Swiss Army Life
The joys of armed neutrality.

The Wall Street Journal Europe, Friday, June 30, 2000

BIRMENSDORF, Switzerland--Having grown up in peacetime, I never joined the military. Yet somehow I find myself donning an army uniform in a country that hasn't seen a war since 1847.

No, I haven't renounced my U.S. citizenship to take up arms for a foreign land. I'm participating in the American Swiss Foundation's annual "young leaders" conference. We leaders--some four dozen of us, from both countries--are spending a few hours at the Reppischtal army base, just outside Zurich, getting a taste for how the Swiss train their infantrymen.

After a winding drive up a hill covered with rolling cornfields, a dozen or so of us arrive at the "shooting cinema," a high-tech rifle gallery. Several soldiers are waiting for us outside, but the cinema is shuttered. Turns out it's run by a nonmilitary branch of the Swiss government, and the civil servant who holds the key doesn't arrive for another 15 minutes. So much for the stereotype of the punctual Swiss.

Alas, the cinema attendant might as well have stayed home. None of us can hit a moving target. We fire at a projection TV screen that shows video of soldiers running across a field. The instant replay shows only a handful of hits, with scores of shots clustering just behind the sprinting soldiers.

We have better luck when we arrive in Stierliberg, a mock town used for combat simulations. Stierliberg is German for "little bull hill," and above the front door of the town's biggest house, someone has painted a bull. Our mission is to capture that house.

While a soldier explains the plan, a man jogs by wearing nothing but shorts. I interrupt, point to the jogger and ask the instructor: "Isn't he out of uniform?" The soldier explains that the jogger is part of a construction crew building more houses nearby. Stierliberg, it seems, is enjoying a bull market in real estate.

For the exercise, we divide into groups of six. Three charge up to the house and stand guard, then the other three go in. My job is to "clean the house." Scott Sherman, senior policy adviser for the Texas Railroad Commission, kicks the door open, and I throw in a hand grenade. We wait for the explosion, then invade the building. Stierliberghaus is liberated.

It's not a real grenade, in case you're wondering; it even looks fake, with an orange base and hot-pink handle. But the tiny explosion is, by all indications, genuine. I savor the faint aroma of gunpowder as I survey the house. If only cleaning my apartment were this easy.

Next we head for the antitank range. Some 500 feet down a hill, a Swiss soldier slowly drives a jeep back and forth while we take aim with enormous German antitank guns. As we speculate about what misdemeanor the poor jeep driver had committed to be relegated to such tedious duty, the beep-beep-beeps indicating a hit go on almost nonstop. Thus we learn that slow-moving jeep is a lot easier to hit than a fast-moving man.

Our training complete, we file into a mess hall on the outskirts of Stierliberg. Lunch is a soup of beef, vegetables and potatoes, which we eat out of army bowls with folding handles, for an overall effect that is less than Epicurean. A Swiss officer jokes that the soup is made from the meat of "a 30-year-old cow." An erstwhile denizen of Stierliberg, no doubt.

After lunch, three helicopters pick us up for the trip to Bern. Wind from the rotors of the landing choppers whips up the grass in violent, beautiful waves. Off to the side, perhaps a dozen men clad only in shorts stand on a large mound of dirt--the Stierliberg building site--and watch us clamber aboard. As the ascending helicopters kick up a cloud of dirt, we watch the nearly naked construction workers scatter like rats.

All that preparation for combat has left me yearning for some R&R. Soaring over the Alps, I relax and look down at the mountains, the towns, the hang-gliders far below. Suddenly, as we reach the 13,025-foot peak of the Eiger, the pilot of the helicopter I'm on decides to break from formation and descend into a narrow notch at the top of the mountain. We're hovering just a few yards from a massive, snow-covered wall of rock, and it occurs to me that a wrong move by the pilot would render us all eternally young leaders. Who ever said the Swiss were boring?

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