AskDefine | Define conscription

Dictionary Definition

conscription n : compulsory military service [syn: muster, draft, selective service]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. involuntary labor, especially military service, demanded by some established authority


Extensive Definition

Conscription''' is a general term for involuntary labor demanded by some established authority. It is most often used in the specific sense of government policies that require citizens (often just males) to serve in the 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 most of the time, although many of these countries still reserve the possibility of conscription for wartime and during times of crises.
"Conscription" has also sometimes been used as a general term for non-military involuntary labour demanded by some established authority; for example, some translators of Old Testament commentaries use the term to describe the levies of labour used to build the Temple of Solomon. In Japan during World War II, Japanese women and children were conscripted to work in factories.
Referring to compulsory service in the armed forces, the term "conscription" has two main meanings:
  • compulsory service, usually of young men of a given age, e.g. 17 – 18, for a set period of time, commonly 1 – 2 years. In the United Kingdom and Singapore this was commonly known as "national service"; in New Zealand, at first compulsory military training and later national service; in Norway, Safeguard Duty/1st time service.
  • compulsory service, for an indefinite period of time, in the context of a widespread mobilisation of forces for fighting war, including on the home territory, usually imposed on men in a much wider age group (e.g. 18 – 45). (In the United Kingdom this was commonly known as "call-up").
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).
In the U.S. the term "enlisted" is often used to refer only to those who have volunteered for service in roles other than as commissioned officers.


Military slavery

The system of military slaves was widely used in the Middle East from the 9th until the 19th century. lmiddle of the 14th century, Ottoman Sultan Murad I built his own personal slave army called the Kapıkulu. The new force was based on the sultan's right to a fifth of the war booty, which he interpreted to include captives taken in battle. The captive slaves were converted to Islam and trained in the sultan's personal service. In the devşirme (translated "blood tax" or "child collection"), young Christian boys from the Balkans were taken away from their homes and families, converted to Islam and enlisted into special soldier classes of the Ottoman army. These soldier classes were named Janissaries, the most famous branch of the Kapıkulu. The Janissaries eventually became a decisive factor in the Ottoman invasions of Europe. Most of the military commanders of the Ottoman forces, imperial administrators and de facto rulers of the Ottoman Empire, such as Pargalı İbrahim Pasha and Sokollu Mehmet Paşa, were recruited in this way. By 1609 the Sultan's Kapıkulu forces increased to about 100,000. Mahmud II forcibly disbanded Janissary corps in 1826.
Mamluks were a slave soldiers who converted to Islam and served the Muslim caliphs and the Ayyubid sultans during the Middle Ages. The first mamluks served the Abbasid caliphs in 9th century Baghdad. Over time they became a powerful military caste, and on more than one occasion they seized power for themselves, for example, ruling Egypt from 1250-1517. From 1250 Egypt had been ruled by the Bahri dynasty of Kipchak Turk origin. White slaves from the Caucasus served in the army and formed an elite corp of troops eventually revolting in Egypt to form the Burgi dynasty. Mamluks were mainly responsible for the expulsion of the Crusaders from Palestine and preventing the Mongol Ilkhanate of Persia and Iraq from entering Egypt.
The Moroccan Sultan Moulay Ismail "the Bloodthirsty" (1672-1727) raised a corps of 150,000 black slaves, called his Black Guard, who coerced the country into submission.

