"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 or serving in units with very little chances to actually go to actual war. 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 heyday of conscription was from Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871 through both World Wars to Vietnam War when its popularity in the Western world began to wane. The Falklands War 1982 was the first war where a smaller but more technologically advanced and capable professional force defeated a larger conscription army. Since 1990s, conscription has been seen in the Western Europe more and more as an anachronism, yet some countries still cling to it. But as conscription is a fairly efficient method on raising numerically strong armies quickly, some countries, such as Sweden, have planned on reinstating it.

Since conscription is by definition based on coercion, 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. Conscript soldiers in Imperial Japan were subject to extreme abuse, as they grimly joked that their lives were worth only 1 sen 5 rin (i.e. worth a single postage stamp, for sending a draft notice), and were called upon to do all manner of drudgery at their superiors' whim. 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. Conscription also heavily overlaps with press-ganging: several countries are known to use either the threat of heavy penalties or considerable force to bring unwilling conscript recruits to barracks. It is not unusual in Finland the unwilling and drunken recruits being brought to barracks on police escort. In peacetime, attempting to avoid service may easily lead into imprisonment, during the wartime, into execution.

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, authoritarian government) lead to quality and morale plummeting. But one should be careful about this generalization: even a brutalized conscript army can be a effective fighting force if properly equipped, motivated, and led and historically such conscript armies have managed to achieve just as much as professional ones. 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 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 I and World War II.

Most Western countries with the notable exceptions of Finland, Denmark, Switzerland and Israelnote  as well as a few others have given up conscription (Finland imprisons young men for refusing both military and alternative civilian service 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). In some countries, such as Norway and Israel, conscription extends also to girls.

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: M. Scott Peck has argued that if citizens of a democracy don't have to actually bleed when their country fights a war, they're more likely to support a warmongering government.

Conscription is the Trope Codifier for Cannon Fodder and for Men Are the Expendable Gender, and Trope Maker for Slave Mooks. Draft Dodging is when someone who has been conscripted seeks to get out of it somehow. See also Press-Ganged for when this is done with brute force.

Portrayals of Conscription in fiction

    open/close all folders 

     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) either went off active duty or left the Marines entirely 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.

     Fan Works  

  • In Worldwar: War of Equals, many nations enact (or in some cases reenact) the draft to fight the alien invaders numbering in the millions.
  • In The Stalking Zuko Series, the Fire Nation has conscription, which results in a fair amount of the nation being away at war, leaving behind abandoned homes. Of course, it only really applies to the the lower classes, since the upper classes can dodge the draft.
  • Discussed in The Wrong Reflection. Dal Kanril Eleya, the mirror universe counterpart of First-Person Smartass Captain Kanril Eleya, mentions in passing that she was conscripted into the Cardassian Guard.
    "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."


  • The Bridge: In the last days of World War II, seven teenaged boys from a town in western Germany are drafted to fight for Hitler. The boys are eager enough when their draft notices arrive. Their parents are horrified, and veteran soldiers are either appalled or blackly amused when they see raw teens being trained.
  • 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.
  • M*A*S*H:
    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.
    • In the US military, anyone with an MD is commissioned at rank O-3 (Captain, in the Army), so he was drafted right into that rank. One would have thought a career Army nurse would've been well aware of that fact.
  • 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."
    McCoy: In simpler language, Captain, they drafted me.
  • 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 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.
    • It becomes averted once Thrawn gets his hands on some cloning cylinders and starts pumping out clones in droves. In fact, he's even able to use the fact that the Empire no longer needs conscripts as a way to soften the blow for the planets that he successfully conquers.
  • 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.
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted. One can't help thinking it's a gripe session by Harry Harrison over being drafted for the US Army Air Forces during World War II.
    • 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.

     Live Action TV  

  • 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.
    • Technically speaking, the Centauri civilians are all women and children: upon reaching adulthood everyone serves in the military (either the royal armed forces or a House militia) for a tour, upon which he can choose if staying in active service or becoming a reservist that can be recalled in service in case of necessity. Also, when things get really bad, they can raise battalions among their slaves.
  • 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.
  • Misfits: In an alternate timeline where the Axis powers won WWII, Simon is conscripted into the Nazi Party.

     Tabletop Games  

  • 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 their underhive gangs and order them towards the enemy. 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.
    • 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 its 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.
    • And then there's Commander Chenkov, whose strategy is based entirely on "send all the infantry towards the enemy at once", using them to clear mines by walking over them, attack fortresses and defenses without benefit of artillery, sends troops against Tyranids without tanks or artillery (Tyranids being the guys who replenish their forces by eating dead bodies), shooting those Guardsmen who are somehow more afraid of the enemy than him, whose regiment has been refounded dozens of times, and has a special rule that brings reinforcements every turn. There are orks who take better care of their troops then him, yet somehow it keeps getting him victories and medals.
  • 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.
    • The High Elves are one of the more surprising examples of this trope. As is the case with most elves in fiction, they're a Dying Race, and so conscription of all young males is necessary to allow the tiny elven population to maintain a decent standing army.
  • 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 à la Starship Troopers, and there's immense social pressure to enlist.

     Video Games  

  • 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 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.
  • You can enforce this in the Tropico games. This lowers the education standards for soldiers, but it has the downside of increasing the chances of them rebelling or leaving the island. Plus, the soldiers you get from this edict are nowhere near as good as those that aren't conscripted.
  • Found in newspaper articles in the opening of We Happy Few. After the German Empire invaded Britain and forcibly recruited the locals into their war with the Soviet Union, they conscripted as many people as they could into their army, with the conscription age being lowered to 13. This may have caused the Very Bad Thing, the sheer guilt of which almost destroyed Wellington Wells.


     Western Animation  

  • Wartime Cartoons often featured this as a plot point. Especially in Looney Tunes shorts:
    • Draftee Daffy features a frightened Daffy Duck being stalked by a fairly creepy draft board worker.
    • Forward March Hare starts with Bugs accidentally getting a conscription letter intended for his neighbor.
    • During Bugs' fractured lesson on American history in Yankee Doodle Bugs he claims George Washington was conscripted by the colonists (via mail, no less) to fight in the Revolutionary War.
    Washington: Gadzooks! I've been drafted!
  • 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.
  • Wat is drafted in Wat's Pig, complete with a Ye Olde Butchered English "We Want You" poster parody.
  • The march song Where there's whip there's a way in The Return of the King strongly suggests the Orc soldiers are conscripts.

     Real Life  

  • 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 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.
  • 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. Many city-states (such as the Italian communes of the middle ages and Rome in its early days) followed their example.
  • 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 .
  • As already mentioned, this is most common in Asian/Middle Easternnote , Latin Americannote  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.
  • Interestingly, conscripts were rarely called upon to serve in colonies during the Age Of Imperialism. Most colonial armies were made up of long term volunteers who were both skilled in military arts and interested in spending a long time serving under difficult circumstances in faraway lands.
  • While Ukraine switched from conscription to a professional army several years ago in order to be more Western, this, arguably, backfired in 2014, during Russian annexation of Crimea. Unlike conscripts, contract soldiers were largely permitted to serve close to their home towns and villages. What this meant was that, during the crisis, many of Crimean servicemen ended up siding with the Russian-backed locals rather than the government (it didn't help that there were unresolved issues as to that government's legitimacy). Currently, during the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, conscription has been brought back in order to provide manpower for the conflict, with the government constantly expanding the requirements (to the point of drafting retired persons) in order to compensate for the fact that it's a largely untrained under-equipped army fighting a force backed by Russia, with a number of trained Russian soldiers helping them out.