Knives out for conscription into Swiss army
- 11 January 2011
- From the section Europe
Switzerland's conscription army is facing an uncertain future, amid calls for compulsory military service to be abolished, and political pressure to keep defence costs down.
Neutral Switzerland requires every able-bodied man to serve in the army, starting with a five-month stint at age 19 or 20, with annual refresher courses lasting several weeks for the next 10 years, and more for officers.
This large army (currently 180,000 men for a population of 7.5 million) is designed solely to defend Switzerland. It will only ever be used in self-defence, and will never fight outside Swiss territory.
During World War II and the Cold War the military thinking was that, should an invasion happen, tens of thousands of infantry would sacrifice themselves defending Switzerland's borders, perhaps even only for a short time, while the rest would withdraw into vast bunkers in the Alps, from where they would fight on.
In the 21st Century, when Switzerland is on good terms with all its neighbours, such a strategy seems irrelevant and outdated to many young Swiss. Germany is already well on its way towards scrapping conscription.
Nevertheless, young men cannot avoid the call-up, and an estimated 8,000 began their first five-month stint this winter.
Conditions can be quite a shock for those used to warm, single rooms, televisions and games consoles. New recruits often sleep 45 to a room, and each minute they are awake is planned for them.
A typical day might involve weapons training, target practice, field manoeuvres and first aid classes. All of it, including meals, takes place outside, whatever the temperature. Days are often rounded off with a 25km (15.5 miles) hike with full kit.
"I think a conscription army has a lot of benefits," said training officer Urs Halter. "They get physically fit here, we do a lot of sports. They learn to complete precise tasks within a given time frame.
But fitness training and bonding exercises do not add up to a military strategy, and this is not lost on the new recruits, who question the need to serve in the army.
"Like everyone else I'm only here because I have to be," said one young man. "I don't see a war for Switzerland, I don't like all this stuff, all this shooting, I don't think Switzerland needs an army."
"I don't like the gun," added another. "I don't think I'll ever shoot anyone, and if someone told me to do that I would run, and throw my gun away."
This is certainly not what their commanding officers want to hear, but the views of the recruits reflect a modern reality. A government cannot ask young people to give up months of their lives without providing a compelling reason for them to do so.
The Swiss government now faces a triple challenge: defining the threat to modern day Switzerland, persuading young men that serving in the military is worthwhile, and keeping the costs of national defence within reason.
The current budget is around 4.3bn Swiss francs ($4.5bn; £2.9bn) a year, and parliament has suggested it should not go any higher - a blow to the Swiss air force, which had been lobbying for new fighter jets.
Switzerland's militia army was regarded for decades by most Swiss as an untouchable national institution.
Requiring all men to serve was seen as fair and democratic, and as a useful way of uniting a country of four different cultures and languages.
Retired army officer Jean-Jacques Britt is one who has fond memories of those times.
"In the Swiss constitution it says every Swiss man has to go into the army," he explained.
"And it became like a social glue, everybody had something in common with the next man, the street sweeper with the bank director, everybody had been through the same school, and this is disappearing, this social glue, and a lot of people regret that," he said.
But the younger generation do not share those regrets. At Zurich University students in a hurry to find jobs in a difficult financial climate see military service as an unwelcome obstacle.
History student and anti-conscription campaigner Adrian Feller says his own spell in the army convinced him it was a thing of the past.
"We just hung around, we shot at targets, we were driven in tanks through the valleys, there was nothing useful for myself and nothing useful for my country."
Adrian and others are now trying to collect the 100,000 signatures needed to hold a nationwide referendum on abolishing conscription, and they think they have a good chance of success.
A recent opinion poll showed that compulsory military service is now supported by just 43% of the population, and among those under 40 the figure is even lower.
The Swiss government knows it must find alternatives, but changing such an enormous national institution will take time.