La Place de la Concorde Suisse

( 3 )


La Place de la Concorde Suisse is John McPhee's rich, journalistic study of the Swiss Army's role in Swiss society. The Swiss Army is so quietly efficient at the art of war that the Isrealis carefully patterned their own military on the Swiss model.

"McPhee, in showing us as many aspects of the Swiss Army as their famous knife has blades, has produced one of his best books." Wall Street Journal

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La Place de la Concorde Suisse

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La Place de la Concorde Suisse is John McPhee's rich, journalistic study of the Swiss Army's role in Swiss society. The Swiss Army is so quietly efficient at the art of war that the Isrealis carefully patterned their own military on the Swiss model.

"McPhee, in showing us as many aspects of the Swiss Army as their famous knife has blades, has produced one of his best books." Wall Street Journal

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"McPhee, in showing us as many aspects of the Swiss Army as their famous knife has blades, has produced one of his books."—Edmund Fuller, The Wall Street Journal

"The Swiss have avoided fighting a war for almost 500 years. To preserve that enviable record of peace, they maintain one of the world's largest armies, on a per capita basis. This paradox . . . is the core of McPhee's engaging La Place de la Concorde Suisse."Jack Schnedler, Chicago Sun-Times

"Delightful . . . What McPhee saw and learned he writes about with his inimitable light touch."—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

"'Switzerland does not have an army,' says one of John McPhee's informants in La Place de la Concorde Suisse. 'Switzerland is an army' . . . McPhee put his reader inside Switzerland with elegance and insight."—Jonathan Steinberg, The New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374519322
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/28/1994
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 579,366
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977.  In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World.  He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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Read an Excerpt

Place de la Concorde Suisse, La

The Swiss have not fought a war for nearly five hundred years, and are determined to know how so as not to.

In Italy, it has been said of the Swiss Army, "I didn't know they had one." When the Italian learns that the Swiss Army vastly outnumbers Italy's, the Italian says, "That is not difficult."

The Swiss Army has served as a model for less languid nations. The Israeli Army is a copy of the Swiss Army.

Switzerland is two times the size of New Jersey. New Jersey, by far, has the larger population. Nonetheless, there are six hundred and fifty thousand people in the Swiss Army. At any given time, most of them are walking around in street clothes or in blue from the collar down. They are a civilian army, a trained and practiced militia, ever ready to mobilize. They serve for thirty years. All six hundred and fifty thousand are preparedto be present at mobilization points and battle stations in considerably less than forty-eight hours.

If you understand the New York Yacht Club, the Cosmos Club, the Metropolitan Club, the Century Club, the Piedmont Driving Club, you would understand the Swiss Army.

Some of these thoughts run through my mind as the Section de Renseignements—of the Eighth Battalion of the Fifth Regiment of the Tenth Mountain Division —gets ready to patrol a sector of the uppermost Rhone. The battalion has been told to move, and it is the business of these soldiers to learn as thoroughly and as rapidly as they can what their major needs to know about the new sector; for example, how many troops will fit in a cable car to the Riederalp? Where is a good site for a command post on the lower declivities of the alp above Lax? How many soldiers could sleep in the Schwarzenbach barn? Would that be all right with Schwarzenbach? Have explosives already been installed—as is the case at thousands of strategic points in Switzerland—to blow up the Nussbaum bridge?

With notebooks and pencils, the patrols of the Section de Renseignements go from place to place exploring, asking questions, collecting particulars, scribbling information, characterizing and describing people and scenes, doing reconnaissance of various terrains, doing surveillance of present activity, and tracking events of the recent past. Afterward, they trudge back and, under pressure of time, compress, arrange, and present what they have heard and seen. All of that is incorporated into the substance of the word "renseignements."

I have limitless empathy for the Section de Renseignements.The leader of the second patrol today is Luc Massy, who entered the army ten years ago with essentially his present status. He is five feet eleven inches tall, with blond hair and an aquiline nose—trim, irreverent, thirty years old. The others are Jean-Bruno Wettstein, Denis Schyrr, Pierre Pera, Jean Reidenbach. Each wears boots, gaiters, a mountain jacket, and a woolly-earflap Finnish hat, and carries a fusil d'assaut, which can fire twenty-four bullets in eight seconds and, with added onomatopoeia, is also know as a Sturmgewehr. Massy wears hobnailed boots. Most of the other soldiers are younger, and when they came into the army were issued boots with rubber soles—Swiss crosses protruding from the soles in lieu of hobnails. Massy says he feels the north wind, and therefore the weather will be stable for three, six, or nine days. The air seems still to me—a clear and frosted morning at the end of October in a deep valley under Alps freshly dusted with snow. Using pocket calculators and topographic maps, the patrol has charted its assignments—uphil, down, up, down—figuring that eleven hours will be required to complete them. Accordingly, each man puts in his pack a plastic sack of lunch and a plastic sack of dinner—dried fruit, fresh fruit, bread, cheese, pate, sausage, and bars that are labelled "Militärschokolade, Chocolat Militaire."

Copyright © 1983, 1984 by John McPhee

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2012

    Lucid writing, historically relevant

    I had no idea, this was really cool.

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  • Posted April 24, 2010

    An open citizen militia with as much secrecy as the U.S' DoD.

    another McPhee jewel. almost makes me want to own a Swiss Army knife. Jaw-dropping information; I was a mouth-breather for two hours. McPhee's incredible writing style must have afforded him license to secrets from the inscrutable Swiss

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2002

    A faithful rendition of the Swiss military tradition

    In German, La Place de la Concorde Suisse is rendered Concordiaplatz, and it is visible from the Jungfraujoch, which means ¿virgin saddle,¿ and which is reached via funicular railway from Interlaken. Depending upon the season, one can either hike or ski from the Jungfraujoch down the Aletsch glacier to Concordiaplatz and view the redoubt containing the sunken armory described in McPhee¿s book. There may even be a visible contingent of soldiers guarding and maintaining it, just as their brethren maintain the explosives stashed in the outerworks of all key bridges in the country, or inspect the radar installations on key peaks such as the Weissflühgipfel above Davos. As one who lived and worked in Switzerland for eight years, and whose published memoir, Living Among The Swiss, is listed on this website, I can attest to the accuracy of McPhee¿s account. Most of my business colleagues were required to take annual two- or three-week military leaves, and one sees soldiers everywhere: on trains, in ski resorts, along low and vulnerable mountain passes such as those north of Sargans, and, increasingly, at airports. Their efficiency of organization has been admired not only by the Israelis, who imitated it, but also by the Russian defense minister, and McPhee accurately captures their esprit de corps ¿ in the process expanding, as usual, the reader¿s vocabulary.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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