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La Place de la Concorde Suisse
By John McPhee
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1984 John McPhee
All rights reserved.
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 prepared to 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."
This is the Valais, the Swiss canton with the country's highest mountains—a canton divided by the west-running Rhone, which once flowed as ice five thousand feet deep to cut among the mountains its otherwise irrational groove. The Alps crowd the great chasm—off the left bank the Pennines, off the right bank the Bernese Oberland. The canton is divided in language as well, part French, part German, and not in a mixed-up manner, which would be utterly un-Swiss, but with a break that is clear in the march of towns—Champéry, Martigny, Sion, Sierre, Salgesch, Turtmann, Ausserberg, Brig—and clearer still in the names of the hanging valleys that come down among the peaks and plummet to the Rhone: Val de Bagnes, Val d'Hérens, Val d'Anniviers, Turtmanntal, Lötschental, Mattertal. The Tenth Mountain Division consists almost wholly of Suisses romands, as French-speaking Swiss are known. In their present exercises, they are well spread out through French and German Valais. In the German-speaking villages, soldiers puzzle at the names of streets and shops and understand nothing of the talk they overhear.
The divisionnaire of the Tenth Mountain Division is, of course, from French Switzerland—La Suisse Romande, also known as La Romandie. His name is Adrien Tschumy. On his shoulders—and nested in the fleece of his Finnish hat—are pairs of stars. There is a Swiss cross in the center of each star. The Divisionnaire is tall, trim, contemplative, with dark hair, a narrow face, and a manner that is quietly convincing. In military roles, the film actor Gregory Peck has resembled Tschumy, who resembles General MacArthur.
Tschumy must go to remote places to see his men in action. In Switzerland, there are no Fort Hoods, Fort Irwins, no vast terrains set aside for explosive games. There are few barracks. Troops on active duty for refresher courses (also known as repetition courses) are quartered for the most part in villages and towns, and if they are using live ammunition they must walk to far places to shoot. Here, for instance, Tschumy visits a company of grenadiers in the morning shadow of the Torrenthorn, six thousand feet above the Rhone. The Swiss Army grenadiers look upon themselves in the way that the United States Marines look upon themselves. The Swiss Army grenadiers specialize in events that take place at two thousand metres and skyward. They are technical climbers, schuss-booming skiers, demolition experts, and crack shots, who sleep on granite mattresses and eat chocolate-coated nails. Some of them are bankers. Others are chauffeurs, dental technicians, civil engineers, alpine guides. They have discovered an enemy command post and are moving in its direction under the covering fire of automatic rifles. The bullets are bullets. Signal flags, understood all over Switzerland, have been set out to advertise the danger to passing promeneurs. Moving uphill, up a small cirque valley, the soldiers advance behind exploding grenades. Officers observe. One lieutenant works for I.B.M. in White Plains, New York, and has taken three weeks off to do his service. Crawling through snow under more bullets, the grenadiers reach the wall of the command post, a dotted line in their minds, and lay beside it a high-explosive plastic. They run. Chunks of broken rock rise out of the snow and fly in all directions, as much as three hundred metres—some above the head of the Divisionnaire. Like a theatre, the reverberant cirque enhances the explosion.
Meanwhile, certain boulders across a ravine have been identified as enemy helicopters that have just landed. For seven hundred years, Swiss soldiers have been masters of the mountain pass, and have looked upon the high divides not only as standpoints of invincible defense but as virtual weapons in themselves—terrain where the alien was disadvantaged and the Swiss could win battles even with falling rocks. Helicopters flout the mountain pass. The flying horses, as they are regarded, can appear from anywhere, come whirling over some unlikely arête, and with machine guns firing drop soldiers in the snow. The defense adapts. Men with bazookas on their backs run toward the helicopters and fall prone while their partners aim the tubes and fire. Explosions turn the choppers into scree.
Now the grenadiers discover the existence of an enemy radio shack farther up the valley. They go after it with a blend of automatic rifles and grenades, crawling under the rifle fire to heave the grenades. The noise is loud to the point of pain, and the observing officers have fingers in their ears. Bullets rain on the mountain wall. The soldiers run forward, hide behind rocks. Grenades explode. As the soldiers move up the valley—now running low, now crawling, now inching along on their chests—a corporal walks upright behind them, like a football coach following the progress of a scrimmage. Wooden silhouettes representing enemy soldiers are blown and shot to bits. The objective is reached, and, with a final rush—with an explosion louder than any that has come before—the radio shack is taken without prisoners.
Walking back to lower ground, the Divisionnaire has many points to teach. Characteristically, he taps one index finger on the other as he talks. His primary point seems to be that the officers' preparation should have been more thorough. Intent on what he is saying, he does not look up. If he did, he could see out of Switzerland. He could see Mont Blanc, twice his altitude, bright in the morning light, and in Swiss terrain the Grand Combin, the Dent Blanche, the Weisshorn—a freshened sea of peaks beyond the deep airspace of the invisible Rhone. Resting level on rock and snow, a table has been set, with a red tablecloth; and the sun—at half past nine—has come over the Torrenthorn to shine on silver platters of rolled shaved beef, bacon, sausages, wedges of tomato, halfsliced pickles in the shape of fans. Officers stand around the table. There is a company of teacups in close ranks, another of stemmed glassware. There are baskets of bread. The wines are of the Valais. The red is Chapelle de Salquenen. The rose is il de Perdrix, in a bucket full of snow. Tschumy drinks a cup of tea. A promeneur happens by—a citizen in knickers, boots, heavy socks, a mountain hat—on his way from who knows to where. He just appears, like a genie. His appearance suggests that he is above fifty and done with the army. He absorbs the scene: the festive table, the officers sipping and nibbling and quietly debriefing, the soldiers at a distance sitting in clusters on their packs, the charcoal streaks on the exploded snow. "Gut," he says, and he waves and walks on.
