All my knowledge about the Swiss military service is secondhand but I have heard a lot of stories. It’s a topic that all Swiss men can relate to and have an opinion about. At dinner parties when the men start on the subject of the army it’s usually time for me to clear the table, do the dishes and get dessert ready.
In 1989, after about 8 years of political preparation, the Swiss voted on an proposal for “Switzerland without an army”. Really! It was a subject everyone had a view on. The result at the ballot was 1’052’442 votes to abolish of the army and 1’904’476 to keep it. And therefore the Swiss army was here to stay and our brave Swiss would defend our borders from intruders if needed . And the famous Swiss Army knife had a reason to continue to be sold. The military service still exists today but in a slightly different form. They have added being able to do civil or social services as an alternative to the mandatory military service.
Years ago, after you finished your recruiter-training, you took a refresher course once every 1 1/2 years for 3 weeks. Between 32 and 42 years old, every 3 years for 2 weeks. After which, you returned all your military equipment except your gun and some other possessions which they allowed you to keep. That was the way it was, everyone did service. If you didn’t want to you had to prove the reason (religious, psychological or emotional). Or if, like a friend of ours, you had a medical problem like being allergic to hay. His face, hands and whole body puffed up due to it and he was off the hook. I guess they do a lot of sleeping in hay.
At some point during the 3 years between courses you get orders to have your assigned equipment inspected. So you brought everything like your gun and ammunition (which you keep at home, usually in your closet or basement!) your dress-up uniform, backpack, plate, knife, fork and 3 sewing needles along with your two pairs of assigned boots among many other things. You showed them to the inspecting officer at the assigned time and place.
Ben got his inspection orders and went as scheduled. There was no problem with the majority of his equipment. Unfortunately one pair of boots were so worn-out that the inspector said he had to buy new ones. Then the officer saw he had bought some hiking boots from the army a couple of years earlier so he said Ben could show them as his second pair. Unfortunately, Ben had left them at home because they weren’t part of the mandatory gear.
They ordered him to show his second pair of shoes to the head of the board of inspection (at the military base) within two weeks to pass the inspection. Ben was in a hurry because he wanted to go to Geneva for the following couple of months. So he went home, got his other pair of boots and immediately went to the base to get them inspected. All was good and he was free to go to Geneva.
Two weeks later he got a rather harsh letter from the army. It informed him that he must bring his boots to the base for inspection. Otherwise some nasty consequences would be awaiting him. It started with a police escort from our home to the base and included the possibility of a jail sentence. Ben, still in Geneva, was piping mad when I read him the letter over the phone; “so that’s what you get for doing everything right?” When he came home that weekend he showed me the letter he wrote and wanted to send. I couldn’t believe it.
The letter included the names, dates and times of all the people he dealt with. It explained what had happened stating the boot numbers and sizes and was absolutely dripping with sarcasm. He thanked them for their very friendly invitation along with the generous offer of an escort. It also suggested two solutions to this very serious boot problem.
- He could deposit his boots at the base. That way the head inspector could look at them whenever he felt the urge. Ben would pick them up before his 2 week refresher course and bring them back when it was over. Or…
- They could set up a timetable and make weekly visits to our home for refreshments. Ben would place the boots on the table next to the coffee and cookies. That way the inspector could see them the whole time he was there.
I protested, “No, this is the government you are dealing with, you can’t send a letter like that!” but Ben sent it anyway. I saw imprisonment lurking in the very near future. To my surprise and amazement a week later he got a response; an upright apology! They said when Ben went to show his shoes to the head inspector, the base hadn’t yet received the report from the first place. Their mistake. A simple case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing. The military obviously doesn’t work as fast as Ben!