How the U.S. Draft Works

Now is the Time...

U.S. representative Alexander Pirnie draws the first capsule for the first Vietnam draft lottery (December 1, 1969).
U.S. representative Alexander Pirnie draws the first capsule for the first Vietnam draft lottery (December 1, 1969).
Photo courtesy Selective Service System

­As w­e saw in the last section, the United States military normally operates using only volunteer troops. In the event of a conflict or other anomalous situation, the president may call in reserve troops and the national guard to supplement military personnel on active duty.

If the military were to require additional troops after all available reserve personnel had been called to active duty, congress and the president would have to consider reinstating the draft. To reinstate the draft, the congress would have to pass appropriate legislation, and the president would have to approve that legislation. After the president enacted this legislation, the Selective Service System would switch gears rapidly, going from "registration mode" to "draft mode."

The first order of business would be to conduct a national draft lottery. The lottery would determine the order in which eligible men would be drafted. The government would start with all eligible men who turn 20 in the year of the draft.

The drafting order within this group would be determined by an impartial, random lottery system developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). This system has several steps:

  1. A computer prints out every date in the current year in random order and places these dates in small capsules.
  2. The computer then prints out numbers 1 through 365 (366 in a leap year) in random order and places these numbers in small capsules.
  3. The capsules containing dates are loaded into one drum, in no particular order, and the capsules containing numbers are loaded into another drum.
  4. Official observers inspect this process and the drums to make sure everything goes correctly.
  1. With reporters, television cameras, government officials and impartial observers present, a Selective Service official pulls one capsule from the drum containing dates and one capsule from the drum containing numbers. The number determines when men with that birthday will receive induction notices. For example, if an official drew the date April 22 and the number 42, then men turning 20 years old on April 22 of the current year would be the 42nd group to receive induction notices. The official keeps drawing pairs of dates and numbers until all dates are put into sequence.
  2. This sequence of call is sent to the Selective Service Data Management Center in Palatine, Illinois, which immediately mails induction notices to men with the lowest lottery numbers.
  3. The SSS calls in select military reservists and volunteer board members to staff agency offices and appeal boards around the country.
  4. When men receive their induction notices, they report to a regional military entrance processing station for physical, psychological, mental and moral evaluations. The purpose of these evaluations is to determine whether or not a man is fit to serve in the military.
  5. When a man is notified that he is fit for service, he has 10 days to file a claim for exemption, postponement or deferment (more on this in the next section).

If the congress and the president were to reinstate the draft, they would request that the Selective Service draft a certain number of troops. The SSS would proceed through the list of eligible men until they reached the requested number. As the crisis continued, the president and congress might request additional troops, and the SSS would send out more induction notices.

If more troops were needed after processing all eligible 20-year-old men, the SSS would hold another lottery for 21-year-olds. They would then proceed to 22-year-olds, then 23-year-olds, then 24 year-olds, then 25-year olds. Finally, if more troops were needed, they would proceed to 19-year-olds, then 18-year-olds. In the event that the military still needed troops, the president and congress would have to extend the draft age.

The course of events in a draft The course of events in a draft
The course of events in a draft

A man who receives an induction notice and is deemed fit for service does not necessarily have to go to war. In the next section, we'll find out about the exemptions, deferments and postponements the government allows.