Invention of modern conscription

Modern conscription was invented during the French Revolution, allowing the Republic to defend itself from European monarchies' attacks. Deputy Jean-Baptiste Jourdan gave its name to the September 5, 1798 Act, whose first article stated: "Any Frenchman is a soldier and owes himself to the defense of the nation." It enabled the creation of the Grande Armée, what Napoleon Bonaparte called "the nation in arms," which successfully battled European professional armies. More than 2.6 million men were inducted between 1800 and 1813.
The defeat of the disorganized Prussian Army shocked the Prussian establishment, which had largely felt invincible after the Frederician victories. Scharnhorst advocated adopting the levée en masse, the military conscription used by France. Krümpersystem was the beginning of short-term compulsory service in Prussia, as opposed to the long-term conscription previously used.
In Russian Empire, the service time was 25 years at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1834 it was decreased to 20 years. The recruits should have been not younger than 17 and not older than 35. In 1874 universal conscription on the modern pattern was introduced, an innovation only made possible by the abolition of serfdom in 1861.
Conscription was introduced in the Union Army during the American Civil War. The 1863 Enrollment Act permitted draftees to hire paid substitutes to fight in their place. This, and the bounty system, led to widespread dislike of conscription by the public at large; the New York Draft Riots were one symptom. In addition, draftees were viewed with disdain by volunteer soldiers and their officers. In the end, the draft provided only 6% of the Union Army's manpower. Conscription was not employed again in the U.S. until 1917.
According to philosopher Michel Foucault, conscription is one of the forms taken by "disciplinary institutions", along with hospitals, schools and prisons. Louis Althusser has also underlined how Machiavelli was one of the first modern theorists to think the relationship between conscription and the creation of a nation, or successfully bolstering patriotism. Machiavelli despised the use of mercenaries and professional armies, which at this time were ravaging the divided Italian states.
Sending conscripts to foreign wars that do not directly affect the home nation's security has historically been very politically contentious in democracies. For instance, during World War I, bitter disputes broke out in Canada (see Conscription Crisis of 1917), Australia and New Zealand (See Compulsory Military Training) 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)

Gender issue

Some countries that draft women include Cuba, Israel, North Korea, Libya, and Eritrea. In 2002, Sweden's government asked the army to consider mandatory military service for women. Some have considered the practice of excluding women from the draft unfair, because they feel it goes against principles of equality. Some simply argue that women can be militarily useful, and that excluding them places an unnecessary limit on resources. 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 practiced by some countries of drafting men and not women has often been a flash point and source of conflict. This policy is often cited by some masculists as an example of an unfair policy, which benefits women over men. Gender egalitarians point out that, in the long run, such a policy supports social thinking about women as weaker and less able beings, and is therefore not really an overall benefit to women - more of a double edged sword (or golden chain). Apprehension about the possible conscription of women was a key factor that led to the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States.
In 1981 in the United States, several men filed lawsuit in the case Rostker v. Goldberg, alleging that the Military Selective Service Act violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment by requiring that men only and not also women register with the SSS. The Supreme Court eventually upheld the Act, stating that "the argument for registering women was based on considerations of equity, but Congress was entitled, in the exercise of its constitutional powers, to focus on the question of military need, rather than 'equity.'"
On 1 October 1999 in the Taiwan Area, the Judicial Yuan of the Republic of China in its Interpretation 490 considered that the physical differences between males and females and the derived role differentiation in their respective social functions and lives would not make drafting males only violating the Constitution of the Republic of China. However, transsexual persons are exempt from the Taiwanese conscription.

Conscientious objection

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 conscientious objectors to choose a service in the "weapons-free" branch, such as an airport fireman, nurse or telecommunications technician. Some may also refuse such service as they feel that they still are a part of the military complex. The reasons for refusing to serve are varied. Some conscientious objectors are so for religious reasons — notably, the members of the historic peace churches 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.

