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Swiss Army Is Flourishing and Battle-Ready Despite a Public Initiative to Abolish It

August 14, 1988|RANDALL PALMER | Reuters

GRUYERES, Switzerland — Anti-tank concrete teeth stretch across many Swiss fields and mountain passes, with metal spikes ready to protrude from the road at the notice of attack.

New houses must have massive concrete shelters against nuclear attacks, and most able-bodied men must do military service.

One recent evening, camouflaged soldiers were feverishly throwing a bridge across a rushing stream, and minutes earlier some 20 armored personnel carriers rumbled along a windy mountain road.

It's not war--this Alpine nation has not fought since it lost a battle against Francois I of France in 1515--but the Swiss army is flourishing and constantly maneuvering to keep itself as sharp as a battle-hardened army.

Studied Neutrality

That is despite, or perhaps because of, its studied neutrality and despite a public initiative to abolish the army altogether that is expected to come to the vote next year.

"It's not by declarations of neutrality or pacts of nonaggression that small states can stay free of the influence of international politics," the federal government said recently in recommending rejection of the anti-army move.

In World War II, the government recalls, Adolf Hitler easily overran poorly armed Norway and Denmark, while "Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania ceased, from 1940, to be sovereign states." They were swallowed up by the Soviet Union.

Switzerland is almost paranoid about facing a similar fate, and the high military profile throughout the nation often stuns tourists expecting only a tidy Alpine country with lots of chocolate and healthy cows.

Preserving Peace

"Everybody talks about peace. Our army preserves it," triumph bumper stickers on many civilian vehicles.

But the people run Switzerland and anyone is entitled to demand a referendum on any subject if he has enough signatures.

In September, 1986, the "Group for a Switzerland without an Army" deposited 111,300 signatures with the government, and the Federal Military Department says the question will probably be put to the people in the autumn next year.

Since most Swiss firmly favor the army, the move stands about the same chance of passing as would an initiative to abolish secret Swiss bank accounts or ban gold.

But the country's tiny leftist minority is vocal and has attracted others disgruntled with the army.

Swiss Army Will Remain

"If Italy, Austria, Germany, the United States, the Soviet Union--all the countries in the world--abandon their armies, Switzerland will keep its army," said Max Vaterlaus, a 66-year-old Genevan photographer who signed the petition.

"The military is always one war behind, and it has not yet been able to realize that Switzerland has been in the middle of a Europe that has been pacified for several decades," said one writer to a local newspaper.

Some of the supporters of the initiative undoubtedly wish simply to send a message to the government that they want military spending limited. But commentators say that strategy may backfire.

"When the initiative is swept out by a 10-1 margin, the army will emerge stronger from this exercise," the Genevan newspaper La Suisse said in an editorial.

Plans to Boost Spending

Meantime, Switzerland is keeping up its military tradition, planning to boost spending by 6% a year for total spending of $14 billion in the four years 1988-91.

That is about $650 per resident citizen per year--more than half the $1,200 figure in the United States, whose forces are flung around the globe.

Only Swiss government ministers, parliamentarians, and employees in crucial services are exempt from military service, and conscientious objectors are imprisoned.

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