La Place de la Concorde Suisse

John McPhee

Read November 2004

Switzerland strikes me as a deeply contradictory nation. On the one hand it is peopled by a profoundly conservative sort. Yet necessity, if not desire, has created notions of democracy, environmental stewardship and so on that can appear ultra-modern. It is easy to recall only the latter, until rudely awakened—as the world was—by less savory aspects such as the Nazi gold scandals. Clearly, it is a nation that merits scrutiny.

The specific focus of this book is the following question: How can Switzerland have maintained neutrality for five centuries of tumult, especially when so strategically located? To solve this puzzle, McPhee gets permission to accompany a group from the Swiss army. Either luck or preparation has McPhee following a surprisingly ragtag troupe of misfits relative to the very professional Swiss outfit. Combine this with McPhee's control of his craft, and the result is an essay you don't want to have end.

So how do the Swiss do it? First, they have largely eroded the distinction between the army and civilian population by pressing all (male) citizens into service, with constant refreshers throughout their adult life. (Indeed, parts of this essay investigate the consequences of erasing that distinction for businesses that operate in Switzerland.) Second, they have turned the country into a massive munitions dump, in particular wiring all strategic points (such as bridges) for self-destruction. Third, and crucially, the Swiss have replaced offense with defence, which changes all the rules of engagement. The Swiss strategy appears to be to retreat, like a turtle, into the shell of its mountainous heart. (This is why it makes sense to destroy bridges; it is also why sabotage takes the form of removing explosives.)

The book superbly alternates between the specific and the general. At one point McPhee is discussing principles of neutrality and their role in unifying a nation that might have been torn apart by the Reformation. At another, he is describing, not a little whimsically, the Swiss ``one bar'' standard for building fallout shelters.

Given that this is a study of neutrality, it would be interesting to read an edition updated for our times. While I think America exaggerates the impact of September 11, 2001—its effect wouldn't have been as profound to a population that had more thoroughly contemplated what happens elsewhere—a similar event in Switzerland (not inconceivable, either, given the tensions sometimes generated by Swiss control of some forms of banking) has the potential to significantly upturn conventional wisdom. The Swiss neutrality described by McPhee is all about a centuries-old, battle-readiness kind. What would neutrality even mean in the face of 9/11-like terror, and how would the Swiss defense have to evolve to protect against it? (For that matter, what are they already doing?)

Finally, a vignette. The paperback edition I own has a photograph on the cover. At first glance, it appears to be a traditional Swiss mountain landscape. But we see not just the mountains but a basin that their glaciers drain into, and there is something darker and more imposing, more defensive than touristic, about this image. Then look more closely at that basin, and you will see a group of dwarfed people walking along it. This basin is the Place de la Concorde Suisee, the bowl between the most famous mountains of the Bernese Oberland, and the back cover reveals that the photographer is Tschumy—one of the company members described in the book.

For a less anecdotal and more scholarly view of the Swiss, read Steinberg's book.