Draft evaders

Not everyone who is conscripted is willing to go to war. In the United States, especially during the Vietnam Era, some used political connections to ensure that they were placed well away from any potential harm, serving in what was termed a Champagne unit.
Many would avoid military service altogether through college deferments, by becoming fathers, or serving in various exempt jobs (teaching was one possibility). Others used educational exemptions, became conscientious objectors or pretended to be conscientious objectors, although they might then be drafted for non-combat work, such as serving as a combat medic. It was also possible they could be asked to do similar civilian work, such as being a hospital orderly.
It was, in fact, quite easy for those with some knowledge of the system to avoid being drafted. A simple route, widely publicized, was to get a medical rejection. While a person could claim to have symptoms (or feign homosexuality), if enough physicians sent letters that a person had a problem, he might well be rejected. It often wasn't worth the Army's time to dispute this claim. Such an approach worked best in a larger city where there was no stigma to not serving, and the potential draftee was not known to those reviewing him.
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". Particularly during the Vietnam War, U.S. draft-dodgers usually made their way to Canada, Mexico or Sweden.
Many people looked upon draft-dodgers with scorn as being "cowards", but some supported them in their efforts. In the late years of the war, objections against it and support for draft-dodgers was much more outspoken, because of the casualties suffered by American troops, and the actual cause and purpose of the war being heavily questioned.
Toward the end of the U.S. draft, an attempt was made to make the system somewhat fairer by turning it into a lottery, with each of the year's calendar dates randomly assigned a number. Men born on lower numbered dates were called up for review. For the reasons given above, this did not make the system any fairer, and the entire system ended in 1973. Today, American men 18-25 are required to register with the government, but there has not been a callup since the Vietnam Era.

Draft resisters

Historically, there has been resistance to conscription in almost every country and situation where it has been imposed. In the USA and some other countries, the Vietnam War saw new levels of opposition to conscription and the Selective Service System. Many people opposed to and facing conscription chose to either apply for classification and assignment to civilian alternative service or noncombatant service within the military as conscientious objectors, or to evade the draft by fleeing to a neutral country. A small proportion, like Muhammad Ali, chose to resist the draft by publicly and politically fighting conscription. Some people resist at the point of registration for the draft. In the USA since 1980, for example, the draft resistance movement has focused on mandatory draft registration. Others resist at the point of induction, when they are ordered to put on a uniform, when they are ordered to carry or use a weapon, or when they are ordered into combat.
There are those who are immune to the draft. These people include anyone who works for the government (Teachers, police officers, lawmakers, etc), People who work for government contractors, and those who work in jobs essential to the operation of the country (waste management, power plants, etc). In the United Kingdom this is known as a Reserved occupation as it is deemed necessary to the survival of the nation.
A government can also grant an exemption from conscription to a group of people based upon religious grounds. One instance is the Amish people in the United States who are immune from any military callup and do not have to register for selective service. In Israel, the Muslim and Christian Arab minority, as well as many ultra-Orthodox Jews are also exempt from mandatory service. This exemption, however, does not cover Druze Israeli citizens and several Bedouin Muslim villages. Permanent residents such as the Druzes of the Golan Heights are also excused. Exemption does not prevent members of the exempted groups from volunteering although such behavior is marginal.
Though some conscripts feel that they benefited from their experience in the military, others feel that their time could have been spent more productively pursuing their chosen studies or career paths. Individual resentment may also be compounded by the typically low wages paid to conscripts, especially in countries such as Greece, South Korea, Finland and Singapore.

Countries with and without mandatory military service

See: Military service
  • Source: Nationmaster: Land area
  • Source: Nationmaster: GDP
  • Source: Nationmaster: Per capita GDP
  • Source: Nationmaster: Population
  • Source: Nationmaster: Government type
  • Source: Nationmaster: Conscription
  • Australia: Conscription was abolished by law in 1973. But the Defence Act 1903 as amended retained a provision that it could be reintroduced by proclamation of the Governor-General. Potentially all Australian residents between the ages of 18 and 60 could be called up in this way. However, the Defence Legislation Amendment Act 1992 further provided that any such proclamation is of no effect until it is approved by both Houses of Parliament. Though actual legislation is not required, the effect of this provision is to make the introduction of conscription impossible without the approval of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
  • (estimates based on 2006 data)
  • (estimates based on 2006 data)

Arguments for conscription

Valuable training

Some communitarians argue that peacetime conscription is an ideal tool for teaching a population basic, important skills such as first aid, swimming, wilderness survival and so on. They also argue that conscription makes for a more disciplined and skilled workforce, as men and women leave the military and take the skills which they honed there back to their civilian jobs.

