Conscription is a general term for involuntary labor demanded by some established authority, e.g, Old Testament commentaries use the term to describe the levies of labor used to build the Temple, but it is most often used in the specific sense of government policies that require citizens to serve in their armed forces. It is known by various names — for example, the most recent conscription program in the United States was known colloquially as "the draft". Many nations do not maintain conscription forces, instead relying on a volunteer, or professional military, although many of these countries still reserve the possibility of conscription for wartime and "crises" of supply.
In the United Kingdom, Australia and elsewhere the term conscription is generally used only during wartime. National Service was the term used in peace-time. A shortage of miners in the UK during war-time saw also men conscripted as mine workers – the "Bevin Boys". In Japan during World War II, Japanese women and children were conscripted to work in factories.
The term "conscription" refers only to the mandatory service, thus those undergoing conscription are known as "conscripts" or "selectee" in the United States (from the Selective Service System or the Selective Service Initiative announced in 2004).
"Enlisted" personnel are members of the armed forces who are not commissioned officers. The term is often used to refer only to those who have volunteered for service.
Conscription, particularly when the conscripts are being sent to foreign wars that do not directly affect the security of the nation, has historically been highly politically contentious in democracies. For instance, during World War I, bitter political disputes broke out in Canada (see Conscription Crisis of 1917), Newfoundland, Australia and New Zealand over conscription. Canada also had a political dispute over conscription during World War II (see Conscription Crisis of 1944). Similarly, mass protests against conscription to fight the Vietnam War occurred in several countries in the late 1960s. (See also: Conscription Crisis)
In developed nations, the increasing emphasis on technological firepower and better-trained fighting forces, the sheer unlikelihood of a conventional military assault on most developed nations, as well as memories of the contentiousness of the Vietnam War experience, make mass conscription unlikely in the foreseeable future.
Most countries only draft men, although some (e.g., Israel) also draft women. Some have considered the practice of excluding women from the draft unfair, because they feel it goes against principles of equality. During World War II women were drafted into the armed forces of the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. The United States came close to drafting women into the Nurse Corps in preparation for a planned invasion of Japan; the Japanese surrender made this unnecessary.
The non-egalitarian policy of drafting men and not women has often been a flash point and source of conflict. This policy is often cited by masculists as an example of an unfair policy which benefits women over men. Aprehension about the possible conscription of women was a key factor that led to the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States.
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 conscientous objectors to choose a service in the "weapons-free" branch, services which will prove useful during an invasion, such as an airport fireman, nurse or telecommunications technician. The reasons for refusing to serve are varied. Many conscientious objectors are so for religious reasons — notably, the Quakers 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 (also see Conscientious objection).
The provisions for conscientious objection to the draft have been viewed as unfairly descriminatory, favoring religious objection over non-religious objection, and favoring those who value peace and non-violence over those who value freedom. Alternative mandatory service can assuage objections based on peace and non-violence, but do nothing for those who objections arise from strongly held convictions about freedom.
Not everyone who was conscripted was willing to go to war. Many young people used their family's political connections to ensure that they were placed well away from any potential harm. They would avoid military service altogether through college deferments. Others with political influence often joined the military and served in what was termed a Champagne unit. Others used educational exemptions, or became conscientious objectors. Others also pretended to be conscientious objectors. For others, the most common method of avoiding the draft was to cross the border into another country. People who have been "called up" for military service and who attempted to avoid it in some way, were known as "draft-dodgers". U.S. draft-dodgers made their way to Canada or Mexico. Australian draft-dodgers had greater difficulty leaving their country due to the surrounding ocean, but "going bush" worked just as well in the short term for many of them.
Many people looked upon draft-dodgers with scorn as being "cowards", but some supported them in their efforts.
The Vietnam War saw new levels of opposition to conscription and National Service. Many people opposed to and facing conscription, chose to either plead conscientious objection or to evade the draft by fleeing to a neutral country. A small proportion, like Muhammad Ali, chose to publicly and politically fight conscription. In Australia this was known as the Draft Resistance Movement.
Countries with mandatory military service
A number of countries have mandatory military service:
Belarus has mandatory military service for all fit men from 18 to 27 years of age. Military service lasts for 18 months for those without higher education, and for 12 months for those with higher education.
Brazil has mandatory military service for men from the age of 18 to 30. However, conscientious objection is allowed. When men register they can opt for which branch they would like to serve in.
