"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 or civil services on pain of prison or (worst case scenario) death.
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 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. Like most armies, conscripts were often drawn from the lower classes of society - on average poorer, less educated, inferior in discipline, and less loyal than volunteer forces their upper-class commanders and rulers. The rich, powerful, talented, or well-connected could often find ways to get out of serving. This, combined with the forced nature of the service sometimes lead to resentment towards the establishment, as the soldiers saw themselves doing the bleeding for their oppressors profit. As such, conscripted units often defect in droves when dysfunctional regimes collapse.
The use of conscription were formalized in many western nations during the 19th and early 20th centuries, often together with the gradual introduction of democracy. The idea were that if a man has the right to have his say in the governance of the nation, he also has the duty to defend it.
The line between chattel slavery and conscription is sometimes very thin. The armed forces of the Soviet Union was notorious for using conscripts as a very underpaid work force for civilian work, such as building railroads, collecting harvest, demolishing buildings etc.-and often suffering from the expected abuses of corruption and quality expected with untrained labor. Very often they have absolutely zero interest on what they are doing, causing damage by negligence and/or indifference. Aside from their traditional roles, contemporary Egypt uses conscripts as a labor pool for the military's large economic infrastructure, and Israel uses theirs in the role of auxiliary police.
The quality of drafted armies vary greatly, from the borderline Slave Mooks of the most crackpot third-world dictatorship to the Elite Army of nations such as Israel. It is often tied with the overall state of the nation. A rich, modern democracy can give their forces world-class training and equipment and institute their recruited with the idea that their tour of duty is both necessary and educating, if a tad obstructive. On the other hand, lack of resources and inhumane treatment (often a symptom of a corrupt, authoritative government) lead to quality and morale plummeting. Likewise in a war, the quality difference between conscripts and professionals tends to even up the longer the conflict continues. Also in many conscription armies, elite troops such as paratroopers or marines are formed of volunteers.
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 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.
Most Western countries with the notable exceptions of Finland, Denmark, Switzerland and Israelnote For both sexes, although most women draftees serve in non-combat roles. as well as a few others have given up conscription (Finland imprisons young men for conscientious 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 conscientious 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 be 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. Draft Dodging is when someone who has been conscripted seeks to get out of it somehow.
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.
"Anybody who scores over certain thresholds at secondary school graduation gets an offer they’re not allowed to refuse—either civil service or military depending, five years minimum. They thought I had ‘leadership qualities’ so they made me an officer."
Gangs of New York: The latter part takes place during the New York Draft Riots. During the The American Civil War, immigrants were being drafted as soon as they got off the boats, while anyone with enough money could buy their way out of being drafted. Needless to say, this didn't sit well with New York's poor immigrant community, and it degenerated into the closest the U.S.'s ever-present class struggle got to a shooting war.
Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan: I wonder how such a degenerated person [Captain "Hawkeye" Pierce] ever reached a position of authority in the Army Medical Corps.
Father Mulcahy: He was drafted.
Mulan: The Emperor orders the conscription of one man from each family to bolster the ranks of the Chinese army. Mulan's father is the only man in their household, and he sustained a leg injury the last time he went to war that drops his odds of surviving this time around pretty damn low. Mulan, wanting to A. Prove herself and B. Save her father's life, poses as a man and joins in his stead.
Revolution 1985: Ned was forced to join the British as a drummer boy. Fortunately, Tom manages to pull him out of there.
Star Trek The Motion Picture: Dr. McCoy claims to have been recruited back into service due to this. "A little known, seldom used, reserve activation clause."
Starship Troopers 3: Marauder mentions riots over drafts. Despite Heinlein's opposition to conscription (see quotes page). In his original book, the armed forces is all-volunteer (though having the right to vote is contingent on serving, giving people a huge incentive to sign up).
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.
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.
Also appears in Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero: Only in the most technical of senses does Bill "volunteer" to join the army.