Rite of passage

In many countries, conscription serves as a rite of passage. The prospective man is tested, to see whether or not he can endure the hardships of military training and earn the right to be called a man. Military service, in countries that have it, may then be seen as the test of manhood. Conscription may inspire camaraderie, unifying a people: all able-bodied males together as a union have had the same experience and are soldiers, and that may create unity and a national spirit.

Draft as protection against democracy-destroying military coups

Some argue that conscription should be connected to democracy. A professional army can possibly become a dangerous state-within-a-state. Military virtues such as obedience to orders and respect for the chain of command can possibly be abused by aspiring dictators. Armed forces can attract — consciously or unconsciously — people who prefer authoritarian systems. The army can even become the only chance for a job and decent life in times of unemployment (this was crucial in the rise of Japanese militarism), or for despised minorities. Such people may come to regard the army as their home and elevate it above the state.
On the other hand, once in power dictators such as Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein have used conscription. The most significant attempt on Hitler's life was from the professional component of his military.


Small countries have several options to raise a sizeable army. One is to put every able-bodied man under arms. This is how Switzerland managed to stay independent despite repeated attacks throughout history. The Swiss militias were so successful that their fighting style and weapons (especially the halberd) were quickly adopted by their enemies. This in turn made the Swiss very popular as mercenaries; many rulers even raised Swiss Guards. The rich Flemish trade cities of the early 14th century raised huge militias that could even defeat armies of knights. The famous Battle of the Golden Spurs (1302) is a good example.
Other options for national defense include membership in a military alliance like NATO, as is the case for countries like Belgium and Luxembourg. Switzerland started out as a military alliance between independent cantons. However, the membership in such alliance decreases the independence of a country, making it dependent on its stronger allies. Several NATO members maintain conscription, so an alliance is not mutually exclusive with conscription.
Also, a wealthy small country could hire a professional mercenary army. This approach does, however, require wealth and men who are willing to hire on. Moreover, it requires some means to control the mercenaries if they became unruly.
Due to the attrition inherent in warfare, it is difficult to maintain the numbers needed for a wholly professional military, especially in a lengthy war. Complicating matters is the fact that military service in such times becomes more and more unattractive, even if the war has broad support. It is for this reason that the previously all-volunteer Union Army and the WWI British Army switched to conscription after a few years of combat and its associated losses.
However, conscription creates numbers but not quality. Niccolò Machiavelli's attempts to raise a conscript army in Florence ended in catastrophe; the conscripts did not have adequate training or experience, and were awkward to perform drill and maneuver. If the conscript army is trained only during the crisis, the limits on time and resources on training enable only rudimentary training; anything else is to be learnt on the battlefield. However, this can be avoided by peace-time conscription to train a large reserve usable in a crisis. The quality of the reserve must be maintained by steady refresher exercises. In several countries where conscription is in use, the length (and quality) of the training is virtually similar to that of professional armies.
The losses to conscript armies on the battlefield are often large, but waste of manpower is limited by the fact that the supply of able-bodied males in a nation is not inexhaustible. In addition, any government waging a prolonged war with conscripts will risk losing popular support and following loss of power. For a democratic government, this limits the use of conscript forces for wars that are fights for existence. Pursuing national interests or expeditionary wars may still necessitate a large professional army.
Conscripts can also be used away from combat roles, in such duties as garrisoning important areas, internal security, protection of supply routes, thus relieving the professionals for the front.

Personnel diversity

Perhaps the kind of people who most strongly want to be in the military are not always the only kind of people who are needed in it. Conscripts come from various backgrounds and might have differing opinions and views. A diverse group is arguably more likely to succeed at any task. Still, the frequently lower morale and experience of conscripts may make them less useful in combat. This has been witnessed in the Vietnam War and Soviet-Afghan War.
Personnel diversity might be bad for armies in some ways, by inhibiting communication and increasing social tension, but it also helps different people come together and realize the true nature of an all-inclusive society. For example, it helps them understand the problems of other classes, professions, cultures, and educational levels. Similar arguments have been presented in favor of desegregation in schools.

