La Place de la Concorde Suisse (The Swiss Army) by John McPhee

When an English friend here in Geneva said he buys up all the copies of this he can find, I broke the habit of a lifetime and asked if I could borrow it. I’d recently been discovering the ferocious history of the Swiss Army which I guess is one of the factors that still has its influence. Another is that the people are the army, the army the people. Eye-opening for me – though I guess it is blindingly obvious if I’d ever stopped to think – is that neutrality isn’t a moral position, it’s a function of possibility, at least in the Swiss case. Both the people and the landscape of Switzerland bristle with what is needed to defend neutrality. I knew that modern buildings here are all built with nuclear bomb shelters, but I had no idea how much of the countryside has massive support structures and escape mechanisms underground, including hospitals. I had no idea that it is common for mountains in Switzerland to be effectively hollow inside, with plastic granite blocks fitted into the sides of mountains, camouflaged entries into these secret areas.

Nor did I appreciate that the Swiss invented networking. Never mind cocktails on the lake after work in Geneva, imagine the shoulder rubbing in this civilian army as people from all walks of life come together. In an odd way this permits some, at least, to keep working whilst fulfilling their obligations.

The most obvious controversial aspect of Swiss policy regards guns at home. The Swiss have one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world, but a rate of death by gun far lower than the US. The chances of a Swiss person going loopy and killing a bunch of people with some kind of mass-murdering gun are pretty low. There are all sorts of cultural reasons why that might be the case, but I wonder if one of them isn’t that Americans see gun carrying as a right, whereas in Switzerland it is more of a duty. Ie given that the army and society are intertwined, the gun at home is about defending one’s country, not one’s person or abode, which is the case in the US. At the time McPhee wrote his book, the civilian army numbered 600,000 and all of those soldiers not only kept guns at home, but also ammunition, the latter being kept sealed, regularly inspected, with severe penalties for abuse. These days I understand the army is more like 200,000 strong and although all soldiers still keep guns at home, ammunition is not.

One thing’s for sure. In the US it is normal still, despite everything, to have analysis like this in the press:

The spate of 82 shootings in Chicago over the July 4th holiday weekend, in which at least 16 people were killed, drew national attention to gun violence in the nation’s third-largest city. But that focus risks missing the bigger picture: When adjusted by population, murder rates are far higher in smaller cities than in larger ones, such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

Well, that’s okay then. Chicago, count me in. Not. Permit me to stay in this fascinatingly sensible little country where people would never let things come to this.

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