"The three of us went into the service together: me and two MPs."
AKA "The Draft".
In a nutshell the word "conscription" means forced service in one's country's armed forces on pain of death penalty or imprisonment, and usually with little or no compensation.
Some people who find themselves in armed conflict aren't there by choice. Nations both real and fictional enact campaigns of conscription, forced military service, for a variety of reasons. Maybe they are a small nation overwhelmed by a superior opponent. Maybe a war of attrition
has left their forces decimated and badly in need of additional manpower. Maybe making it really easy to opt into alternative non-military service is cheaper and easier (for the government) than hiring hospital orderlies and highway clean-up crews on the open job market.
In many countries the conscription serves as a Rite of Passage
: a man is not considered to be a man unless he has served his conscription tour of duty
. Conscription may also be the tyrant's method of breaking the will of his subjects and subjugating them to blind obedience. Another reason for conscription is to (in theory) foster a sense of national solidarity; everyone will have the same experience of serving in the armed forces. Whatever the reason, conscription has a long history in both fiction and the real world.
But conscription is a double-edged sword. Armies of conscripts are often drawn from the lower classes of society
- on average poorer, less educated, inferior in discipline, and less loyal than volunteer forces. Conscription creates numbers, not quality
and since the conscript manpower is very heterogeneous, the training needs to be always planned according to the learning ability of the least capable and least intelligent men. This means the training of the conscripts is usually very rudimentary (marching, close formation drill, basic shooting, wilderness survival and weapon handling sills) and its equipment poor. Many conscript forces have problems with fighting in the barracks, hazing, drug abuse, racism, and in some cases even mutinies. The erstwhile soldiers are fully aware that they are civilians in uniform, and often desire to get home the fastest way possible- if necessary, by legging it off the field if things go pear-shaped. Conscripts tend to be more willing to
commit war crimes and atrocities than professional soldiers and have more disciplinary problems than professional soldiers.
The Soviet Army was notorious on using conscripts as unfree unpaid work force for civilian work, such as building railroads, collecting harvest, demolishing buildings etc. As such, there was very little difference between conscription and chattel slavery.
Many conscripts see themselves as Cannon Fodder
, and either Red Shirt Army
at best, or Slave Mooks
or Battle Thralls
at worst, as their gear and level of training is often of low quality and they tend to rather rely on sheer numbers
and mass attack tactics
than sophistication. The term "human wave attack," another term for Zerg Rush
, originates in the People's Liberation Army of China, who employed this tactic in the Korean War with appalling results.
Nevertheless, conscript armies can be very effective because of the sheer numbers and how it is renewable
, and conscription may be the only way for a small nation to raise a credible-sized army.
While the conscription was theorized already by Machiavelli and the Enlightenment philosophers, the French were the first to set up a national conscription army
. Conscription became the universal de facto
method of raising armies after the French Revolution
. Mass production and railways for transportation made it possible to raise enormous armies, equip and feed them. Without conscription it would have been impossible to raise the humongous armies
which participated in the mass battles in World War One
and World War II
The philosophy behind the conscription was the idea that every able-bodied man is a soldier and that the men owe their very existence to the state, and that the state can call the men to defend itself at any moment. The ancient Sparta and its order was seen as an ideal.
Unfortunately, the reality seldom conforms to ideals. Most men are not warlike by their nature, and even fewer like to be forced into servitude
and be forced to risk their life and limb with no compensation - especially if they have nothing personal on the stake in the war. The rich
, powerful, talented, or well-connected
can often find ways to get out of serving
. Conscript armies and criminals serving
to get a pardon
are more likely to flee, and tend to waste their time devising petty ways to cause trouble for higher-ups, since they know those don't care about their life
. The Libertarians have always opposed conscription, seeing it as "the most vile form of statism."
Most Western countries with the notable exceptions of Finland, Denmark, Switzerland and Israel as well as a few others have given up conscription (Finland imprisons young men for conscientous objection if the man in question is deemed healthy enough for military service, and in Denmark, it is decided by a random draw whether the objectors will have to do civilian service or military service nevertheless, effectively "halving" the right of conscientous objection and making work for the state mandatory for all young men without physical and mental disabilities) and moved to professional armies. Conscription is even today the universal method of raising armies in the Third World. (How much of this is even enforced varies from country to country).
On the other hand, there have been recent calls in some Western countries to bring back the draft
(and applied regardless of gender or class) but for reasons similar to the justifications used by nations still using it. Conscription in this light, when combined with civilian service is also a means of national cohesion and providing jobs and skills. In addition, exposing citizens of all stripes to the realities of war
also serves as a way of both reining in the military and providing a clearer understanding of what they're fighting for.
Conscription is the Trope Codifier
for Cannon Fodder
and Trope Maker
for Slave Mooks
Portrayals of Conscription in fiction
Anime and Manga
- In Rurouni Kenshin, the reason why Kaoru is a dojo master is because her father was conscripted and then died in the line of duty, leaving her as the only person fully trained in the family kendo style.
