Through the 1960s and into the early ’70s, our country was embroiled in the Vietnam conflict. During that era, the government reenacted the military draft, which had been on the books since the Civil War but had been essentially unused since WWII. Although the idea of across-the-board conscription was sound in theory, exceptions to the rule made the draft patently unfair to those who did not, or could not, fit into one of the exempted categories.

Early History of the Draft

In the U.S. Prior to the Civil War, a call to arms by citizens was considered a patriotic duty. When the War Between the States dragged on longer than anticipated, however, manpower shortages became a huge issue, especially in the North. Confederate Army soldiers were defending their homes and lifestyle, but Northern troops were on the offensive, which was not as much of a motivation for fighting and dying. A draft, the National Conscription Act, was seen by politicians as an answer, although there were many problems. For one thing, a wealthy citizen could hire someone else to take his place. For another, the draft law was singularly focused on the working man. On 13 July 1863, riots broke out in New York City and spread in protest to the draft.

The Draft in the 1960s

A draft law was on the books during both WWI and WWII and the Korean conflict, but a sense of patriotic duty prevailed among U.S. citizens, and use of conscription was limited. After the incidents in the Tonkin Gulf, in August, 1964, then President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam, and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed. This turned out to be an extremely unpopular conflict, and manpower shortages were evident from the beginning. Instead of activating the Reserve and National Guard, however, the government chose to institute the draft. This led to years of protests and riots throughout the country.

Exemptions and Problems

The draft allowed for the exemption of many individuals. Paternity and marriage were seen as reasons for leaving a man at home. If someone enlisted in the Reserve and National Guard, he could serve out his time at home, with service on weekends and a couple of weeks during the summer. High school and college students were exempted until they graduated or quit, and men with some types of disability were considered unfit for military duty. Also, a possibility for exemption was a stance as a conscientious objector to war in general and the Vietnam conflict in general. The biggest problem with all of these exemptions was the fact that most young males did not qualify for any of them. The system was geared so that the underprivileged were drafted without recourse–especially the poor, many of them black.

Modern Selective Service Tracking

In 1973 the last draftees were inducted into the U.S. Army. The Vietnam conflict was winding down, and a combination of factors made furthering the highly unpopular draft a risky political move. Although legislation left open the possibility of reinstating conscription, it was never reenacted. In 1980 Congress voted to require that all males register with the Selective Service on their eighteenth birthdays. This provides the government with the option of drafting manpower during times of crisis–although it has not yet been used.

Roles of the Active and Reserve Armies

Since the draft ended, the roles of the Reserve and National Guard have expanded tremendously. Although the Active Army carries the heaviest burden of war, the Reserve has shouldered much of the weight of supplying manpower to supplement the Active Army in the Middle East and Afghanistan, as well as ongoing rotations to other areas of the world. Each branch is “all-volunteer.” The closest we come to a draft at the moment is something called stop-loss. When recruiting numbers fall, the Army puts a hold on soldier separations, either across the board or in targeted specialties. This action involuntarily extends the term of active service for volunteers on active duty. Although it does not directly affect members of the civilian community, it impacts the return of soldiers to their normal lives.

Arguments for Reinstatement of a Draft

A fair and equitable draft is not necessarily a bad thing, according to its supporters. An evenhanded would ensure everyone would serve in the military once he or she graduated or quit high school or college, say from the ages 17-26. First, that would provide universal employment and training for young people. Second, military service would instill values such as self-pride and a sense of responsibility. Third, it would provide food, clothing, medical care, and shelter for a set number of years. It would also ensure an enhanced future productive life, which would ultimately positively benefit the individual, family, community, and nation.

Arguments against Reinstatement of a Draft

Realistically, a fair and equitable draft law would probably be impossible to achieve. Although the arguments above might be valid, the fact is that every previous attempt has left a huge amount of room for exceptions. Exemptions would, almost as a given, be written into law, which would once again place the burden of conscripted military service squarely on the shoulders of those with little money and few connections. This would, almost by definition, lead to the same problems we have experienced in the past.