"Wiedersehen," the Divisionnaire calls after him, and the Divisionnaire is himself soon away—rising into the air in his Alouette III, his French six-seat jet-powered chopper, ascending among walls of red rock to cross into the Lötschental. Trending northeast, the valley rises toward the center of the Bernese Oberland. It is possible in Switzerland to be so far above and away from the Mittelland—the smooth perfected country that runs from Lake Geneva through Bern and Zurich—that even a Swiss valley, like the rough young mountains surrounding it, may seem penarctic and remote. The Lötschental is such a valley. The people of the Lötschental live in small, dark-cabin towns. A stream flows among them, pushing boulders. High serrated mountains are lined up in rows on either side, and the valley floor rises between them into fields of perennial snow. There are charcoal streaks on the snow. In the last five miles of the Lötschental, moving glacier ice is packed between the summits and leads to a gap where the converging mountains all but close. Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-sevenhundred metres, the ice bends upward like the tip of a ski. Passing three thousand metres, the helicopter floats up a face of rock and moves through the gap into a world too bright for unshielded eyes. It is the top of the Bernese Oberland, where ice fields and snowfields are the white diameters of circumvallate arêtes, where all horizons are violent. The granite Jungfrau, the Mönch, the Eiger, the Fiescherhorn, the Aletschhorn, the Fiescher Gabelhorn conduct the eye across the glaciers to the gneisses of the Aar massif, to the obeliscal Finsteraarhorn, four thousand two hundred and seventy-three metres, the highest mountain north of the Rhone. Crystallizing and recrystallizing, the ice among the peaks collects and compacts itself into the Grosser Aletschgletscher, the supreme glacier of Europe, with avenues of ice coming in from six or eight directions to conjoin in a frozen intersection officially identified on maps as Konkordiaplatz, La Place de la Concorde Suisse. The Divisionnaire looks about him with a thoughtful smile. This place that will never need defending represents what the Swiss defend. In surroundings quieter than a jet-driven helicopter, I have heard him say that he is without reservation "persuade de la valeur de l'effort de défense"—so thoroughly persuaded, in fact, that he gave up a career as a hydroelectric engineer to devote full time to the army. When he was a part-time artillery officer, rising to colonel, he was a civilian concerned primarily with the efficiency of turbines, which he understood so well that he practiced his trade not only in all parts of Switzerland but also from China to Chile to Hydro-Quebec. A couple of years ago, when he was fifty, he was invited to become an army professional. The professionals are less than half of one per cent of the Swiss Army. They are not only officers but people of almost all ranks and specialties, who teach the militia the ways of war and help make the militia cohesive. Tschumy was given two stars for his hat and his epaulets, and responsibility for the Tenth Mountain Division. One star signifies a brigadier, and three stars a commandant de corps. There are seven commandants de corps, the highest-ranking officers in the army. The word "general" is not used except in situations of extreme emergency, when a fourth star is presented to one leader, chosen by the Federal Assembly.
In five centuries of neutrality, Switzerland has had four generals. The first was Guillaume-Henri Dufour, who was appointed in 1847 to suppress a rebellion of seven Catholic cantons: Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug, Fribourg, and Valais. Neutrality does not exclude civil war. Dufour pounded the Catholics, who gave up after twenty-seven days. With paradoxical obscurity, his name rests on Dufourspitze, one of the least known summits in the world, although it is the highest in Switzerland. Never mind that like the Matterhorn it is half Italian. Switzerland's other generals were appointed at times of nervous mobilization at the borders, of fearing what might happen as a result of proximate wars. General Hans Herzog became a national hero as the principal spectator of the Franco-Prussian War. In the First World War, General Ulrich Wille led the Swiss to victory. Victory consisted of successfully avoiding the conflict. As someone put it, "we won by having no war." In the Second World War, the victorious Swiss general was Henri Guisan, of the Canton de Vaud. There is a General Guisan Quai in Zurich, a Quai General Guisan in Geneva. In every part of Switzerland, there are streets and plazas and equestrian statues—there are busts on plinths overhung with banners and flags—doing honor to the general of an army that did not fight. Switzerland defends itself on what it calls the Porcupine Principle. You roll up into a ball and brandish your quills. In the words of Divisionnaire Tschumy, "The foremost battle is to prevent war with a price of entry that is too high. You must understand that there is no difference between the Swiss people and the Swiss Army. There is no difference in will. Economic, military—it's the same thing. For seven hundred years, freedom has been the fundamental story of Switzerland, and we are not prepared to give it up now. We want to defend ourselves, which is not the same as fighting abroad. We want peace, but not under someone else's conditions. We will fight from the border. In response to a ground attack, which would in all likelihood come from the northeast, we intend to keep a maximum proportion of our land free. There are those who think we should train only for guerrilla warfare. That would be a form of giving up. Another possibility is that someone might use Switzerland by going through a corner or two, or to get to the north by the Simplon Pass or the pass of Grand-Saint-Bernard. We must stop that, too. We can really do something. We haven't enough tanks, but, given the nature of our terrain, we can fight with infantry. The first days of fighting would be dangerous for us. We would lose many people. But I am confident of our defenses. If I were not confident, I would not be a divisionnaire."
Excerpted from La Place de la Concorde Suisse by John McPhee. Copyright © 1984 John McPhee. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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