Armed to the teeth: Switzerland debates necessity of strong army
8 Feb, 2011 04:48
Despite its neutral and peaceful image, Switzerland has a strong military tradition. It is Europe's best-armed nation, where every male citizen under 50 years old is a reserve soldier.
Many question why a country that hasn't been involved in any military conflict for 200 years should have an army at all.Switzerland’s soldiers are training for war – though they are unlikely to ever experience wartime combat. More and more, the centuries-old Swiss militia is being challenged.In February, the long-standing tradition of keeping a government-issued weapon at home as part of military obligations will be put to a vote, with the referendum being held on whether they should go on keeping their guns at home or store them in public arsenals. Local activists like Christophe Barbey are pushing for a complete abolition of the armed forces. “There’s no more Cold War,” said Barbey, from the Group for Switzerland Without an Army. “We’re totally surrounded by the European Union, which is, militarily speaking, totally friendly. So we have no more enemies. The army has no reason for being.” A 1989 referendum on the issue revealed that more than a third of the Swiss population is in favor of dissolution – a figure significant enough to pressure the government to take some action to rein in military activity.The size of the army and its budget – while still a substantial $4.5 billion – have been cut, and the option of joining the civil service upon approval was introduced. “It’s not enough,” said Barbey. “There's political clout, which means the parliament is made up of a lot of rich people, and rich people want an army because they feel insecure.”There are still about 200,000 army personnel, with compulsory military service for Swiss males, and private gun ownership for all conscripts living up to a local adage: “Switzerland does not have an army. It is an army.”Not a pleasant prospect for young draftees like Adrian Feller, who just don't see the point. “I just learned to shoot and this was more or less all I learned,” he said. “An army just gives some kind of false security. You feel safe, but I saw what the army can do. They can’t do anything against terrorism. They can’t do anything against the social problems and disorder.”“So why should we lose every year about 5 billion Swiss francs for something that didn’t help us solve the problems we have?”, he asked.The arguments are there. Yet the Swiss majority still can’t imagine a nation without their men in uniform. “Only the political left supports abolition,” said Socialist MP Maria Roth-Bernasconi. “We’re still a minority in this country. It’s hard to convince the population, because it’s really a tradition that’s deeply rooted in the Swiss psyche. Plus, there’s the rise of populism and demagogy.”Many Swiss feel that abolishing the armed forces is akin to letting go of a tradition of losing the sense of security, real or imagined. So does a neutral country with no enemies really need an army? While support for abolition is elusive, the question has been asked, and the debate is bound to continue.