A Guide to the Selective Service System and Why We Should Bid it Adieu

dorit gevaDorit Geva 
Central European University.

In the final weeks of 2015, the United States Defense Secretary, Ash Carter, announced that as of January 2016 all military positions within the All Volunteer Force (AVF) would be opened to women. President Obama’s Press Secretary later clarified that the Department of Defense has provided Congress with an analysis of how this change would affect the Military Selective Service Act—the legislation which sets up the infrastructure for the federal draft system. The White House is now in consultation with the Department of Defense and Congress in order to assess whether opening the most dangerous combatant positions to women soldiers has implications for the male-only draft system.

Few politicians and citizens are indifferent to the specter of women’s draft registration. Impassioned opinion pieces for and against women’s registration are starting to proliferate in the media and blogosphere. The topic is also entering presidential debates. And yet few really understand how the United States draft system was designed to work.

What is the Selective Service System, and why does it have such an ungainly name? Why might the recent decision to open all combat positions to women in the All Volunteer Force affect draft registration? And how can we assess the range of options available to the Department of Defense, Congress, and the White House?

This week, in three subsequent posts, I will answer these questions one by one, and explain why I think the Selective Service System needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

What is the Selective Service System and how does it work?

Founded in 1917 with American entrance into WWI, the Selective Service System was created as the first truly federal conscription system. Several factors intervened to create a uniquely American-style form of mandatory military service. Modeled, to a certain degree, after the Union Army’s Civil War “enrollment boards,” Selective Service was devised to organize a national military service system with a high degree of local autonomy.

A central principle from its inception has been the selection of only some registrants for service, as opposed to more universalistic conscription models implemented in countries such as France or Israel. In addition to federalist principles, which ensured that conscription would be locally organized, Selective Service was also explicitly designed in 1917 to create a non-universal military system in order to limit the costs arising from paying hefty dependency benefits to soldiers’ families. Hence it was called the Selective Service System.

The WWI blueprint is still at the core of Selective Service. Local draft boards were created to sift through male registrants. Following quotas and guidelines issued from National Headquarters in Washington, D.C., local boards were vested with the power to determine which men would be drafted, and who would be deferred. A classification system was formulated in late 1917, which meant that each male registrant was assigned a classification based on a combination of factors such as employment and family status. The more a man could show he was a genuine breadwinner with dependents, and the more his employment was valued for the national and local economy, the lower his classification, and the lower the likelihood of being drafted.

Policymakers by the end of WWI were aware of racial disparities in draft rates. Nonetheless, it was deemed a success. Although it was halted at the end of WWI, it was revived again in 1940 with some modifications, and operated continuously from WWII until 1973. Student deferments were added to the classification system during the Korean War. A lottery system was introduced during the Vietnam War in 1969, but it did not displace the classification and deferment scheme. Many men avoided the draft not only by becoming draft dodgers, students, or conscientious objectors, but simply by marrying and becoming fathers.

While no draft has been enacted since the acrimonious Vietnam War draft halted in 1973, almost all men living on American soil between the ages of 18-25, including undocumented migrants, need to register with Selective Service or else face certain penalties. The classification scheme still exists. The Selective Service System is designed to organize a pool of manpower in case of national emergency, and to select only some men for service. Women’s draft registration would bring about the biggest change to Selective Service since its creation in 1917.


Dorit Geva is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Central European University. She has written comparatively about the United States draft system in her book, Conscription, Family, and the Modern State: A Comparative Study of France and the United States (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and in several journal articles, a list of which can be found here. She can be reached at gevad@ceu.edu, and her Twitter handle is @socioeurope

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