The draft: how it works and how it could change

The draft, or Selective Service, has recently re-entered the public consciousness amid the question of whether women should be included.

The American eye has suddenly been cast on the draft. A recent federal District court ruled that an all-male conscription is unconstitutional. The decision has been considered more symbolic than pragmatic, but recent comments by the chairman of National Commission for Military, National and Public service suggests changes are to come in the near future with clear implications toward some institution of women registering for the draft.

Judge Gray Miller, whose court saw the decision in favor of the National Coalition of Men, has been quoted saying, “the time has passed,” meaning women in the 21st century are fit for both combat and non-combat roles. If the draft became gender inclusive, this could see women registering with the Selective Service: an organization which is tasked with maintaining the information of eligible citizens in case of a military draft. But how this would be carried out remains a mystery to most.

Conscription, foreseen by the Founding Fathers as the ability to “raise and support Armies,” is a tenant of the United States’ Constitution. Early in the days of conscription, local militias were raised by communities, but many could buy their way out of being drafted by paying a substitute. This practice continued through the Civil War until World War I. National conscription was first carried out in the Civil War, but accounted for few of the actual soldiers who fought in the conflict.

World War I saw the creation of conscription as we know it today with a federal initiative created and signed by President Woodrow Wilson. Known as the Selective Service Act of 1917, the bill mandated that all men between the ages of 18 and 45 had an obligation to their country. A national lottery was called and exemptions were created to head off any corruption. The draft was ended in 1918.

1940 saw the first peacetime draft in the United States’ history. The Selective Training and Service Act would be renewed until 1971, which was the end of the draft in the United States until further notice. Today, eligible male citizens are required to register with the Selective Service by their 18th birthday in the case of a sudden need for a draft. Individuals are eligible to be drafted until their 26th birthday.

Before a draft could occur today, Congress would need to pass appropriate legislation with the president’s approval. Then Selective Service would be tasked with shifting from registration to conscription. A national lottery would be called. Numbers between one and 365 (366 during a leap year) would be selected randomly by a computer, alongside a simultaneous selection of the dates ranging the 365 days of the year. These numbers and dates would be loaded into a drum, and selected one-by-one. The order of ages drafted ascends from 20 to 26. Then, if all other age groups are exhausted, 19-year-olds would be conscripted, followed by 18-year-olds. To make sense of this: if the number 21 is selected alongside the date January 6, all eligible 20 year old males born on January 6 would be the 21st group to be conscripted.

Exemptions and deferments are straightforward. Divinity students, ministers of religion, and dual-nationals/aliens are exempt from duty. Those whose family would be placed in financial jeopardy can request a deferment. Death in immediate family would exempt someone from duty. Those who are deemed “unfit” for duty would be exempt, such as those with criminal records, drug abuse history or disabilities.

How the system would change with the introduction of female registrants is to be seen, but the status quo is changing. An all-gender draft would both double the selection pools and allow for more exemptions to be made for those who have civilian specialization as well as students.

Post Author: Thomas von Borstel