The Top 5 Reasons Americans Were Unfit for Military Service During World War I

Published: 1 April 2023

By Blake Stilwell
via the web site

A World War I-era draft lottery.

nara wwI draft 1200

A World War I-era draft lottery. (National Archives)

The Pentagon has been sounding the alarm for years: More and more American males are unfit for military service.

The calls for action haven’t gone unheard, but the branches of the military are still struggling to meet recruiting goals.

In 2022, the top reason was obesity: 11% of American youth are just overweight. Drug and alcohol abuse and mental and physical health were the next largest factors, and 44% of young Americans have some combination of these. More than 100 years ago, the reasons were entirely different.

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, 70% of the U.S. armed forces were conscripts, and American males between the age of 18 and 45 were subject to local draft boards to weed out the exemptions, one of which was based on medical issues. Every recruit was subject to a medical exam.

The surgeon general of the United States compiled the results of the physical exams Army doctors made of these draftees. The compilation was published in 1919 as “Defects Found In Drafted Men,” and is a snapshot of the physical ailments common in Americans at the time.

While not all of the “defects” kept men from serving (4.8 million total Americans served in the military throughout the war), many of them were nonstarters. For every 1,000 of those drafted for military service in the U.S., 557 of them were found to have restrictive conditions that exempted them from military service.

Here are a few of the most common things that would have kept an American out of the trenches.

1. Mechanical Problems Involving Bones and Joints

The largest issue that kept American conscripts from entering military service were “mechanical problems, involving bones and joints and appendages of the hands and feet.” Of all the men who registered for the draft, were called to service and were disqualified by medical review boards, 39% were rejected because of this. Of particular note were “weak feet.”

There were a lot of causes of these conditions. Previous injuries can cause mechanical issues, as can everyday wear and tear, so this result isn’t a surprise. In 1916, 30% of Americans worked in agriculture, many on their own farms, the highest farm population in American history. Diseases such as osteoarthritis can also cause mechanical problems in bones and joints.

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