In late November of 1942 General Georgy Zhukov launched Operation Uranus: a massive Soviet counter offensive aimed at liberating the city of Stalingrad. Two pincers, a massive one from the northern flank and a smaller one from the south, slammed into the Romanian troops on the German flanks. The German Sixth Army, commanded by General Fredrich Paulus, was encircled and cut off, trapped in what became known as the “Kessel.”
Over the next few weeks the Wehrmacht tried everything to break Paulus’ army out of the cauldron. The Luftwaffe could not airlift enough supplies to keep the army supplied and the divisions could not break through. Trapped, starving, and running out of ammunition and fuel, the Sixth Army surrendered on the 2nd of February, 1943.
The result of Operation Uranus was the utter destruction of the German Sixth Army. Of the over 200,000 soldiers trapped in the Kessel, 90,000 surrendered and were sent to prison camps, tens of thousands were killed and a few were evacuated . All of their equipment was destroyed or captured. In essence, the Sixth Army was physically annihilated inside the Kessel.
This is the reality of modern warfare. Over the last seventy years the United States has been fortunate that conflicts like this have not occurred. But should the fate befall an American Army Corps that befell Paulus then drastic measures may be needed. In short: conscription.
American Perceptions of Conscription
The American cultural experience with conscription has been tainted by the Vietnam War. When people mention Selective Service or “the draft,” they usually think of Vietnam. They think of nineteen-year-olds being forced into service to fight a war of dubious validity and of dubious strategic importance.
Given this history, it really isn’t a wonder why the American public is wary of the draft. There are some who argue that America should rid itself of Selective Service because it would weaken the high standard that our troops have attained through professionalization. Others argue that the practice is immoral. I would agree; up to a point. I would also say that they are missing the point of having a conscription system in the first place.
Reality: The British Example
In the build up to the First World War Britain also had a relatively small, highly trained professional army. They used their advanced weapons and tactics to overcome hordes of enemy soldiers in colonial wars in much the same way the United States uses its advanced weapons and qualitative superiority to fight terrorists today.
When the First World War erupted these advantages proved insufficient against the British Empire’s own near peer foes like Germany and Ottoman Turkey. Britain was forced to grow the army massively, initiating hundreds of thousands of volunteers. When the artillery and machine guns of the Great War consumed these men, the British needed more. In 1916 they turned to conscription.
So what is the purpose of the draft?
Should another great conflict erupt on the world stage, America will be at the forefront. It is not inconceivable that America could face attrition or even lose a battle like the Germans lost Stalingrad. If, (for example) an Army Corps were encircled by the PLA in a war in Asia or began to face severe long-term attrition against such a foe, conscription may be needed to prevent a manpower shortage.
This is why the Selective Service should remain in place. It is an insurance policy put in place for the gravest of circumstances and the gravest of dangers. The United States has shown over the past forty years that it is not willing to conscript soldiers unless it is absolutely necessary. But if it is necessary, and a time comes for the nation to mobilize, then all the preparations should be in place if America wants to avoid military defeat.
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