Military History Conscription
Nicholas A. Krehbiel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0120


Conscription refers to the act of forcing individuals to serve in the military. In addition to a formal military draft, compulsory training and militia service is also a part of conscription history. While it has precedents from the Roman Empire and the feudal era in the Western Hemisphere, conscription really began to be cemented as a part of the modern military service dynamic during the Napoleonic Era. In the United States, the American Civil War saw the first use of a draft in both the Union and Confederate armies. All of the major global wars since the 19th century have seen conscripted armies fight in combat, and in some cases the major European powers maintained a large involuntary force prior to World War I. World War II was largely a war of conscripts as well. In the United States, with its Cold War-era wars in Korea and Vietnam, conscription played a major role in the dynamics of those conflicts both on the home front and the battlefield, particularly during the Vietnam years. Furthermore, it was the Vietnam experience that helped bring an end to conscription in the United States in 1973. Conscription was also a part of the European military dynamic during the Cold War, such as with National Service until 1963 in Great Britain, or as in the case of the Soviet Union throughout its existence. Also of great significance to the conscription debate is conscientious objection and anti-war movements, which in many cases became somewhat of an anti-draft movement. Due to a large number of sources on conscientious objection within the history of conscription, those works are woven in to a discussion of their respective wars, unless the work covers conscientious objection or draft resistance in a larger sense.

General Overviews and Bibliography

The history of conscription is not a topic that has been a major focal point of military historians. As such, there is only one bibliography (Anderson 1976) that focuses explicitly on the subject. Karsten 1998, while a disjointed collection of journal articles, is a valuable starting point for understanding the institution of conscription and its global impact. Marble 2012 is similar, though the chapters are not collected journal articles and are more similar in scope. There are no major works that cover the entire breadth of conscription in any given country, let alone in a comparative sense. Hay 2008 does include some historical analysis. Flynn 1993 covers the draft in the United States from World War II to the end of conscription in 1973. There is a comparative overview of the draft in the United States, Great Britain, and France during the 20th century in Flynn 2002. O’Sullivan 1982 examines the history of the American Congress and the draft. In American history, Cohen 1985 provides an excellent overview of the history of military service. The Canadian conscription experience is covered in Granatstein and Hitsman 1977.

  • Anderson, Martin. Conscription: A Select and Annotated Bibliography. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution, 1976.

    The standard bibliography on a subject that has received scant attention in the scholarly world.

  • Cohen, Eliot. Citizens and Soldiers: The Dilemmas of Military Service. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

    Cohen, a prominent military theorist, examines conscription as a part of a larger discussion of the history of military service.

  • Flynn, George Q. The Draft, 1940–1973. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.

    Flynn is one of the premier historians of conscription, and this is his seminal work.

  • Flynn, George Q. Conscription and Democracy: The Draft in France, Great Britain, and the United States. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.

    A unique comparative analysis of the three major democratic powers and their conscription dynamic throughout the 20th century.

  • Granatstein, J. L., and J. M. Hitsman. Broken Promises: A History of Conscription in Canada. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

    Granatstein and Hitsman chronicle the fascinating dynamic of Canadian conscription in the modern era.

  • Hay, Jeff. Military Draft. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2008.

    A general overview that includes a number of countries and a number of issues surrounding military conscription.

  • Karsten, Peter, ed. Recruiting, Drafting, and Enlisting: Two Sides of the Raising of Military Forces. New York: Garland, 1998.

    Covers manpower issues in global military history from the era of Hessian conscription to the Cold War.

  • Marble, Sanders, ed. Scraping the Barrel: The Military Use of Substandard Manpower, 1860–1960. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823239771.001.0001

    Edited volume covering military manpower issues (not just conscription) in the United States and Europe from 1860–1960.

  • O’Sullivan, John. From Voluntarism to Conscription: Congress and Selective Service, 1940–1973. New York: Garland, 1982.

    O’Sullivan provides an overview of the lawmaking apparatus for conscription in the United States in this work.

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