The Dresden Files book seven, Dead Beat, has wizard Harry Dresden being drafted into the Wardens of the White Council. The captain of the wardens hands him a Warden's cloak and tells him he's a Warden, now. He doesn't really like it, but accepts it with minimal bitching.
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 on the grounds that they provided weapons and needed their workers to make them during the Horus Heresy, and many Hive Worlds just round up underhive gangs and give them Lasguns. Unlike other examples, Cadian Shock Troops and the Vostroyan Firstborn have the hats of being considered the premier Imperial Guardsmen, and very disciplined, specialized at urban and winter warfare respectively. The troops within both regiments are standardly True Companions with each other.
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.
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.
On the other hand, the generally fascistic Jovian Republic doesn't conscript, but military service is required to earn citizenship ala Starship Troopers, and there's immense social pressure to enlist.
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 Red Alert 3, propaganda improved, and 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. And the Wardens also have a very important secret which they don't tell new recruits until it's too late for them to do anything about it, namely that when you join the Wardens you're actually just trading one death sentence for another, and the death sentence that comes with being a Warden might very well be worse than what was previously in store for you. The best case scenario is that you survive the intiation but end up with a drastically shortened lifespan and have nightmares for the rest of your days. The worst case scenario is that you die horribly during the initiation. If you try to back out of said initiation, you are executed so that you don't tell anybody what it entails. The reasoning behind this last one, according to Alistair, is that if people knew what they'd be forced to sacrifice after joining the Grey Wardens, a lot fewer people would be willing to join. Hence the deception.
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.
Garrosh Hellscream forced out a draft during his time as warchief and considered draft-dodging to be the same thing as treason in his eyes (punishable by trial by combat at best and outright execution at worst). He also conscripted Magnataurs (Mammoth centaurs) by holding their children hostage.
Mass Effect - the turians (Space Romans) have this as part of their highly regimented society. Military / state service begins with boot camp at fifteen.
In the future of the Webcomic S.S.D.D member nations of CORE (supposedly the good guys) all have some form of the draft. Most conscript criminals, who are shamelessly used as Cannon Fodder unless they appear useful.
The Anarchists on the other hand have a completely volunteer military, meaning they have to rely on Inlays and clones.
In The Dementia Of Magic, the King of Landis conscripts all able-bodied men to replace losses suffered when fighting a dragon.
In Drowtales the Vel'Sharen clan has resorted to this following a 15 year timeskip that puts them on the losing side of the war with the upstart Val'Sarghress clan, drafting commoners into a slave army by force or sending them to a surface Penal Colony. Naturally this does not help their reputation one bit.
Conscription was almost the universal method of mustering armies all around the world during the period from The French Revolution to the end of the Vietnam War. This start was probably related to the proliferation of muskets, making a poorly-trained individual have a much better chance at killing a higher-trained one despite the disparity, and ended as the later advancement of accurate breech-loading rifles and automatic firearms gave a distinct advantage toward defense which enforced troops to be coordinated and disciplined to hope to succeed in attacking enemy positions (if not horrifically outnumbering them). Professional armies have more or less superseded 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.
Most industrialized countries retain laws which enable conscription in some form. For example, as the citizenry of the United States are de jure members of the unorganized militia, citizens of the United States may be obligated by federal, state and common law to service in the military or civilian law enforcement, as well as jury duty.
Aside from the fact that modern armies and weaponry make it mostly unnecessary, politicians know that re-instituting the draft is essentially a form of political suicide (unless you win the war within your term, being the guy that forced people who didn't want to fight into the army generally doesn't get you re-elected).
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 long practiced conscription. Upon 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 training periods, 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 Well, okay, it's also because Switzerland is a natural fortress thanks to the Alps..
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/Middle Eastern, Latin American and African countries.
Both Sweden and Russia used conscripts as galley rowers during the Age of Enlightment. Neither of them would have had enough volunteers and slaves would have been too unreliable.