The Swiss Army
By Fritz Hutmacher
|Fritz Hutmacher on his last day of military service.|
The day I enlisted in the Swiss army 22 years ago was my journey to becoming a "real man" — just as my great grandfather, my grandfather, and my father did. My 300 days as a mountain specialist were indescribable. I was delighted to wander endlessly with a huge backpack and freeze in the snow and ice. I trained in gun and rocket fire, and took part in exercises with more than 600 men supported by artillery and mortar fire with live ammunition. I did things a normal person would never do and saw areas I had never seen before. People say that's the glue that keeps the Swiss men together. Every year for 22 years I had compulsory shooting practice (or three days in jail), and our equipment had frequent detailed inspections.
Last Monday it finally ended. Twenty-two years down the track, three kilograms (six pounds) heavier, and the original uniform a little bit tighter, I gave back my gun and quit my military service in honor.
For decades, Switzerland has had one of the biggest armies in Europe. We still spend more money on the military than we do on retirement insurance, education, or research. Machine guns and gas masks are common in every household. Tourists are always wondering about the FA18 fighter jets ducking and weaving throughout the mountains. This is the army I have left behind.
In the past, Switzerland has had the capacity to activate 680,000 troops in 24 hours. However, in 1989 the first protest against the compulsory army was brought forward. An astonishing 35.6 percent of the Swiss population said no to this oversized, authoritarian army. Though it was not enough to pass in a referendum, it was enough to turn the heads of those in charge.
|A new generation of soldiers? Hutmacher kids and canines model Fritz's uniform.|
Today the Swiss military can mobilize 360,000 soldiers in 24 hours. In 2003 there were an estimated 120,000 active soldiers, and another 80,000 on reserve, between 20-34 years of age, doing their 262 days of service. With this, every army member has his own supply of weaponry — everything from ammunition to a needle and thread — stored in his home. Misuse of the weapons is very rare.
Now this massive army is losing the support of its nation. The new weapons system, tanks, and FA18 jets cost the Swiss government more than 5 billion Swiss Francs (3 billion US dollars) per year. With the Swiss population at 7 million, this makes the Swiss army one of the most expensive per capita in the world.
Anyone with open eyes can see the bunkers, underground bases, and military airports all over the countryside. If you were to connect all of the secret tunnels and pathways, they would be 1,437 miles long. In December 2001, the Swiss voted a third time on whether to keep their army. To bring the referendum to a vote, 100,000 Swiss citizens — one out of every 70 people — had to sign a petition. Swiss voters overwhelmingly approved the referendum, keeping their army intact. The proposal passed by a margin of 78 percent to 22 percent.
Rick's Tip for the Army-holic Tourist:
Fortress Fürigen Museum of War History (Festung Fürigen Museum zur Wehrgeschichte)
Most visitors come to Luzern to confirm all their stereotypical images of Switzerland, and the city happily responds: picture-perfect mountains around a gorgeous lake, surrounded by tidy villages and lush meadows full of happy cows. The Fortress Museum of Fürigen shows you another face of the country — the reason why Switzerland was able to remain peaceful and neutral: its elaborate and secret system of bunkers and fortresses.
Unfortunately, this fascinating exhibit is open only Saturday and Sunday, April through October. Enter through an innocent-looking wooden barrack. The bunker is always chilly, but no worries: visitors are loaned original Swiss Army coats. Put on your coat, grab the English brochure that explains each room, and you're on your way. The radio station was placed near the entrance to assure clear reception. The living quarters were gas-proof, complete with specially sealed doors and devices to monitor the air for poison. The museum is a petting zoo of 20th-century weaponry. Visitors can fiddle with and even aim guns, knowing all the ammo is now imaginary. Imagine the photo op: you, in a Swiss military uniform, manning a cannon.