Military draft: What you need to know

After last week’s U.S. airstrike that killed Iran’s top military leader Qassim Suleimani, many young people are wondering whether this means war. The website for the draft -- the Selective Service System -- has gotten so much traffic that it crashed on Friday.

The draft ended in 1973, when the United States Armed Forces became all-volunteer.

We get a crash course in the draft from Amy Rutenberg, history professor at Iowa State University and author of “Rough Draft: Cold War Military Manpower Policy and the Origins of Vietnam-Era Draft Resistance.” 

Who does the draft apply to

Men ages 18-25. Anyone born male must register when they turn 18. That includes trans women (people born male). 

Immigrants/non-citizens must also register, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to serve.

Who’s not eligible to register? 

  • Women
  • People in the U.S. on non-immigrant visas
  • Seasonal agricultural workers
  • Anyone incarcerated
  • Anyone continually confined to a residence, hospital, or institution
  • Individuals who are born female and have changed their gender to male (trans men)

What if you don’t register? 

In short, it’s against the law. 

The Selective Service website says it’s a felony punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 or a five-year prison term, or a combination of both.

But Ruterberg says chasing non-registrants isn’t a high priority for the federal government. However, there could be other, indirect penalties.

“For example, if you do not register and you’re male, then you are not qualified to receive federal student loan help,” Rutenberg says. “You’re ineligible for certain job training programs. You cannot get a job with the federal government, or with most state governments. So there are things that you exclude yourself from.”

Why aren’t women required to register for the draft?

In the early 1980s, the Supreme Court affirmed that because women aren’t eligible for combat positions, it doesn’t make sense for them to register for the draft.

However, in 2015, the Department of Defense opened all combat positions to women.

“So the rationale used by the Supreme Court no longer stands, and there are court cases making their way through the process, as well as a Congressional commission looking at the question of Selective Service, including whether women should register,” Ruterberg says.

Why did the U.S. abolish the draft in 1973?

Rutenberg says discontent surrounding the draft during the Vietnam era came from both the political left and right.

“Both from anti-war activists who saw it as a method to pull men in to fight what they saw as an immoral war. It also came from libertarians on the right who viewed the draft as a tax on people’s time,” Rutenberg says. “And these many libertarian economists, like Milton Friedman, had the ear of President Nixon. So the draft was ended as both ends of the political spectrum came together to be in opposition to it.”

Arguments for reinstating the draft

Reinstating a draft would have to be approved by Congress, and signed into law by the president.

But an all-volunteer force can be expensive -- with benefits like education, healthcare, and housing enticing people to join. 

Rutenberg also says the idea of compulsory military service can create a sense of belonging, citizenship, and patriotism. That’s a political rationale, and one she says you’re seeing on the campaign trail in 2020.

Former South Bend, Indiana mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who served in Afghanistan, told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in April that he hopes the idea of national service will become a theme of the 2020 campaign.

“If we really want to talk about the threat to social cohesion that helps characterize this presidency but also just this era, one thing we could do that would help change would be to make it, if not legally obligatory, then certainly a social norm, that anybody after they’re 18 spends a year in national service,” Buttigieg said. “So that afterwards, whether it’s civilian or military, it’s the first question on your college application if you’re applying for college. Or it’s the first question if you’re being interviewed for a job if you’re going right into the workforce.”

Arguments for keeping the military all-volunteer 

For one thing, Rutenberg says it’s better for morale when everyone chooses to be there. Enlistments can be longer -- generally four years -- and soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have time to actually use the training.

Volunteer service members are also more likely to reenlist, and make the military a career.

Rutenberg also says it comes down to a question of how many people the U.S. really needs in the military, especially as technology changes warfare, and a long-drawn-out infantry war isn’t likely. 

She says even after an event like 9/11, and nearly two decades in the Middle East, the U.S. military has still be able to effectively staff itself with volunteers. So a draft doesn’t make sense.

--Written and produced by Brian Hardzinski 



  • Amy Rutenberg - Iowa State University and author of “Rough Draft: Cold War Military Manpower Policy and the Origins of Vietnam-Era Draft Resistance”