see conscription as unconstitutional (at least in the U.S.) and immoral. Nonetheless, in 1918, the Supreme Court ruled that the World War I draft did not violate the United States Constitution.[4]

Conscription even ends up mirroring many of the infamous traits of chattel slavery in the American South; one's life is in the hands of those giving orders, to be sacrificed at will, one can be severely punished, even imprisoned, beaten, or killed, for trying to escape. Capital punishment has been commonly used as means of maintaining morale and keeping discipline in conscription armies but is currently not used in contemporary Western countries with conscription in peacetime.

In the USSR, most of the conscripts received only very basic training and were used for forced labor unrelated to actual military service—usually digging up potatoes in the field at zero wage cost. This contributed to the lack of incentives for the Soviet planned economy system to produce better combined harvesting machines and Soviet agriculture remained low-tech. In Soviet-bloc Hungary, more than half of pre-1989 conscripts received a mere few weeks of rifle training and were swiftly assigned to "working squadrons," which usually hand-built rail tracks "for free," and in very poor quality. At the same time, railway tracks in Western Europe were being built to high-quality standards by semi-automatic, rail-rolling factories operated by a professional workforce.


Conscription is usually limited to young people, and the burden of conscription is almost never spread equally across all age groups. The youngest people considered qualified are usually conscripted first. Opponents of ageism, and advocates of youth liberation, argue that age-based military conscription is the most severe disparity on the basis of age of any government mandate on individuals. Even in countries with elected governments, conscripts are often too young to be allowed to vote or participate in decisions on whether to go to war or to impose or set policies for conscription. The Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which lowered the voting age to 18, was proposed and approved largely in response to criticism of conscription based on the unfairness of drafting men too young to be allowed to vote. But draft-age voters in the U.S. are still overwhelmingly outnumbered by voters considered to be too old to be conscripted.

Traditionally, conscription has been limited to only the male population. Women and non-able-bodied males have been exempted from conscription. While many societies have traditionally considered conscription as a test of manhood and a rite of passage from boyhood into manhood—"making boys into men"—most modern nations see this as a bizarre carryover from savage tribes promoting militarism. Since young men spend several months or perhaps years in unpaid service as unfree subjects while young women can at the same time study, work, establish families, and find their niche in society, conscription is more and more considered as an unfair and sexist institution that punishes boys for being born as males. Conscription certainly imposes on the freedom of the individual and although some conscripts feel that they benefited from the experience others feel that their time could have been spent more productively pursuing their chosen studies or career paths.[5]

Discipline problems

No army can work without discipline. The discipline can either arise from the esprit de corps motivation of the soldiers, or be imposed and pressed on the troops. Volunteers seldom have disciplinary problems, but people pressed into the service against their will have little other motivation to serve than personal survival. As motivation is based on coercion, the discipline in conscript armies is often harsh, and punishments severe.

Consequently, conscript armies are more likely to mutiny than all-volunteer forces, and can in extreme cases turn against their own, the Vlasov army being the ultimate example. Discipline problems become especially problematic when the ablest youth are forced to serve against their will under the authority of people they consider untalented, unfit, or simply because of unquestioned authority. This was seldom a problem in the period of Industrialism when only the upper social classes had access to higher education, but proved problematic in the Vietnam War when college students were conscripted to fight as privates under non-commissioned officers who seldom had any higher education. As the troops felt they were being led into danger by leaders less intelligent than themselves morale sank low, leading to an erosion of discipline, culminating in violence and even murders.

Avoiding conscription

Avoiding conscription is possible by a number of means, including obtaining the status of conscientious objector, evading the draft, or deserting the army once conscripted.

A conscientious objector is an individual whose personal beliefs are incompatible with military service, or sometimes with any role in the armed forces. In some countries, conscientious objectors have special legal status, which augments their conscription duties. For example, Sweden allows conscientious objectors to choose a service in the "weapons-free" branch, such as an airport firefighter, nurse, or telecommunications technician. Some may also refuse such service as they feel that they still are a part of the military complex. The reasons for refusing to serve are varied. Some conscientious objectors are so for religious reasons—notably, the members of the historic peace churches are pacifist by doctrine, and Jehovah's Witnesses, while not strictly speaking pacifists, refuse to participate in the armed services on the grounds that they believe Christians should be neutral in worldly conflicts.

Not everyone who is conscripted is willing to go to war. In the United States, especially during the Vietnam Era, many young people used their family's political connections to ensure that they were placed well away from any potential harm. Those with political influence often joined the military and served in what was termed a "Champagne unit." Many would avoid military service altogether through college deferments, by becoming fathers, feigning homosexuality, obtaining a medical clearance, or serving in various exempt jobs (teaching was one possibility). Others also left the country before being drafted.

Some conscripts who were registered for military service, nevertheless failed to arrive at induction and were listed as Absent Without Leave (AWOL). Others simply deserted while in uniform, or handed their weapons over to the enemy. During the Angolan War, the African National Congress (ANC) called for South African soldiers to desert.


  1. CNN, Rangel calls for mandatory military service. Retrieved July 21, 2007.
  2. In Finnish, Puolustusvoimat: Varusmieheksi 2006. Retrieved February 8, 2007.
  3. The Site of the Sentient, Slavery in the Modern United States? Retrieved June 28, 2007.
  4. FindLaw, ARVER v. U.S. , 245 U.S. 366 (1918). Retrieved June 28, 2007.
  5. BBC, France salutes end of military service. Retrieved September 29, 2006.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Flynn, George. 2001. Conscription and Democracy: The Draft in France, Great Britain, and the United States. Greenwood Press. ISBN 031331912X
  • Mjoset, Lars. 2002. The Comparative Study of Conscription in the Armed Forces. JAI Press. ISBN 0762308362
  • Moore, Albert. 1996. Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy. University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 1570031525
  • Sanborn, Joshua. Drafting the Russian Nation: Military Conscription, Total War, and Mass Politics, 1905-1925. Northern Illinois University Press. ISBN 0875803067
  • Zurcher, Erik. 1999. Arming the State: Military Conscription in the Middle East and Central Asia, 1775-1925. I.B. Tauris. ISBN 186064404X

External links

All links retrieved March 20, 2017.


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