Bulgaria has mandatory military service for male citizens from 18 to 27 years of age. Currently (2004) the duration of the service depends on the degree of education. For citizens studying for or holding a bachelor degree or higher the service is 6 months, and for citizens with no higher education it is 9 months. During the last 10 years the duration of service has rapidly dropped (from 2 years in 1994) and as Bulgaria adopts a professional army mandatory service is expected to be replaced with voluntary service.
The People's Republic of China technically has conscription for both men and women. Women who are conscripted go into the army for two months and learn to use firearms.
Croatian law prescribes military service for male citizens from 18 to 27 years old. The duration of the normal military service is six months (as of 2004), while conscientious objectors can apply for civil service which lasts for eight months. Conscription is regularly postponed for students until the end of their studies, as long as they apply before they turn 28 years of age.
Over the last decade or so, the duration of military service has been halved and civil service was introduced together with the streamlining of the professional army. Should this trend continue, the mandatory service may eventually be completely replaced with voluntary service.
Cyprus has compulsory military service for all Greek Cypriot men between the ages of 18 and 50. Military service lasts for 25 months. After that, ex-soldiers are considered reservists and participate in military exercises for a few days every year. Conscientious objectors can either do 33 months unarmed service in the army or 38 months community work. See official pages by the Greek Cypriot National Guard. In North Cyprus there is compulsory military service for Turkish Cypriots. The Annan Plan for Cyprus that was rejected in the 2004 reunification referendum mandated the demilitarisation of the island and the disbanding of both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot forces.
Egypt has a mandatory military service program for males between the ages of 18 and 28. Females of comparable age serve in a civilian program. Conscription is regularly postponed for students until the end of their studies, as long as they apply before they turn 28 years of age. By the age of 30 a male is considered unfit to join the army and pays a fine. Males serve for a period ranging from 24 months to 48 months depending on their education; high school dropouts serve for 48 months during which they finish their high-school education. College graduates serve for lesser periods of time, depending on their education, and college graduates with special skills are still conscripted yet at a different rank and with a different pay scale with the option of remaining with the service as a career. Some Egyptians evade conscription and travel overseas until they reach the age of 30, at which point they are tried, pay a $580 fine (as of 2004), and are dishonorably relieved of their obligation to serve in the army. Such an offense, legally considered an offense of "bad moral character", prevents the "unpatriotic" citizen from ever holding public office.
Eritrea has a mandatory military service program for both men and women aged 18 through 40. The term of service is 18 months. There is no alternate service. The Eritrean government is well-known for hunting down and torturing suspected draft evaders. Draft evaders often flee the country to nearby countries.
As of 2004, Finland has mandatory military service for men of at least six months, depending on the assigned position: those trained as officers or NCOs serve for twelve months, specialty troops serve for nine or twelve months, and other rank and file serve for six months. Unarmed service is also possible, and lasts eleven months. Women can serve voluntarily. Non-military service of thirteen months is available in lieu of military service. Men who opt for neither are sent to open prison where they may work and study for a period of six months. Jehovah's Witnesses and citizens from the demilitarized Åland region do not have to serve. Military service has been mandatory for men throughout the history of independent Finland since 1917.
- Main article at Conscription in Germany
Germany has mandatory military service of nine months for men. Women may volunteer and are allowed to perform the same jobs as men. A conscientious objector may petition for permission to do civilian "alternative service" (Ersatzdienst) or "(alternative) civilian service" (Zivildienst) instead for nine months, which is usually accepted. A third option is to become a foreign "development helper" (Entwicklungshelfer) for at least eighteen months. Overall, however, during the past few years, the number of men being drafted has declined significantly.
Save for a few exceptions, military service is compulsory for all men between the ages of 18 and 23 years. Those who are engaged in educational or vocational training programs prior to their military assessment are allowed to postpone service until they have completed the programs and can be called upon to perform their national duty at any time thereafter.
- Main article at Conscription in Greece
As of 2004, Greece (Hellenic Republic) has mandatory military service of 12 months for men. However, it is developing a professional army system, and it is widely expected that the mandatory military service will be cut to 6 months by 2008 or even abolished completely. Although women are accepted into the Greek army, they are not obliged to join as men are. Soldiers receive no health insurance, but they can receive medical support during their army service, including hospitalization costs. They receive a symbolic salary of approximately 9 euros per month for privates, 12 euros for the rank of draft corporal and draft sergeant, and 600 euros as a draft cadet. The wages are not sufficient to sustain a draftee serving his tour away from his place of residence and most draftees depend financially on their parents to support them financially while they are on their tour.