Conscript quality

The manpower quality of a conscript force is considered poor in many countries and conversely, governments are reluctant to invest in professional-quality training of conscripts, giving poor-quality forces. However, in some countries with conscription, the personnel diversity of the conscript force is considered its greatest strength. Admittedly, there are persons who would not be employed by a professional force, but these are a minority and can be discharged for medical reasons in extreme cases.
However, the conscript force may also receive the best of the youth, who would never join a professional army. Many conscripts are from such social strata that they would have much more lucrative employment or would be studying, were they not obliged to serve. These persons provide talented manpower that can easily be trained for technical and leadership duties. As junior NCO and commissioned officer positions are filled with leadership-trained conscripts, the size and cost of the professional cadre is much smaller. The leadership-trained conscripts can also be recruited to the regular forces. The vast improvement of the Egyptian Army in between the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War has been attributed to the decision to conscript college graduates who were previously exempt.
In wartime especially in a lengthy war like WWII, the differences between concsripts and professionals may disappear over time, during war, commanders look to a soldiers and units combat experience as an indication of quality, and a consript who has seen action will be far more valuable to his/its superiors than a green professional.
The worst problem is that the training must be designed by the physical fitness and the learning ability of the least able of the youth. However, this can be at least partly avoided by differentiating the conscript training. Even the least able can usually fulfill important roles in relatively easy logistics duties, while the most able can be trained quite well as specialists. In many cases, the conscript servicemates may have social or societal problems, they may be criminals, bullies or drug abusers, or they may even be sociopaths. Allowing such persons to serve is problematic. They may corrode the capability of the unit, even endangering the safety of the others. Some countries have recognized this problem, and attempt to exclude the potential troublemakers even before they get to serve, using medical discharges, for example. On the other hand, in some countries (like in Russia) the problems with this issue are extremely dire (see dedovschina). There is also the argument that if the problem can be classified as juvenile delinquency, then the military functions as a "men's school". By giving responsibility, youth development is induced, and adolescent-typical criminal behavior ceases. The problem is that the coercion type environment of conscription armies encourage avoidance of responsibility, rather than accepting it, being more likely to promote such antisocial behaviour than to discourage it.

Political and moral motives

Jean Jacques Rousseau argued vehemently against professional armies, feeling it was the right and privilege of every citizen to participate to the defense of the whole society and a mark of moral decline to leave this business to professionals. He based this view on the development of the Roman republic, which came to an end at the same time as the Roman army changed from a conscript to professional force. Similarly, Aristotle linked the division of armed service among the populace intimately with the political order of the state.
Some ideologies and cultures, and those based on collectivism or statism, value the society and common good above the life of an individual. Those ideologies and world-views justify the state to force its members to protect itself and risk their lives for the common good. In states based on society-centered ideologies, world-views and religions, conscription is the natural way of raising the army.
In the era of total war, the conscription is the only alternative for a small nation to build an army of credible strength without depending on alliances. This is particularly the case when the opposing state is significantly larger. In such a case, a voluntary force often can not, regardless of its quality, stand against the sheer numbers of the opposing force.
The right of the state to conscript its citizens can be founded on utilitarianist principles. If a greater good would achieved, every thing considered, by sacrificing some soldiers a state should be willing to make this sacrifice. This assumes that state have right to use its citizens for achieving greater good for the humankind.
Conscription can give the conscripts a lasting patriotic view and readiness to die for the good of the whole. Such readiness should, according to many world-views, be present in a virtuous citizen at all times, but through training, the readiness becomes a grim reality, not rhetoric. This may decrease the admiration of the military, but may also promote militarism and lead into readiness to use violence in everyday life to solve marital problems. On the other hand, the fact that every person understands that a war — any war — means that they themselves, friends, and relatives will be dying or at the least, facing mortal danger, decreases the willingness to enter an armed conflict. In practice, engaging a conscript force in an aggressive war for a prolonged period results in morale degradation both at home and on the front, testified by Afghanistan and Vietnam Wars.


