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The Swiss Army

Swiss Army Switzerland soldiers military

ABOVE: A Swiss Army tank on maneuvers near Thun.

Switzerland is a politically neutral country, yet it has more soldiers per capita than any other Western democracy. Odd? The Swiss don't think so--or at least, most of them don't. According to Swiss military dogma, a powerful citizen army is the best way to preserve Switzerland's neutrality and keep neighboring countries from invading Swiss territory. They may be right; Switzerland hasn't been at war in 500 years.

In his 1984 book, La Place de la Concorde Suisse, acclaimed New Yorker author John McPhee quoted a Swiss officer as saying: "Switzerland doesn't have an army, Switzerland is an army." That statement may have been hyperbole, but the fact remains that nearly 400,000 of Switzerland's roughly 6 million inhabitants belong to the armed forces.

Conscription is alive and well in Switzerland. When a male Swiss reaches the age of 20, he must undergo 15 weeks of military training. Over the next 22 to 32 years, he'll attend a succession of two- to three-week training camps during until he's accrued 300 to 1,300 days of active service. (Service requirements depend on rank: the higher the rank, the more years and accrued days are required.)

Until 1996, being a conscientious objector didn't count in Switzerland. If you said "no,"  you went to jail. It's now possible to serve in a noncombatant role, although this isn't common. In rare instances, conscientious objectors may perform Zivildienst (civilian service) in a nursing home, sanitarium, etc. instead of joining the military, at the cost of serving 50% longer than they would in the armed forces.

A "good old boys" network

Swiss military service has its benefits. Like members of a volunteer fire department or a fraternal lodge, citizen soldiers tend to look out for each other in the business world. In some circles (and especially in smaller towns or villages), sergeant or officer rank carries prestige.

Swiss men who live in other countries don't have to serve in the army, but they're required to tithe 2% of their income to the mother country in the form of a military exemption tax. (The tax is also paid by men who flunk the physical or otherwise don't qualify for military service.) Women aren't required to pay the tax, nor are they expected to serve in the army--although, if they wish, they can can enlist as noncombatants.

Swiss militarism and the tourist

Unless you're a returning Swiss citizen who hasn't paid his Militärpflichtersatz, Switzerland's emphasis on military matters isn't likely to affect you directly. However, you'll sometimes encounter large groups of soldiers on railroad trains, and you may be taken aback by the sight of tank traps zigzagging across a cow pasture or an armored doorway leading into an alpine bunker.

Many Swiss railroad and highway bridges are said to be wired up with explosives, ready for demolition if an enemy should invade. And it's possible that you may hear the sound of troops firing live ammunition over each other's heads during infantry maneuvers, since the Swiss army favors realism over safety.

Related Web sites

Swiss Armed Forces
The official site of Switzerland's Land Forces and Air Force has material in German, French, and Italian, with an introductory page in English.

Swiss Military Net
This unofficial site is "the meeting place of Swiss military associations," with links to organizations of officers, military police, commandos, and more.

Wikipedia: Conscription in Switzerland
The free encyclopedia's article includes this illuminating quote: "On September 22, 2013, a referendum was held that aimed to abolish conscription in Switzerland. However, the referendum failed, with over 73% of the electorate voting against it."

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