Israel has mandatory military service for both Jewish men and women not married by the conscription age; some ethnic and religious groups are exempt. Typically, men serve for 36 months, women serve for 21 months. See also: Israel Defence Forces.
There are growing numbers of refuseniks who resist military service, particularly in the Occupied Territories, some of them serving prison terms as a result. See also: Refusal to serve in the Israeli military.
As of 2004, Malaysia has mandatory national service of three months for a selected group of both men and women. Twenty per cent of 18-year-olds are selected through a lottery system to join this program. Trainees are not trained to use firearms. The first training date was February 16, 2004. See Official Information from Malaysia National Service Training Department.
Currently, all males reaching 18 years of age must register for military service (Servicio Militar Nacional, or SMN) of one year, though selection is made by a lottery system using the following color scheme: whoever draws a black ball must serve as a "disponibility reservist", that is, they must not follow any activities whatsoever and get their discharge card at the end of the year. The ones who get a white ball serve in a Batallón del Servicio Militar Nacional (National Military Service Battallion) composed entirely of one-year SMN conscripts. Those with a community service interest may participate in Literacy Campaigns as teachers, or as Phys-Ed instructors. Military service is also (voluntarily) open to women. In certain cities, such as Mexico City and Veracruz, there is a third option: a red ball (Mexico City) and a Blue ball (Veracruz), which entails serving a full year as a recruit in a Paratrooper Battalion in the case of Mexico City residents, or a Infantería de Marina unit (Navy Marines) in Veracruz. In other cities which have a Navy HQ (such as Ciudad Madero), it is the Navy which takes charge of the conscripts, instead of the Army.
Norway has mandatory military service of 18 months for men between the ages of 18 (17 with parental consent) and 44. The actual draft time is 6 months for the national guard, and 9–12 months for the regular army, air force, and navy. The remaining months are supposed to be served in annual exercises, but very few conscripts do this due to lack of funding to the Norwegian armed forces. The decreased funding and greater reliance on high technology in the armed forces has resulted in only a third of the male population completing the service (since the late 1990's). The remaining two thirds have mostly formally been dismissed after medical tests or obtained deferral of the service due to studies or stays abroad. The Norwegian armed forces will normally not draft a person who has reached the age of 28. In Norway certain voluntary specialist training programs entail extended conscription of one to eight years. Pacifists can apply for non-military service, lasting 18 months. Women can volunteer for military service in any part of the armed forces.
Poland has a compulsory service term of 12 months for all mature men. However, many of those are considered unfit for mandatory military service during peacetime. Effectively, only a few thousand men are drafted each autumn. Alternative service can be requested, e.g. in the police force.
Romania still has conscription. Even though in 2003 an amendment to the Constitution was advertised as making military service facultative, it only changed the way it is regulated, by organic law instead of the Constitution. In March 2004, the Parliament passed a law which increased the sentence for draft-dodgers, despite opposition protests. Men serve for 12 months (6 months if they have graduated a form of higher education). As of 2004, conscripts no longer serve in the Romanian Navy.
As of 2002, Russia (Russian Federation) has a mandatory two-year draft but some Russians avoid it. See Only 11 percent of Russian men enter mandatory military service.
In Singapore, the NS (Amendment) Act was passed on 14 March 1967, under which all able-bodied male citizens of 18–21 years of age are required serve a compulsory military service of two years. Upon completion of full-time NS, they undergo reservist training cycles of 40 days a year for the next 13 years.
Singapore, which currently has a mandatory service period of 24 months, used to have one of the longest mandatory military service periods for males, at 30 months. It also has special policies for ethnic Malays, because of possible conflicts in allegiances with neighbour Malaysia. Some of the Malays are drafted into the police or Civil Defense. Further conscription liability in the form of reservist training extends annually for another 10–15 years. From 1st December 2004, it has been shortened by 6 months.
See National Service
In Sweden military service is mandatory for men only. As of 2002, Sweden's government asked the army to consider mandatory military service for women. Less than one third of the country's eligible 19-year-olds are actually drafted each year. See Sweden considers mandatory military service for women. Men may choose to do unarmed service, for instance as a firefighter. Generally, unarmed service is longer than armed.
Switzerland has the largest militia army in the world (220,000 including reserves). Military service for Swiss men is obligatory according to the Federal Constitution, and includes 17 weeks of basic training as well as annual 3-week-refresher courses until a number of service days which increases with rank (260 days for privates) is reached. Service for women is voluntary, but identical in all respects. Conscientious objectors can choose 450 days of community service instead of military service. Medical deferments and dismissals from basic training (often on somewhat dubious grounds) have increased significantly in the last years. Therefore, only about 33% of Swiss men actually complete basic training.