In a very large war, (such as World War II) raising a large enough volunteer military would require dramatic increases in taxes or budget deficits. In such cases conscription can have lower negative impact than the impact of these higher taxes and possibly be more equitable (higher taxes would penalize those out of service much more than those in service). Research into fiscal impacts of conscription in World War II suggest a volunteer army raised to the same size would have had worse economic impact in terms of economic growth.
It is estimated by the British military that in a professional military, one company deployed for active duty in peacekeeping corresponds to three inactive companies at home. Salaries for each are paid from the military budget. In contrast, volunteers from a trained reserve are in their civilian jobs when they are not deployed.

Whether "Volunteer" is really volunteer

In the United States there have been questions over whether those serving in the military can truly be considered volunteer, since they either have few alternatives to earn a decent living in private life; or did not volunteer for the service they eventually carry out. Representative Charles Rangel raised the question of who was going to war. "When you talk about a war, you're talking about ground troops, you're talking about enlisted people, and they don't come from the kids and members of Congress," said Rangel. Acclaimed author and journalist Gay Talese has spoken about how few other opportunities exist for those who join the military. "[It's] a sad commentary on who has to serve, because it is mercenary," said Talese in an interview. "They are economic mercenaries. They are economically deprived people, without opportunities, and they seek this opportunity and they never imagine how ill-chosen was their choice when they are missing a leg, or witnessing the horror." Nadine Strossen, President of the ACLU, raised a similar point. "I think nobody who volunteered for [the Iraq War] was volunteering for the tours of duty—even forget the danger they are facing—but the extended time, it’s off the charts," said Strossen. "Chuck Hagel today gave us the exact details, so don’t quote me on this because he’s an expert and I’m not, but the order of magnitude used to be 7 months, but now it’s 15 months, or 18 months, or 21 months, and then it’s being doubled and you are not able to have leave in between. So, they volunteered for one type of duty in terms of the amount of time, but they are getting something entirely different from that. Number two is query how realistic the choice is for the people who are going into it if they don’t have many other options—or any other options—to get an education, to get a job, to get the skills and the training..."

Arguments against conscription

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Many arguments opposed to conscription, or opposed to gender-discriminated conscription, arise from its violation of the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. In particular:
  • Art.2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as (…) sex (…)
  • Art.3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
  • Art.4: No one shall be held in (…) servitude (…)
  • Art.18: ''Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
  • Art.20: (…) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
  • Art.23: Everyone has the right (…) to free choice of employment (…)
In addition, many constitutions do provide similar rights in countries where there is or has been some form of conscription after World War II or that maintain a possibility of conscription in time of war.


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.''
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 Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, slavery or other involuntary 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. In 1918, the Supreme Court ruled that the World War I draft did not violate the United States Constitution. Arver v. United States, ). The Court detailed its conclusion that the limited powers of the federal government included conscription. Its only statement on the Thirteenth Amendment issue reads thus:
Finally, as we are unable to conceive upon what theory the exaction by government from the citizen of the performance of his supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of the nation as the result of a war declared by the great representative body of the people can be said to be the imposition of involuntary servitude in violation of the prohibitions of the Thirteenth Amendment, we are constrained to the conclusion that the contention to that effect is refuted by its mere statement.
In the USSR, most of the conscripts received only very basic training and were used for forced labor unrelated to actual military service — such as building Dachas (second homes) for officers or digging up potatoes in the field with zero wage cost. This contributed to the lack of incentives for the Soviet planned economy system 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.


