Should there be a Draft? A DBQ & Background Reading

Rumors are circulating that the military draft may be reinstituted, creating anxiety for young people. This classroom activity stimulates classroom debate and helps students practice for social studies Regents exams. The activity includes a brief history of the draft followed by a "document-based question" or DBQ, with arguments for and against a draft.



Who goes to war and why?

Rumors have been flying, especially over the internet, that President Bush will call for a military draft in his second term. The main reason: pressures on the U.S. military because of the Iraq war. But the president said during the election campaign, "We will not have a draft."

The Selective Service System, an agency within the executive branch of the federal government, had the authority to draft men (not women) to fill the needs of the armed services until 1973. The SSS now states on its website ( : "Notwithstanding recent stories...on the internet, Selective Service is not getting ready to conduct a draft for the U.S. Armed Forces...."
"Conscription," or more informally, a draft, was first used in the U.S. during the Civil War, then again during World War I, but eliminated after each war ended. The first peacetime draft came in 1940, a response to mounting dangers as World War II began in Europe. The draft expired at the end of the war but was reestablished two years later in response to growing tensions with the Soviet Union that became known as the Cold War. The Selective Service System drafted men during the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1964-1973).

In 1980 President Jimmy Carter reinstituted the requirement that young men register with the Selective Service System within 30 days of their 18th birthday. This requirement stands today. But since the end of the Vietnam War no one has been drafted, and today the U.S. has an all-volunteer military force of 1.4 million men and women (more than 2 million, according to the Defense Department, if the reserves are added to this force).

The Vietnam War divided the U.S. more than any previous war and the draft played a significant role in creating that division. Opposition eventually came from all age groups as well as across the political spectrum but was especially strong on college campuses, where young men had to decide whether to enlist, to await being drafted, or to find some way to dodge or resist service. In 1970 student demonstrations against the war resulted in National Guard soldiers killing five at Kent State University in Ohio and Mississippi police officers killing two at Jackson State in Mississippi. These deaths spurred protests that closed down close to 500 college campuses.

The Vietnam-era draft, said the commanding officer in Vietnam, William Westmoreland, was "discriminatory, undemocratic and resulted in the war being fought by the poor man's son." During the Vietnam War 27 million men were eligible for the draft (women were not drafted). Some 2.2 million men were drafted and 8.7 million voluntarily enlisted. Some 16 million men (59 percent of draft-aged men) received deferments, exemptions, or disqualifications-they had the right connections or occupations, attended college, or had physical problems that allowed them to avoid military service. Another 500,000 resisted or evaded the draft by declaring themselves conscientious objectors, hiding, or going to Canada. (In contrast, about 75 percent of the men born between 1919 and 1926 served in World War II, and most of the rest were exempted only for physical or mental handicaps.)

"The Vietnam War was fought by working-class teenagers," writes Loren Baritz in his book Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did. "The entire nation went to war, except for the rich, the middle class, the vast majority of college students, and individuals who objected to war, or who objected to that war." Of course there were exceptions like John Kerry, who, despite coming from a wealthy family, enlisted and became a naval lieutenant.

"Poor young Americans, white as well as black and Hispanic, were twice as likely to be drafted and twice as likely to be assigned to combat as wealthier draft-aged youth," says Baritz. "One study of Chicago neighborhoods found that kids from areas with low educational levels were four times as likely to be killed in Vietnam as those from more schooled neighborhoods." While draftees made up 16 percent of battle deaths in 1965, they were 62 percent of deaths in 1969. About 58,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam and another 300,000 were wounded.

In today's all-volunteer military, three of every five soldiers are white; two of every five are African-American, Hispanic or other (Asian, Native American or Pacific Islander). This force is not fully representative of America: proportionately, there are more African-American, Latinos, and working class people in the military than in American society. The wealthy and the very poor are underrepresented. (Statistics from the Department of Defense's Population Representation in the Military Services, as reported in the New York Times, 3/3/03.)

Volunteers enlist for a variety of reasons. Important among them are a weak job market, especially for teenage high school graduates or dropouts, and enticements like bonuses, college credit, and money promised for college tuition upon discharge from the services.

An example is Heather Katick, whose story was featured on NOW with Bill Moyers (PBS, 11/5/04). Heather Katick is the 18-year-old daughter of a single woman in Nevada who earns a little more than the minimum wage working in a Nevada diner.

An interviewer asked Heather, "So what are your plans for next year?"

"After I graduate...most likely I'll probably go into the Army...that way I can get money for college...see what the Army has to offer me. And if I like it I'll stay."

"Does it kind of scare you that joining the Army now means you'll probably be going off to war?"

"It does. It does scare me. I mean it scares me pretty bad. But it's just a sacrifice that I'm going to have to make."