The Republic of China has had mandatory military service for all males since 1949. Females in the outlying islands of Fujian must also serve. From January 2004, the mandatory service was shortened by two months.
In Turkey, compulsory military service applies to all male citizens from 20 to 41 years of age (with some exceptions). Those who are engaged in higher education or vocational training programs prior to their military drafting are allowed to delay service until they have completed the programs. The duration of the basic military service varies. As of July 2003, the reduced durations are as follows: 15 months for privates (previously 18 months), 12 months for reserve officers (previously 16 months) and 6 months for short-term privates, which denotes those who have earned a university degree and not have been enlisted as reserve officers (previously 8 months).
For Turkish citizens who have lived or worked abroad of Turkey for at least three years, on condition that they pay a certain fee in foreign currencies, a basic military training of one month is offered instead of the full-term military service. Also, when the General Staff assesses that the military reserve exceeds the required amount, paid military service of one-month's basic training is established.
Although women have in principle no military service, they are allowed to become officers.
Refusing the obligatory military service due to conscientious objection is illegal in Turkey, and punishable with imprisonment by law.
The options include officer of reserve training for two years offered in universities as a part of a program, or one year regular service.
In Venezuela, all citizens over 18 should report to the local military authority for evaluation. If the citizen can provide enough proof that they should not serve (They are college students, or have medical reason not to) they are exempt. However if they cannot prove this, they are conscripted and must serve up to 2 years of mandatory military service.
Raids are usually made in night clubs and other nocturnal entertainment places to check whether or not men inside are 'registered' as reservists.
Countries that do not currently have mandatory military service (partial list)
- See main article: History of Australian conscription
Belgium abolished military conscription in the early 1990s.
France was one of the first nations to employ conscription, since during the wars following the French Revolution the army needed men to stop Austrian and British invasions. France abolished peacetime military conscription in 2001 (see related BBC News article); since the Algerian War of Independence, conscripts had not been deployed abroad or in war zones, except those volunteering for such deployments.
Hungary abolished mandatory military service by November 2004, after the parliament had modified the constitution, ending a long-standing political dispute. To restore drafting, a two-thirds vote in parliament is needed, which is unlikely in the short term. The country is currently developing a professional army, with strong emphasis on "contract soldiers" who voluntarily serve 4+4 years for a wage.
India has not had mandatory military service since her independence in 1947.
Saddam Hussein's large Iraqi army was largely composed of conscripts, except for the elite Republican Guard. About 100,000 conscripts died during the First Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm. Following the Second Gulf War, the Iraqi Army was recreated as a volunteer force.
Ireland has always had a fully volunteer military. See the Irish Defence Forces. The threat of conscription being extended to Ireland in the First World War contributed to the creation of the Irish Free State in the 1920s.
Until January 1, 2005, Italy had mandatory military service for men between the ages of 18 and 45. Men were usually required to serve for ten months. Anyone objecting to military service for religious or ethical reasons could claim to be a conscientious objector, in which case community service was usually authorised as an alternative to the regular ten months of military service.
The Italian Parliament, by a large majority, voted to abolish mandatory military service from January 1, 2005, and the Italian armed forces will be now be entirely composed of professional volunteer troops, both male and female. .
Spain abolished compulsory military service in 2001. See an announcement by the Minister of Defence. Military and alternative service was 9 months long and in recent years the majority of conscripts chose to perform alternative, rather than military, service.
Great Britain introduced conscription during both world wars, in 1916 and 1939 respectively. After World War II, it introduced National Service, which was abolished in 1960. Ireland was initially exempt from conscription in the First World War, but it was extended to Ireland on April 9, 1918. This was a decisive factor in pushing the country into seeking its independence. The poet W.B. Yeats wrote to Lord Haldane in protest: "...it seems to me a strangely wanton thing that England, for the sake of 50,000 Irish soldiers, is prepared to hollow another trench between the countries and fill it with blood." Also in protest, Lady Gregory declared "women and children will stand in front of their men and receive the bullets, rather than let them be taken to the front." Northern Ireland was exempt from conscription in the Second World War, and was also excluded from the post-war National Service.
- See main article: Conscription in the United States
The United States has employed conscription intermittently. For example, in 1863 the imposition of a draft during the Civil War touched off the New York Draft Riots. Conscription was next used after the United States entered World War I in 1917. The first instance of conscription when the country was not at war came with the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. Conscription ended in 1973. Currently, male U.S. citizens and many male aliens living in the U.S., if aged 18 through 25, are required to register with the Selective Service System, which describes its mission as "preparing to manage a draft if and when Congress and the President so direct." 
Arguments for and against conscription
Some argue that peacetime conscription is an ideal tool for teaching a population basic, important skills such as first aid, swimming, wilderness survival et cetera. However, it can be argued that these skills could better be taught in the public school system than during mandatory service.
The draft as protection against democracy-destroying military coups
Some argue that conscription should be connected to democracy. If the army of a country consists only of professional military personnel, then it looks like a praetorian guard, rather than a force of soldiers fighting for their country. The leader of the praetorians could easily overrun or conquer any democratic society, as has happened many times in the past. As long as countries need armies, an army of citizens is far better than an army of mercenaries.
Perhaps the kind of people who most strongly want to be in the military are not the only kind of people you want in it. Conscripts come from various backgrounds and might have differing opinions and views. A diverse group is more likely to succeed at any task. Still, the lower morale of conscripts may make them less useful in actual combat situations, especially in wars of aggression.
Of course, personnel diversity might be bad for the army in some ways, but it also helps different people come together and realize the true nature of an all-inclusive society, helping them understand the problems of other classes/professions/cultures/educational levels.
The draft as slavery
"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 influence" by Albert 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 the draft constitutes slavery, since it is mandatory work. Under the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, slavery or indentured servitude is not allowed unless it is part of punishment for a crime. They therefore see the draft as unconstitutional (at least in the U.S.) and immoral. As this opinion has not been decided one way or the other by the courts the draft remains an option for the US government for the future.
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 with zero wage cost. The Soviet planned economy system thus had no incentive 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.
These are examples of a "military" draft used to obtain involuntary labour.They also illustrate one key theme of Adam Smith and other liberal economists that Liberty is the key method of social improvement. When compulsion takes the place of free markets and free Labour the efficiency of the economy is reduced. Compulsion also means that the Wages and working conditions of the Workers is inferior.David Hume points out that this was illustrated by the press gang. The legalised abduction of citizens by the state makes for military inefficiency as well as economic inefficiency and a denial of Constitutional freedom.When Labour is too cheap it will be wasted as other commodities are and this is one reason for the collapse of Communism in the USSR. Conservatives if this is a correct use of the word would do well to remember the effects of excess use of state power.
The draft as nationalism
The military draft is predicated on the assumption that nations have rights that supersede those of the individual, Einstein and Gandhi put it this way "The State which thinks itself entitled to force its citizens to go to war will never pay proper regard to the value and happiness of their lives in peace." in the Anti-Conscription Manifesto. The building of large conscript armies coincided with the rise of virulent nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Draftees can object being conscripted if they are separatists and do not want to support the armies of the state they oppose. On the other hand, some separatist fighters acquire their military skills in the army they will later fight against.
The draft as justification for attacks on civilians
Conscription is a component of "total war," and can also be used as an example of established policy to justify a government's demand that other sacrifices be required of civilians. Once a draft is allowed, Justice Louis Brandeis argued, “all bets are off". Arguably this results in a blurring of the moral distinction between civilians and the military as legitimate military targets, leading to attacks on civilians. Examples would include the indiscriminate bombing of cities conducted by both sides during World War II, or the assertion by terrorist groups that civilians are legitimate targets.
Questions of Conscript Quality
One of the objections raised is a consripted force would be of lower quality than a volunteer army. First, short periods of service do not allow for much skill building. Second, there is a possiblity of a morale drop in units with conscripts, leading to a reduction in quality as officers and NCO's work to alleviate those problems.
- Conscientious objection
- Military history
- Swiss Army
- National Service
- Timeline of women's participation in warfare
- "It is debasing human dignity to force men to give up their life, or to inflict death against their will, or without conviction as to the justice of their action." — Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi in the MANIFESTO AGAINST CONSCRIPTION AND THE MILITARY SYSTEM
- Campaign to Abolish Mandatory Military Service in Slovakia
- Rangel calls for mandatory military service
- The Association for Injuried Officers And Soldiers of Mandatory Military Service, Republic of China
- The European Bureau for Conscientious Objection
- Campaign Against Conscription in Greece
- Australian Draft Resistance and the Vietnam War
- Canadian Newspaper Archives – Conscription
- Anti-Conscription Web Ring
- Refusing to bear arms: a survey around the world, conducted by "War Resisters' International" about conscription and conscientious objection to military service.