"...Switzerland is an army." So says a Swiss army officer assigned to accompany American writer John McPhee as he travels around Switzerland on manuevers with the country's civilian military.
Lying in the depths of the Alps, Switzerland is Europe's bastion of neutrality and quirks. Known for its watches, banks, chocolate, pristine cities and landscapes, cow bells, yodelers, cuckoo clocks, and the Papal Swiss Guard, Helvetia is no larger than the U.S. state of New Jersey in both square miles and population. Nestled high in the alpine mountain ranges that stretch from France to Austria, Switzerland lies snuggly between France to the west, Germany to the north, Austria to the east, and Italy to the south. Divided into cantons, Switzerland is a multi-lingual confederation with four official languages: French, German, Italian, and Romansch (a mish-mash of French, Italian, Spanish, and Catalan.)
Switzerland is defended by a professional and civilian militia composed of little more than 650,000 citizen soldiers. The Swiss Army, most famous for its iconic little red, utilitarian knife, is able to mobilize in less than 48 hours and lockdown Switzerland into an impregnable fortress, should any nation be foolhardy enough to invade it. These are no weekend warriors, either. Every soldier participates in maneuvers several times a year and their employers not only support their military activities, they structure their civilian, private sector to mirror the military establishment. Rank in the army equals rank in Swiss society, particularly in the professional arena. High-ranking Swiss Army officers can be found in the executive suites of some of Switzerland's largest companies.
McPhee is paired up with Luc Massy, a vintner from the Canton de Vaud and patrol leader of a Section de Renseignements, as he ventures around Switzerland on patrol, observing military manuevers. He describes his journeys around the alpine nation in his book La Place de la Concorde Suisse. McPhee describes hidden entrances and doors that open in the sides of otherwise normal looking rock faces, only to reveal hidden fighter jets and artillery, which can be rapidly brought to bear against invaders. He notes the explosives carefully embedded, catalogued, and maintained in bridges over the Rhone River--all for the purpose of destroying the bridges and cutting off access to key segments of Switzerland. McPhee also describes Switzerland's vulnerabilities and the difficulty of defending the flat lands, which includes one of the country's largest cities, Basel.
In a surreal picture, McPhee takes us on manuevers in the villages and alp valleys where the town's citizens are nonplussed by the presence of soldiers with backpacks and automatic weapons marching in formation through town and up into the hills and mountains surrounding their villages. With a precision only the Swiss possess, these citizen soldiers map out every square inch of Switzerland, leaving no stone unturned or indefensible. On the side, McPhee also discusses the Swiss Army's contributions to the mercenary armies of Europe--most notably the French Foreign Legion and the Papal Swiss Guard.
I picked up La Place de la Concorde Suisse after reading Rising from the Plains because I was fascinated by the topic and wanted a glance into the precise psyche that are the Swiss. Plus, as an undergrad, I spent a semester studying Swiss literature and Swiss neutrality, of which the latter remains of particular interest. La Place de la Concorde Suisse was not as well-written as Rising from the Plains, but it was good enough and out of the ordinary such that it held my attention for its entire 150 pages. That said, if you'd like a unique look at Swiss culture, this is a good book for that.
Out of five stars, I give this one a three and a half.
Photos: Dustcover for La Place de la Concorde Suisse; John McPhee; The Swiss Guard; postage stamp commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Papal Swiss Guard.
Photo and/or illustration copyrights: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux; Peter Cook; The Holy See; Swiss Post.