Conscription is usually limited to young people, and the burden of conscription is almost never spread equally across all age groups. The youngest people considered qualified are usually conscripted first. Opponents of ageism, and advocates of youth liberation, argue that age-based military conscription is the most severe disparity on the basis of age of any government mandate on individuals. This argument is epitomized by the Phil Ochs song, "I Ain't Marching Any More": "It's always the old who lead us to the war; it's always the young who fall." Even in countries with elected governments, conscripts are often too young to be allowed to vote or participate in decisions on whether to go to war or to impose or set policies for conscription. The Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which lowered the voting age to 18, was proposed and approved largely in response to criticism of conscription based on the unfairness of drafting men too young to be allowed to vote. But draft-age voters in the USA are still overwhelmingly outnumbered by voters considered to be too old to be conscripted.


Traditionally conscription has been limited to the male population. Women and non-able-bodied males have been exempted from conscription. Many societies have traditionally considered conscription as a test of manhood and a rite of passage from boyhood into manhood. Since young men spend several months or perhaps years in service while young women can at the same time study, work, found families and find their niche in society, conscription can be considered unfair and sexist.

Discipline problems

No military can operate effectively without discipline. Discipline can either be taught from esprit de corps, already-acquired motivation of the personnel or be fundamentally embedded into the troops through guidance from leadership. One can speculate that volunteers manifest less undisciplined behavior, however citizens conscripted might have little motivation to serve. As motivation is based on coercion, the corrective action imposed upon undisciplined conscriptees is often harsh. Capital punishment, usually by firing squad, was used almost universally to maintain discipline in conscript militaries during wartime. Antony Beevor has estimated the executions covered some 1% to 5% of all conscript losses in World War II. This can be best summarized by a statement from Leon Trotsky:
An army cannot be built without reprisals. Masses of men cannot be led to death unless the command has the death penalty in its arsenal. So long as those malicious tailless apes that are so proud of their technical achievements — the animals that we call men — will build armies and wage wars, the command will always be obliged to place the soldiers between the possible death in the front and the inevitable one in the rear.
Consequently, conscript armies are more likely to mutiny than all-volunteer forces, and can in extreme cases turn against their own (see fragging).
Discipline problems become much worse when the ablest of the youth are forced to serve against their will under the authority of people they consider less intelligent, untalented, or simply because of unquestioned authority. This was seldom a problem in the period of Industrialism when only the upper classes had access to higher education, but proved problematic in the Vietnam War, when college students were conscripted to fight under non-commissioned officers, many of whom had not finished high school and few of whom had any higher education.

Nationalism and promoting militarism

The military draft is predicated on the assumption that nations have rights that supersede those of the individual. In the words of Einstein and Gandhi's Anti-Conscription Manifesto, "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." The building of large conscript armies coincided with the rise of virulent nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, culminating in World War II.
In peacetime, conscription can create an atmosphere of militarism and bigotry in society. Many young men in countries with compulsory conscription develop a cynical stance about militarism because the mandatory nature of conscription creates low morale among soldiers. This is especially true in countries where nationalist feelings are weak to begin with, such as Austria, Germany and Finland, or where conditions are brutal, such as in Russia.
Men who have had military training can also be more ready to use violence to solve conflicts than those who have not. Conscription also may create an atmosphere of chauvinism, sexism and discrimination against those men who haven't served in the armed forces.

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, the My Lai Massacre. It has been popular recently to call civilian deaths "collateral damage" although their deaths are highly predictable. In fact, during the last century, civilian deaths have grown compared to military deaths in conflict.


One of the objections raised is that a conscript 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 possibility of a morale drop in units with conscripts, leading to a reduction in quality as officers and NCOs work to alleviate those problems.
The biggest problem is that the pace of training has to be adjusted to the level of the lowest quality candidate. Combined with the short tour of duty, this renders the skills of the conscripts very low. Therefore the elite units of all armies which have conscription, are composed entirely of selected volunteers, such as Parachute Rangers in the Finnish army.
Likewise, the military training of the conscripts is almost universally very rudimentary. It seldom goes beyond drill, shooting practice, rudimentary specialization on one's service branch and weapons and basic battlefield training. Likewise, many nations have used conscripts simply as indentured, low-cost work force, organized as "work battalions" for agriculture and building infrastructure instead of decent military service.