- In One Piece, the Marines seem to have issued one of these over the Time Skip. After all, they lost a heavy chunk of their forces in their campaign against Whitebeard, three of their most powerful soldiers (Sengoku, Garp, and Kuzan) left the Marines afterwards, and one (Sakazuki) got promoted to a desk job. The two Admirals that replaced Sakazuki and Kuzan were brought into the Marines this way.
- In Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, instead of conscripting people at random, they conscript all the smart and fit people for military service. Too bad things go horribly wrong on Earth soon afterwards.
- The Horatio Hornblower series, Trope Codifier for Wooden Ships and Iron Men, features English press gangs roving the countryside, looking for men to rip away from their families and livelihoods to forcibly turn into seamen. Hornblower himself illegally presses men from merchant ships at one point and turns over escaped prisoners he'd promised freedom to the King's service in another book. (This is actually a popular myth; impressment was limited to merchant crews during wartime. Pressing landsmen was an invitation to deep trouble for any officer who tried it.)
- In the first Richard Bolitho novel, Captain Bolitho relies on the fear of the press gang to crew his ship, by sending it above a port town to lie in wait for the civilians who run to hide from the press gang when they hear it's coming.
- In Malevil, Vilmain's roving army gives captured men a choice: join or die.
- In L. M. Montogomery's Rilla of Ingleside, World War I brings political uphevel to Canada: people who have voted for one party all their lives feel obliged to switch because they think instituting conscription is wrong, or is both right and necessary.
- The Empire in the Star Wars Expanded Universe prefers volunteers, but as seen in The Thrawn Trilogy, they took conscripts too. Captain Pellaeon despairs a little, seeing his Chimera, one of the strongest ships in what was left of the Empire, crewed by youths and conscripts.
- Myth Directions: In order to steal the MacGuffin from a public square, Aahz and Skeeve pretend to be members of the local military and claim that the city is being invaded. Aahz then declairs that if anyone wants to volunteer they should step forward, or else go home. The square is soon deserted, and Aahz chuckles about how nobody likes the Draft.
- Played with in the SpikeMilligan's Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall:
- In The Black Obelisk (1956) by Erich Maria Remarque the protagonist, a World War I veteran reacts to claim by his compatriot that the abolition of conscription in Germany, enforced by the Versailles Treaty equals to "slavery" with: Strange how different the ideas of slavery can be! In my opinion, I came closest to it when I was a recruit in uniform.
- Babylon 5: It is mentioned in passing that Earth had a planet-wide draft at least as far back as the Earth-Minbari War, although Captain Sheridan had joined some time before that.
- M*A*S*H: A pretty large percentage of the cast. In fact, for the first three seasons all of the main cast (and most of the recurrers) except Margaret were draftees.
- The Revolution 2006: In the episode "Rebellion to Revolution", African American slaves were conscripted on both the American and British sides.
- In Warhammer 40,000, whenever a large threat appears the Imperial planets in the surrounding area conscript men and women into the Imperial Guard in large amounts and teach them an extremely rough form of the basics while on their way to the fight. Their helmets have a white stripe on the top so they can be easily identified and sent to die to help out actual trained guardsmen.
- Not that volunteers are common place, like most of the Imperium it depends on the world.
- And some of those worlds' entire militaries (of which at least 10% are sent to the Guard) are composed of conscripts, for example: Every single Cadian serves at least four years due to their proximity to the Eye of Terror (Cadia is a "fortress world"), every firstborn son of Vostroya as penance for the planet refusing to provide soldiers to other Imperial planetsnote during the Horus Heresy, and many Hive Worlds just round up underhive gangs and give them Lasguns. Unlike other examples, Cadian Shock Troops are considered the premier Imperial Guardsmen; while the Vostroyan Firstborn are very disciplined, specialized at urban and winter warfare, and the troops within regiments are standardly True Companions with each other.
- A different form of this is Penal Legions, men and women recruited from penal colonies and the prisons of normal worlds which are even more expendable. They often go into battle wearing collars that can be remote detonated.
- Possibly the most extreme example of this in the Imperium can be found in the Death Korps of Krieg. While "normal" worlds pay their debt through the manufacture of goods, Krieg's only resource is its people: every single human born on Krieg is conscripted to service in the Death Korps. This is taken to such an extreme that the use of near-forbidden technology is needed to maintain any form of population.
- It is not uncommon for entire generations of a planet to be drafted in a pinch.
- The Imperial Navy recruits all it's non-skilled workers by press-ganging everyone too slow to escape from the "recruiters". Those souls then load the starships guns and other necessary functions. With ropes. While being whipped.
- In Warhammer, the Bretonnian men-at-arms are all conscripts with the notable exception of Grail Pilgrims.
- Skaven Clanrats are conscripts. Skavenslaves are, as the name implies, Battle Thralls.
- As are Goblins in Orc armies.
- In Eclipse Phase all citizens of the Titanian Commonwealth are required to give three years of civil service, with an emphasis on military and security. And like Switzerland those who served in the militia are required to own an assault rifle, as well as a suit of Powered Armor. Oddly their Anarchist allies don't object to it much.
