How the U.S. Draft Works


This poster, created by James Montgomery Flagg in 1916, helped bring in volunteer troops in both World Wars.
This poster, created by James Montgomery Flagg in 1916, helped bring in volunteer troops in both World Wars.

­T­he idea of a military draft, also called conscription, has been around in one form or another since ancient times. In its relatively short history, the United States has implemented a number of different conscription systems to fill its military ranks in both peacetime and wartime. Currently, the United States is not practicing conscription; it has an all volunteer military, meaning active troops serve on their own accord. By offering a range of benefits to enlistees, the military is able to recruit enough troops to fill its ranks, at least during times of peace. Additionally, the United States maintains a volunteer national guard and a corps of volunteer reserve troops. These highly trained forces stand ready to assist the military at the president's command.

But as an insurance policy, the government also maintains the Selective Service System (SSS). The primary purpose of the SSS is to provide the military with additional manpower in the event that volunteer forces are not sufficient to handle a war or other national emergency. In other words, it is in charge of overseeing the draft (conscription) whenever it is reinstated. The agency's secondary purpose is to maintain an alternative draft-time service program for conscientious objectors, citizens who are eligible for the draft but will not engage in combat because of their moral beliefs.

In times of peace, the SSS's main task is to put together a list of potential draftees in the United States. The potential draftee pool is made up of male U.S. residents between the ages of 18 and 25. Under current law, women cannot be drafted, as the Department of Defense does not employ them in ground combat (click here for details). A few select groups of men are also excused automatically. These groups include:

  • Men who are actively serving in the military
  • Men who are attending a military service academy or select university military officer procurement program
  • Foreign citizens in the United States on valid student, visitor or diplomatic visas
  • Certain foreign agricultural workers
  • Men who are confined to a hospital or psychiatric institution
  • Handicapped men who cannot function in public
  • Inmates

All other men between 18 and 25 are legally required to register with the SSS within 30 days of reaching eligibility. Men can register via mail, over the Internet, at the post office or with a high school Selective Service Registrar (click here for details on registration). The SSS keeps the names and addresses of all registered men on file so they can be called up easily if the draft is reinstated. Most U.S. citizens become eligible on their 18th birthday; others become eligible the day they are no longer exempt (the day they drop out of a military academy, for example). Eligible aliens are required to register within 30 days of entering the country.

The government may prosecute a potential draftee who does not register with the SSS. If convicted, the man would face up to five years in jail and a fine of up to $250,000. Today, the government is unlikely to take such extreme action. Instead, it encourages registration by withholding government benefits from potential draftees in violation. This includes federal financial aid for school, federal job training and some federal employment. Additionally, all eligible aliens must register before gaining U.S. citizenship. The SSS reports that in 2000, 88 percent of eligible men were registered.

The SSS will accept late registration, as long as the man is still under 26. If a man fails to register before his 26th birthday, he may be permanently excluded from some federal benefits (click here for details).

Registering with the SSS does not necessarily mean you will be drafted when a war breaks out; it is merely a system for keeping your name and address on file. In the next section, we'll see what would actually happen if the draft were reinstated.