This Is Us and the Military Draft

Can you recall the last time there was a military draft? Some of you might be able to, but likely most of you may not.

The military draft was last active in 1973. Throughout history, the U.S. has relied heavily on conscription of its citizens during wartime to establish its military and later to augment its professional military forces. Citizens were conscripted for service in the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and then continuously from 1949 onward through the Korea and Vietnam conflicts. In 1973, President Nixon ended the use of the draft and the military shifted to an All-Volunteer Force staffing model which relied on the National Guard and Reserve as the initial and primary source for augmenting the active force.

Whether you’re able to recall the last military draft or not, if you watch the show This Is Us, then you may have some familiarity. We were excited that a prime-time show address a topic central to the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service during our three-year effort. Given that we coexist at the same time, we wanted to dig in on the similarities.

Spoilers. If you have followed the storyline, then you know this or at least we hope you do. Like many of you, we value Rebecca, Kevin, Randall, and Kate’s storyline, but, if we are honest, it was the Pearson brothers who caught our attention. Both Jack and Nick (Nicky) Pearson served in the Vietnam War, but their path to service was very different.

The last draft took place during the Vietnam War and the show gives us a glimpse of what that was like in one powerful scene. In one of the flashbacks, Jack and Nicky go to a bar to watch the first televised Selective Service national draft lottery. The Director of the Selective Service System calls out numbers and the birthdays attached to those numbers. Nicky is adamant that his birthday will be called and indeed October 18 was the fifth one drawn from the possible 366 birthdays. While we understand that any fictional show will have some inaccuracies, there is a lot in the scene that is true. On December 2, 1969, the United States held its first draft lottery, the clip you see in This is Us is the real footage streamed across all televisions in America for the 1970 lottery draft. According to USA Today, October 18 was the fifth draft number called in real life.

Rep. Alexander Pirnie, R-NY, draws the first capsule in the lottery drawing held on December 1, 1969. The capsule contained the date, September 14. Source: Selective Service System

Although the Selective Service System is commonly referred to as “the draft,” they are two separate things. A “draft” is the call up of eligible age-range Americans for evaluation and induction into the military. Congress would have to pass legislation authorizing a draft and the president would have to sign it into law for a draft to commence. The Selective Service System is an independent federal agency — entirely separate from the Department of Defense — that maintains a database of all people required to register, which can be pulled from during a national emergency. In the event of a draft, the Selective Service System conducts a national lottery, notifies selected individuals, and processes claims for deferments and exemptions. For those exempted from military service due to conscientious objection, it also manages an alternative service program that would provide opportunities for non-military service for men who are selected by lottery.

There is currently no draft, yet men 18 to 25 years of age are required to register with the Selective Service System. While the nation’s military remains an all-volunteer force, in 1980 President Carter resumed the Selective Service System registration requirement in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to ensure the nation could conscript in the future if the need arises.

Selective Service System registration form. Source: Selective Service System

This is Us, the military draft, and the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service do have one thing in common — the Selective Service System. The Commission was charged with answering two important questions:

  • First, do we still need the Selective Service System and, if so, does the current system require modifications?
  • Second, how can we, as a nation, create an ethos of service and increase participation in military, national, and public service?

We are sure you have thoughts about the plotline of This Is Us, but what we really want to hear from you are your thoughts on the first question above — Do we still need the Selective Service System and, if so, does the current system require modifications?

Please share your thoughts on the question by December 31, 2019, on our website, via snail mail or email. The Commission is also accepting comments on the two staff memos released in conjunction with the four selective service hearings we hosted earlier this month: Readiness of Selective Service and Structure of a Future National Mobilization and Expanding Selective Service Registration to All Americans. We hope you share your thoughts with us and join the conversation online by tagging us @Inspire2ServeUS and using the hashtag #Inspire2Serve.

National Commission on Service

Written by

Commission to review the military selective service process and to consider methods to increase participation in military, national, & public service.

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