26 September 2013

Swiss Army Life -- Voters Say Keep Conscription

Last weekend, the citizens of the world's most famously neutral nation again voted to maintain their system of mandatory military service, leaving Switzerland as one of a handful of Western European countries without an all-volunteer army (you may salute -- or not -- their brothers-in-conscription-arms: Norway, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Austria, Greece and Cyprus).

This insistence upon forcing Swiss men (women are exempt) to serve in the army might seem surprising since the last time Switzerland waged war across its borders they were shooting crossbows -- though one can argue that one of the two reasons the Nazis didn't invade their tiny neighbor was the threat of the Swiss militia aiming down from their secret Alpine redoubts (the other reason: Nazi generals didn't want to risk their secret Swiss bank accounts).

But it's really no puzzle why the Swiss continue to hold onto this tradition of forced military service. I've found that the cliché is largely true: the Swiss love order. They live and breathe rules and regulations. This is a country where we are required to get our chimneys cleaned at prescribed intervals during the year. And yes, our chimney sweep wears a uniform.

Another contributing factor: No Swiss soldier boys are coming home from foreign wars dismembered or dead. So Switzerland still enjoys the image of its young soldiers as fit, rosy-cheeked fellows in clean uniforms, with their bodies and psyches still sound. What mother could object to her boy going out into the woods and mountains a few weeks a year to play soldier?

Plus young Swiss men know they can ride the train for free when in uniform. They also get to take their assault rifles home with them, even though they'll probably never have to fire them at anything but targets that don't shoot back.

The irony is that this type of soldiering would certainly fill the ranks of an all-volunteer army. But a bloodbath of old conscription regulations would ensue, and that is a slaughter too terrible to bear.

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