What Is the Military Draft Cutoff Age & How Did the Draft Start?

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The U.S. military draft, now officially known as the Selective Service System, was first instituted during the Civil War, though forms of conscription were also utilized during the American Revolutionary War. Since its earliest implementation, the military draft has also been a source of deep discontent within the American public, and has inspired protests and various other acts of resistance. 

The U.S. military draft has not been put into effect since the Vietnam War. However, it is still possible that it could be implemented in times of war or other matters of national security. It would take an act of Congress, but it can always be instituted if there are not enough volunteers. Here’s an overview of the history of the draft, including current age requirements, protests against it, and more. 

Looking at the History Behind the U.S. Military Draft

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The draft is also known as conscription and actually dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, but was first used in its modern form during the French Revolution in the 1790s and was shortly thereafter instituted during the Civil War in America. Congress needed more men for the Union Army and passed the Civil War Military Draft Act of 1863 to recruit them. 

Early versions of the draft were enacted during times of conflict. In 1917, in preparation for World War I, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Selective Services Act into law, reinstating the draft. This required all men between the ages of 21 and 30 to enroll, which created a pool of 24 million men for the draft. About 2.8 million men were actually enlisted. This draft was again dissolved shortly after the war.

In the midst of World War II, the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was instituted. This was before America entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and was the first time that America had instituted the draft while not actively involved in a military conflict. The draft required all men between the ages of 21 and 45 to register in the draft, which expanded the age range greatly from World War I. Those who were inducted from this lottery were initially required to just serve for one year. However, those terms changed when America actually entered the war. Men were required to serve for the duration of the war, which ended in 1945. With this draft, 50 million men registered and 10 million were inducted into the military. 

What Are the Requirements of the Military Draft?

Required draft registration was suspended briefly in early 1975 after the Vietnam War. However, it resumed in 1980. Today, people assigned as male on their birth certificate between the ages of 18 to 25 who are U.S. citizens or immigrants in the States have to register with Selective Service. These people must register for the draft within one month of their 18th birthday. There are some exclusions to the registration requirement, including people who are incarcerated and those who are in the country on student, visitor, or diplomatic visas. The U.S. draft is currently inactive, meaning that people who register are not currently being drafted and made to enlist.

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Women do currently serve in the military, and as recently as 2021 Congress was considering amending the Selective Services Act to include women. However, the Selective Service law, as it is currently written, only refers to “male persons” as those who must register for the draft. “Male persons” are defined as such based on gender identification on their birth certificates, meaning that non-binary or transgendered individuals who were assigned male at birth are still required to register, while individuals who were assigned female at birth are not, regardless of any gender transitions they have undergone or whether or not they have changed their gender markers on legal documents. 

People Have Protested the Military Draft Since the Beginning

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There has been much resistance to the military draft from the very beginning. During the Civil War, though the draft called on all males between 20 and 45, most of those that actually served were poor, working class men. Wealthy men would hire someone to take their place or pay $300 for a draft exemption. Riots ensued, including the tragic New York Draft Riots in July 1863. Around 119 people died in those riots, which lasted for three days. 

Another well-known protest against the draft (and the war itself) was during the Vietnam War. Young men would destroy or burn their draft cards in protest, prompting Congress to pass the Draft Card Mutilation Act of 1965, which made it a criminal offense to purposely destroy these cards. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) also condemned the war with a statement declaring that, “the United States government has been deceptive in its claims of concern for the freedom of the Vietnamese people.”

Today, as the argument is made that women need to be included in the draft, feminists have resisted the idea, instead calling for a vision of feminism that is more expansive than just “women can do anything that men can do”. These activists implore people to instead consider how the aims of the United States military are incompatible with the politics of feminism, that works to protect and uplift the lives of women all over the world. 

What The Draft Might Look Like If It Was Reimplemented Today

If the military draft was implemented today, the Selective Service System would likely have a draft lottery based on dates of birth. Much like the lottery during the Vietnam War, officials draw a number that corresponds with a specific date. If your number is drawn, you would be required to serve, likely until the military had filled a certain quota of new recruits. 

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If selected, you wouldn’t necessarily go directly into combat or automatically be inducted. Depending on your living situation, medical problems, or psychological issues, you may be able to defer or avoid service completely. Historically, some have tried to avoid the draft by not registering or by fleeing the country. If you tried to ditch serving or avoid the draft entirely, there would likely be legal ramifications. And the current penalties for someone who has been tried and convicted of evading the draft is a fine of up to $250,000, up to five years in jail, or both. 

If you want to avoid fighting, it’s possible that you can still serve in a role that avoids physical combat. You could be allowed to serve in an Alternate Service Program, with roles available in medical work, scientific research, and more. This program would allow those drafted to explore new fields and develop skills that could be used later while still serving the country. 

Finally, it’s important to remember that, were the draft to be reinstated, it would be likely that this action would again inspire mass protest and resistance. Some activists have noted that the last 20 years’ history of endless wars has created a challenging context within which to organize an anti-war movement, as war has become not a defining feature of life for young people, but rather a permanent feature. Perhaps that will change if changes to the Selective Services Act are considered again. 

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