Swiss stick to their guns as defence minister moots end of militia army
GENEVA (AFP) Aug 08, 2004
Even Switzerland's defence minister Samuel Schmid admitted he was thinking the unthinkable this week when he mooted the end of an age-old tradition that has turned every fit young Swiss man into a combat-ready pillar of the country's defence force.

Schmid triggered an outcry on August 2 when he raised the idea of abolishing conscription, which in Switzerland uniquely translates into several weeks service a year with the militia army for each adult male until the age of 30.

Most Swiss men keep their standard issue weapon -- nowadays a high-powered assault rifle -- and a pack of ammunition at home, in between annual sorties with their regiment in and around the Alps.

Gun-toting young men can still be seen kissing their loved ones goodbye in Swiss railway stations, more than 150 years since shots were last exchanged in anger in the small Alpine state, one of the most peaceful corners of the world.

"I have my gun at home. That's been normality for more than a century," defence ministry spokesman Philippe Zahno told AFP, explaining why a sudden political flurry had disrupted the usually placid summer holiday.

"We do have an incredibly large number of weapons dispersed among our citizens but it's part of our liberal tradition and the great confidence that the state places in its citizens," he added.

Only 3,300 of the fighting force of some 220,000 currently make up the core of full-time professionals and the rest -- including some fighter pilots who are often also airline pilots -- are militia part-timers.

Next month Switzerland's government is due to discuss Schmid's suggestion, which is at one extreme of a range of options the defence ministry is floating for the long-term future.

"We have to be prepared to think the unthinkable," Schmid told Swiss radio this week.

He said he was simply raising the issue for discussion because of the long-term need to control costs and adapt the army as its defensive role in the heart of Europe diminishes.

But the army still takes pride of place in the fiercely neutral and independent small country, which was once prepared to repel a Soviet invasion on its own and still keeps at an arm's length from NATO.

"I am astonished at the statement," right-wing Swiss People's Partyparliamentarian Ulrich Schluer said.

The obligation to bear arms is written into the constitution and the army's role traditionally has been deeply engrained in Swiss society.

"There was a time when most big bank, insurance or company bosses were colonels, even in the general staff," Zahno said, adding that the social consequences were a secondary spin-off.

The army also helped reinforce ties between Switzerland's three main linguistic communities -- French, German and Italian -- by allowing conscripts from different parts of the country to mingle once a year.

"At the time it was quite astonishing. There was a mix of social classes and languages in the army," Zahno added

"Today it's all far less the case. The army's position in the population and the economy is very different."

After years of debate, "Army 21" reforms cut back the Swiss military from 400,000 soldiers to some 220,000 this year, largely by reducing the upper age of compulsory military service from 42 to 30.

Employers have begun to complain more frequently about the cost of releasing employees for military service, instead of relishing the benefits of a clubbish networking opportunity with fellow executives, officials said.

An opinion poll published Sunday indicated that the militia service is also losing favour among the general public, although the Swiss are divided on the issue.

Forty-six percent of those polled thought conscription should be abolished, while 44 percent wanted to maintain it, the newspaper Sonntagsblick said.