To Army or not to Army?

Despite being a neutral country, military service is obligatory here for all able males. Sort of. There are apparently loads of ways out of it if you really don’t want to do it. As I understand it, you can choose to avoid it completely, but you have to pay a tax, or you can try to get medically certified physically or mentally unable. “Conscientious objectors” can also do a certain amount of community service instead.

Military service normally begins for men at the age of 20, though earlier is possible. Equally, it can be pushed back later for various reasons, such as studies. It consists of a set number of days of training that need to be completed, usually a 6 month boot camp, then a 3 week refresher course every year from then on. Women can volunteer, and then the same rules apply.

The question of whether to abolish conscription, and indeed the entire Swiss army, is a highly contentious one. Some argue that as Switzerland is neutral, there is no need for an army at all, that it wastes resources and time and doesn’t do much for the country. However for many it is a deeply intrenched tradition in Switzerland, something not so easy to shake off.

I’ve had some highly insightful conversations with Swiss who sit on either side of the fence. On the one hand I have a friend who trained as a grenadier; read: proper hard nuts, the selection process for whom culls over two-thirds of initial recruits. The training is essentially the harshest possible, both mentally and physically. Apparently the general Swiss reaction to this is to think he is either insane, or a nationalist fanatic (or both). However, I can say with some certainty that he is neither. For him, the army provided excellent conditioning, both physical and psychological, has not hurt his job prospects one bit, and is something that all (or most) Swiss men, no matter their age, can relate to; a kind of common ground upon which the male population can bond.

On the other end of the scale, I met three Swiss guys at a dinner party who had zero desire to participate in military service. As was eloquently explained to me, the prospect of army training did nothing for them; they didn’t feel that they needed or would gain much from it and they objected to being obliged to do it. When I suggested that it could be useful for instilling discipline, physical health and mental endurance, the response came that the army is not the only way to achieve these things; one can play sports. Instead, the guy I spoke to would be doing a few weeks of voluntary work at a ski resort.

In between these extremes, you have guys who didn’t particularly want to do it, but ended up loving it. Or the ones who actually put on weight during the course of their service because a bit of training was counteracted by sitting at desks and binge-drinking in the evenings. On a national scale, there are bound to be those who do not get much from the experience. My grenadier friend was obviously a very enthusiastic recruit, who threw himself into training and gained alot from it, but he is probably in the minority. This video provides an interesting argument for the abolition of the Swiss army.

I’m going to be very Swiss and sit on the fence. I see the validity of both viewpoints, but I’m a strong believer in having the freedom to decide what you want to do with your life. I do believe, however, that there are ample benefits to be gained from undergoing basic training. I do not believe army training facilitates only fighting and nothing else. I believe in discipline, endurance (corporeal and cerebral), learning to live, respect and work with others and the general hardiness and experience that is instilled by training that can benefit both the individual and a state which is made up of these individuals.

Then again, everyone should have the right to choose what they want to do. The army isn’t for everyone, and there are those who would flourish equally in a different environment. And of course, not actually being a Swiss boy, it’s easy to stand on the side and wag my finger and say whether you should or shouldn’t. At the end of the day, it is the individual’s choice.

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