Heather's mother Penny commented, "It just seems like it's ridiculous for the only way for a girl, you know, a young girl to go to college is to go to war, you know? It just doesn't make any sense to me. But what are you going to do? If it's a way out of here then she needs to take it."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why has the possibility of a military draft once again become a subject for debate in the U.S.?

3. What function does the Selective Service System have today?

4. What problems about the draft appeared during the Vietnam War? Why did General Westmoreland regard the draft process as unfair?

5. What differences and similarities are there between the great majority of those who served in the Vietnam War and those who serve in Iraq today?

6. What does Penny Katick mean when she says of her daughter Heather's likely enlistment in the Army, "If it's a way out of here then she needs to take it"? Since Heather says "it scares me pretty bad" about joining the Army, why will she probably join?

For further inquiry

1. Civil War draft riots in New York City

2. Killings of students at Kent State and Jackson State

3. How prominent Americans avoided Vietnam military service: President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney.

4. How the draft system worked during the Vietnam War

5. Reasons why young men and women enlist in the military today

6. Material rewards today for military service in the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force

7. Study ads for the armed services. What messages do they give about serving in the military? What needs, interests, and dreams of young people do the ads seem to appeal to? Does reality match the promises in the ads?

Student Exercise : A DBQ

To prepare students for the DBQ (document-based question) exercise, you might want to have students break into small groups.

Assign each group one of the quotes below on the pros and cons of required military service. Give the groups 15-20 minutes to discuss whether they agree or disagree with the quote and perhaps conduct a vote on whether a draft should be instituted. Ask a reporter from each group to summarize its findings for the class.

Then conduct a whole-class discussion, followed, perhaps, by a final class vote on whether or not to institute the draft.

DBQ: Pros and Cons of a Military Draft

Read each paragraph, and then answer the question following it. After you have read all of the paragraphs, write an essay in response to the question at the bottom.


House Resolution 163 and Senate Bill 89: Universal Service Act of 2003
"To provide for the common defense by requiring that all young persons in the United States, including women, perform a period of military service or a period of civil service in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security, and for other purposes.
—Co-Sponsored in the House of Representatives by 14 members and in the
Senate by 1 member

Question: According to HR 163, what would be the purpose of requiring all young men and women to perform military service?


"The most important reason to oppose HR 163 is that a draft violates the very principles of individual liberty upon which our nation was founded....Some say the 18-year-old draftee 'owes it' to his [or her, since HR 163 makes women eligible for the draft] country. Hogwash!....All drafts are unfair. All 18- and 19-year-olds are never drafted. By its very nature a draft must be discriminatory. All drafts hit the most vulnerable young people, as the elites learn quickly how to avoid the risks of combat....The draft encourages wars with neither purpose nor moral justification, wars that too often are not even declared by the Congress."
—Representative Ron Paul (Republican of Texas), 10/7/04

Question: What are two reasons for Representative Paul's opposition to HR 163?


"Bring back the draft. The Congress that voted overwhelmingly to allow the use of force in Iraq includes only one member who has a child in the enlisted ranks of the military just a few more have children who are officers....A renewed draft will help bring a great appreciation of the consequences of decisions to go to war. Service in our nation's armed forces is no longer a common experience. A disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military, while the most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent."
—Representative Charles B. Rangel (Democrat of New York)

Question: Why does Representative Rangel think that a military draft would help Americans to understand better the consequences of the nation's going to war?


"There's not an American...that doesn't understand what we are engaged in today and what the prospects are for the future. If that's the case, why shouldn't we ask all of our citizens to bear some responsibility and pay some price?" This would force "our citizens to understand the intensity and depth of challenges we face....Those who are serving today and dying today are the middle class and lower middle class."
—Senator Chuck Hagel (Republican of Nebraska)

Question: What is one reason why Senator Hagel supports a draft?


Conscription "rests on the assumption that your kids belong to the state. If we buy that assumption then it is for the state not for parents, the community, the religious institutions or teachers to decide who shall have what values and who shall do what work, when, where and how in our society. That assumption isn't a new one. The Nazis thought it was a great idea."
—former president Ronald Reagan

Question: How does Reagan connect conscription with Nazi philosophy?


"I can't imagine our country going back to a draft. We don't need it. We're able to attract and retain wonderful people the way we're doing it as long as we provide the appropriate incentives. And certainly this is country that's wealthy enough to do that."
—Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense in the current Bush administration

Question: What does Secretary Rumsfeld's reference to the wealth of the U.S. have to do with his opposition to a draft?

DBQ Question:

Controversy over required military service by all young men and women goes as far back as the Civil War when there were riots opposing the draft in New York City.

Using information from the documents and your knowledge of history, write a well-organized essay that includes an introduction, several paragraphs, and a conclusion in which you:

  • compare and contrast different viewpoints on a draft
  • discuss your own viewpoint and the reasons for it

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: