Serving in the Swiss Army

This week it’s been 30 years since I first joined the Swiss Army. Involuntarily, that is. I had just finished my Maturité exams, and had subsequently enrolled as a student of Physics in the University of Geneva.

On the morning of Monday, July 12th, 1993, I took the train and around 4 hours later I arrived at Dübendorf, a small town north of Zürich, to join the ranks of the “Flieger- und Fliegerabwehr, Nachrichten und Übermittlung Rekrutenschule Dübendorf 93” (School of Recruits in Intelligence and Transmissions of the Air Force and Air Defense, Dübendorf 1993.) Quite a pompous name, if you ask me.

TL;DR: I hated every single second of this experience. Anyway.

(For context, July 1993’s BYTE Magazine cover featured the upcoming Pentium chips, 9600 bps modems, and MS-DOS 6 developers explaining DoubleSpace and MemMaker. Good old times.)

Yeah baby, I was in the intelligence forces of the legendary Swiss Air Force. Woop woop. Not as glamorous as what Tom Scott saw recently, but yeah, it was in the Air Force. Nothing like Top Gun, either, a film that by the way had been released merely 7 years before and was still in everyone’s minds. There were a few civil pilots on my squad, who unfortunately, because of health reasons, had not been accepted as military pilots.

I remember going to a small, desolate rotten bar in Dübendorf on our first evening outside the base, and the bartender played “In the Army Now” by Status Quo. No comments.

So yeah, just after a few days reality hit hard, and fast. I was in the Air Force Intelligence troops, but it turns out that there were almost no airplanes involved, and by all means, no intelligence whatsoever. I spent the most useless 4 months of my life dealing in the most inane of institutions, learning how to use an analog transmission device that was already obsolete by the time of the Vietnam War.

And this is without counting on the sheer absurdity of an institution that is a real loss of money and talent for a whole country. Only a rich nation like Switzerland can afford such explosive demonstration of futility as this shit.

Looking backwards, I should have done a bit more efforts to be refused entry in such idiocy, but my mother was convinced that I had to be a military officer in order to have a good career in my civil life.

That’s how Switzerland used to roll until the 1990s; if you wanted to be a manager in your civil life, you had to be an officer in the army. Because nobody manages people better than screaming drunk officers in charge of soldiers who have no other choice than being there.

Back in 1993 there was no “civil service” as there is now, so my only options as a young Swiss man were:

  1. Doing your military service.
  2. Being denied entry for health reasons, in which case… you have to pay the Swiss Military Service Exemption Tax (yes, that’s a thing.)
  3. Going to jail.

So, I’ll take option 1 for me, thankyousomuch.

Oh, but I got an immersion in Swiss culture. That’s probably the only positive aspect. I got to learn a lot about how Swiss people think (spoiler alert: many don’t.) And I got to taste lots of varieties of delicious Swiss wines and cheeses. This was the best part, by far.

And I got my very own, real Swiss Army knife, of course; but did you know that there are two variations of it? The one everybody knows and buys as a souvenir, with red plating, that’s the “officer’s knife,” while soldiers get a smaller one plated in non-painted steel.

And what’s the main difference between both, you ask? The officer’s knife has a corkscrew, while the soldier’s one hasn’t. You read right: officers are statistically more prone to open wine bottles than soldiers. That single fact says a lot about the “leadership” in this rotten institution.

(Trivia: it was not a Victorinox, but a Wenger. Both companies ended up merging in 2005.)

I also learned how to shoot a weapon, in my case the good old SIG SG 510 also known as “Sturmgewehr 57,” a 7-kilo automatic rifle capable of shooting up to 10 rounds per second (yes, that’s 600 per minute) and with enough testosterone in its alloy to make you feel a real man.

Surprisingly, shooting was the only thing that I found interesting or somewhat amusing; even though I got the option to keep the rifle after I finished my service, I decided to return it promptly as soon as I could. Shooting was fun a few times, but I’d rather do other things with my life, thankyousomuch.

Oh, and I even threw a couple of exercise grenades, with half the usual amount of dynamite as a war grenade. It’s quite something. But I was very bad at throwing them, so they stopped asking me to do it; and by bad, I mean dangerously clumsy. I wouldn’t throw them properly or far away enough. You see what I mean.

To add insult to injury, the end of my military service overlapped with the beginning of my studies at the university. I asked for a special permission to go to class just the first Monday, to get an idea of the location, the timetables, the usual stuff. Said permission request was promptly denied, because you see, serving your country in a uniform trumps all efforts of bringing value to your country as, I don’t know, a scientist. We don’t need any of those, just fulfill your duties, learn to shoot, and STFU.

And let’s not talk about those goddamn “Refresher courses” (aka “Wiederholungskurse” or “Cours de répétition”) always conveniently scheduled to happen in the worst possible moment. No, not that they fell before exams or anything; they just happened. Once a year. Every year. To be reminded of the pointlessness of all this again, and again, ad nauseam.

Since that day in July 1993 I’ve systematically voted in favor of the dismantlement of the Swiss Army in each referendum I could. Sadly, none of those initiatives actually yielded any results, and we still have to deal with drunk soldiers bothering people in train stations on Thursday evenings.

I’ve already criticized the Swiss Army in a previous post. No need to say more.

Switzerland needs an army, yes: but a professional one. Not a militia. Make it a paid gig, a job, and as I know Swiss culture, I can assure you that there will be queues long hundreds of meters filled with people waiting to join this institution. The current model is a disaster, even after all those reforms.

Update, 2023-12-29: Thus said Leo Tolstoy in “The Kingdom of God Is Within You”:

Universal military service is for the government the last degree of violence, which is necessary for the support of the whole structure; and for the subjects it is the extreme limit of the possibility of their obedience. It is that keystone which holds the walls and the extraction of which causes the building to cave in.