- A few examples from the Civilization series:
- In the original Civilization, Conscription was a scientific advancement that allowed you to build the Riflemen units, which were the single best defensive force in the entire game (with the exception of the Mechanized Infantry).
- In Civilization III and IV, there is an option to draft units from your cities: each use of the "draft" button turns one unit of population into the "basic" unit of your time. Since in both games, conscription requires the technology Nationalism (in III, it is required directly; in IV, Nationalism is required for the Nationhood civic, which is the only civic that allows you to draft units), this generally starts with Riflemen (or equivalent; the English in IV got to draft their unique unit, the Redcoat, generally considered far more awesome), and then Infantry and Mech Infantry later on. Drafting causes unhappiness in both games, and the units receive an upgrade penalty.
- Command & Conquer: Red Alert gives us... Conscripts. In the two games the poor saps have appeared in, they're the cheapest basic infantry unit. Let's put it this way: The other factions have scouting units that cost more than the Conscript.
- Their respective personalities varied from the second game to the third game. In the Red Alert 2, they were mildly patriotic but mostly unwilling basic soldiers. In the red Alert 3, they became incredibly jingoistic morons, eager to throw themselves at anything declared an enemy. They will eagerly attack an Apocalypse tank while yelling, "Field promotion, here I come!"
- The Right of Conscription is available to the Grey Wardens in Dragon Age, which allows them to conscript anyone they need into the Wardens, from prince to commoner. Generally, though, the Wardens only conscript exceptional people to get them out of trouble with the law or otherwise save them, i.e. conscripting a highly-skilled thief to save him from the gallows, a magi who unintentionally helped a blood mage and is facing Tranquilification as a result, or conscripting an elf who is facing trouble with the city guard after fighting through a noble's estate to save their female friends from being raped.
- As well, the Grey Wardens are only interested in the very best. Everyone else doesn't have good odds of surviving the initiation. They're all picked because they demonstrated their strength. It's shown in Awakening that they don't have to conscript people in trouble with the law, as you can conscript a rogue who has nowhere else to go, an elven keeper who has personal reasons for fighting Darkspawn, and a dwarven warrior with prior experience fighting Darkspawn who wants to join, in addition to the rogue mage facing execution for a crime he didn't commit. Oh, and another dwarven warrior who's already part of the cheerily-named "Legion of the Dead", and thus doesn't have much to lose.
- It should be noted that condemned people aren't recruited in order to save them as much as to assure their loyalty by giving them a way out. Seeing that the alternative is taking a dirt nap, condemned individuals are also usually much more willing to be conscripted than most fellows, which results in better motivated recruits. The Gray Wardens are above all pragmatic, not merciful. Especially since they're actually just trading one death sentence for another.
- Valkyria Chronicles: The nation of Gallia had an extensive conscription program linked with public education; and children as young as 12 served in front line combat.
- This is similar to the Swiss and Israeli methods described below.
- The Orcs in World of Warcraft, as part of being the local Warrior Race, seem to conscript their members more than any other player race in the game. But since they're a heavy warrior culture, and dying in battle is considered their greatest honor, none seem to mind.
- Mass Effect - the turians (Space Romans) have this as part of their highly regimented society. Military / state service begins with boot camp at fifteen.
- Wartime Cartoons often featured this as a plot point. The Looney Tunes short Draftee Daffy features a frightened Daffy Duck being stalked by a fairly creepy draft board worker.
- Popeye: Bluto was once drafted and protested they couldn't do this to him. In the back of his conscription notice there was written "Oh yes, we can".
- The Venture Bros.: All citizens in Ünderland are drafted into Baron Ünderbheit's infantry at the age of 12 and required to serve until they are 37. They are executed on their 38th birthday.
- Conscription was almost the universal method of mustering armies all around the world during the period from The French Revolution to the end of Vietnam War. Professional armies have more or less superceded conscription in the industrialized Western world, but many countries still cling to it.
- Most industrialized countries haven't recently been in a war that requires more troops than voluntary enlistments can produce. Even in the past conscription was rarely used until a war started and the army had to get very large very quickly.
- Ancient Greece had it very uniquely compared to contemporary examples for quite a while in its time: All citizens were expected to serve in military campaigns - but citizens were of the middle-class and the lack of a standing army concept in the area ensured that conflicts would be short (usually a single battle) and only took place in the summertime since it wasn't feasible for city-states to maintain an army and keep their city's lifeblood away from their day jobs for any longer.
- Small, independent countries such as Israel and Switzerland have a variation on conscription: compulsory service. On coming of age, every citizen serves a period of time in the military, usually a couple of years. After leaving the military, there are periodic refresher trainings, usually once a year. In the event that the country is attacked, they can then call upon every single one of their citizens over a certain age to defend. There's a reason people don't usually fare well in all-out warfare with either countrynote .
- In Singapore, it is possible for a foreigner to obtain citizenship by volunteering for the initial two years of military service but subsequently he or she is subject to the same regular call-up as other citizens. The physically unfit are relegated to desk jobs such as the Logistics Divisions, which count as service.
- As already mentioned, this is most common in Asian, Latin American and African countries. The only exceptions of this are Japannote and Phillipines in Asia.