It can be argued that in a cost-to-benefit ratio, conscription during peace time is not worthwhile. Months or years of service amongst the most fit subtracts from the productivity of the economy; add to this the cost of training them, and in some countries paying them. Compared to these extensive costs, some would argue there is very little benefit, if there ever were war conscription and basic training could be completed quickly, and in most countries where conscription is compulsory there is little threat of war in any case.
The cost to particularly in times of military duress, such as the current U.S. conflict in Iraq, conscription serves as an instrument through which fresh soldiers may be readied when reserves and voluntary troops have been over utilized. These new troops ultimately provide more efficient use of U.S. economic resources since individuals plan for military involvement as a normal activity. Draft assignments, in contrast, disrupt everyday activity and lead to possibly greater economic shock.
The cost of conscription can be related to the parable of the broken window. Military service can be related to any work. The costs of work do not disappear anywhere even if no salary is paid. The work effort of the conscripts is effectively wasted; unwilling work force is extremely inefficient and the conscripts also lose their the costs of all-volunteer paid force. The impact is especially severe in wartime, when civilian professionals are forced to fight as amateur soldiers. Not only is the work effort of the conscripts wasted and productivity is lost, but professionally-skilled conscripts are also difficult to replace in the civilian work force. Every soldier conscripted in the army is taken away from his civilian work, and away from contributing to the economy which funds the military. This is not a problem in an agrarian or pre-industrialized state where the level of education is universally low, and where a worker is easily replaced by another. However, this proves extremely problematic in a post-industrial society where educational levels are high and where the work force is highly sophisticated and a replacement for a conscripted specialist is difficult to find. Even direr economic consequences result if the professional conscripted as an amateur soldier is killed or maimed for life; his work effort and productivity is irrevocably lost.

Draft as a tool to subjugate society

Another argument sees conscription as a tool for dictatorships to control and re-educate a population instead of being a means for an oppressed people to infiltrate the military as the power base for every dictatorship. Especially since the military is inherently based on giving and obeying orders, instead of democracy, it is argued that a draft is a far more effective tool to instill obedience and unconditional following into society than giving a democratic populace the opportunity to control the military. Supporting that argument is the fact, that Nazi Germany changed the Reichswehr from an all-volunteer army in 1934 into the conscription-based Wehrmacht. Also almost all contemporary dictatorships have a military draft (Syria, North Korea, as well as Iraq under Saddam Hussein). Virtually all former military dictatorships relied heavily on conscribing their entire adolescent male populations (with the military dictatorships of Pakistan and Burma being notable exceptions). The former military dictatorships of Turkey, Greece, Spain, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia and Libya maintained draft systems throughout their reigns as well as all formerly communist dictatorships and the Soviet Union itself.
conscription in Danish: Værnepligt
conscription in German: Wehrpflicht
conscription in Spanish: Servicio militar
conscription in Esperanto: Deviga militservo
conscription in French: Conscription
conscription in Korean: 징병제
conscription in Indonesian: Wajib militer
conscription in Dutch: Dienstplicht
conscription in Japanese: 徴兵制度
conscription in Norwegian: Verneplikt
conscription in Norwegian Nynorsk: Verneplikt
conscription in Polish: Pobór (wojsko)
conscription in Portuguese: Conscrição
conscription in Russian: Воинская обязанность
conscription in Slovenian: Nabor
conscription in Finnish: Asevelvollisuus
conscription in Swedish: Värnplikt
conscription in Ukrainian: Військова повинність
conscription in Turkish: Zorunlu askerlik
conscription in Chinese: 徵兵制

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

bugle call, call, call to arms, call-up, catchword, clarion, clarion call, compulsory military service, draft, draft call, drafting, enlistment, enrollment, exhortation, go for broke, gung ho, impressment, induction, levy, mobilization, muster, press, rally, rallying cry, rebel yell, recruiting, recruitment, selective service, slogan, summons, trumpet call, war cry, war whoop, watchword
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