Fine Dining


Some years ago, I had occasion to have dinner as the guest of the minister of defense in Switzerland. It was the one and only time I ever experienced the fancy life we often see in the movies.

The dinner was held in a 300-year-old mansion in Berne. There was one servant for every two guests, and we were served one of those many-course meals on fine china and silver. Then we retired to the library for cigars and brandy.

Earlier on that trip, I was treated to a James Bond type of experience. We drove up a mountain in the minister’s Mercedes-Benz, through a gate guarded by men with submachine guns and into the side of a mountain. The door looked like a gigantic bank vault. It was designed to withstand a nuclear blast.

Inside were miles and miles of tunnels. There were stored artillery shells, bombs, spare tank engines, spare airplane engines, medical supplies and other accouterments of war. Some Americans who’ve never visited Switzerland might not understand that the country is neutral but it is not pacifist. In fact, it is the opposite of pacifist.

At that time at least, there were built-in tank traps and explosives in the main highways, and built-in explosives in the tunnels and dams. There were people in the Swiss Armed Forces whose job it was to detonate those explosives in the event of war.

The Swiss called their defense policy "dissuasion." The country is too small to deter an attack by a major power, but the Swiss recognized that they could dissuade somebody from attacking by making the invasion too costly and by destroying their own country in the process. Who would want to pay a high price to conquer a pile of rubble that blocked all of the passes?

Applying the same logic, the Swiss recognized that there was no room for evacuation, so they decided on a policy of vertical evacuation. Shelter space was provided for every occupant of every building, including schools. Thirty (at that time) fully equipped hospitals were underground in blast-proof shelters. Citizens were required to have a fallout shelter in their home and a two-week supply of food and water. Private developers who built apartments or hotels were required to provide shelter space in the basement for the buildings’ populations.

All males were required to serve in the military, and all females were required to attend an extensive course in civil defense. There were no exceptions. The police, politicians, doctors, lawyers, businessmen and everyone else all served.

It was a reserve system, and you were paid only for the days you were on active duty. There was no pension or benefits. Once off active duty, you were expected to take care of yourself. If you were an officer, you were expected to use your civilian secretary, at no pay, to help with your army duties. Pharmaceutical corporations were required to supply drugs, which were paid for only if actually used. Careful records were kept, and before the drugs expired, the pharmaceuticals had to exchange them for fresh ones.

I assume that the same system is still in place. It is the most sensible system I’ve ever seen. They consider defense the common duty of everyone, and so designed a system where no one gets rich at public expense and no one gets a free ride.

Does dissuasion work? It did in World War II. The Nazis thought about invading, the Swiss mobilized, and the Nazis decided against it. There is a story — probably not true — that a German officer observed to a Swiss officer that they had twice as many soldiers as the Swiss. "In that case," replied the Swiss, "our boys will just have to shoot twice."

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.