La Place de la Concorde Suisse

ISBN: 0374519323
ISBN 13: 9780374519322
By: John McPhee

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About this book

La Place de la Concorde Suisse is John McPhee's rich, journalistic study of the Swiss Army's role in Swiss society. The Swiss Army is so quietly efficient at the art of war that the Isrealis carefully patterned their own military on the Swiss model.

Reader's Thoughts


A quick read in McPhee's trademark casual, informative style. Describes how Switzerland, without a standing army of any significance, defends itself, and why the argument that everyone in Switzerland has a gun has no bearing on the raging gun debate in this country.


Sometimes, you get a miraculous chance to have your cake and eat it too. My personal high-water mark is Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse, a French arthouse movie with impeccable credentials that just happened to show Emmanuelle BĂ©art nude for about half of its 228 running minutes. (It's completely justified, given that the story is about the relationship between the artist and his model. Anything else would have been dishonest, don't you see?) But if you're a left-leaning person who also likes guns, this book may go one better. McPhee, an American journalist with a talent for finding good stories, describes a society based on unexceptionable ideals of peace and neutrality, which has pursued them so successfully that it hasn't been involved in a war with another country since 1516. He then spends the book arguing, with considerable plausibility, that Switzerland has only been able to afford such highflown ideals by developing an extraordinarily ferocious part-time militia and arming itself to the teeth. It's depressing news if you believe in turning the other cheek. But if you're more a believer into doing unto others as they would do unto you but doing it first, you're going to like his message. McPhee has had a fine time as an observer with the Swiss Army, and tells you all about the ingenious ways in which the Swiss have learned to use their country's unusual topography to maximal advantage. The Alps, all on their own, form a brilliant first line of defence; there are only a few ways into Switzerland from most directions, and all the passes, tunnels and bridges are mined so that they can be blown to pieces at the touch of a button. There are supposed to be concealed military facilities everywhere, most of them buried in those same mountains. If we're to believe what he's telling us, your average blank Swiss rock face has at least a couple of camouflaged doors, which can be hiding anything from entrances to subterranean hospitals, to heavy artillery, to state-of-the-art fighter-bombers. And all deployable at a moment's notice.I admit to a mean-spirited inner voice that's urging me to be skeptical. All of this is supposed to be classified, it says, so maybe his figures are inflated; he seems to have got very friendly with his hosts, and as far as I can see takes everything they tell him at face value. Maybe they thought he'd be a handy conduit for some pro-Swiss propaganda. But I'm ordering Doubting Thomas to keep his mouth shut. A politically correct version of Team America: World Police with better hardware: how can you resist that? I hope every word of it is true.

Leif Erik

Only a 150 pgs and obviously dated. Still the prose is stellar and gives an American an insight to a radically different ethoes. McPhee makes an unstated case that Switzerland is as close to Sparta as the modern world can get.


Long before the phenomenal success of books like "Longitude" and "Cod", John McPhee perfected the art of the 'single topic in depth' book, in many cases expanding on his trademark (long) New Yorker essays. In "La Place de la Concorde Suisse", he digs below the picture-postcard prettiness and deceptive blandness of Switzerland and its people to deliver a fascinating (and slightly sinister) portrait of the Swiss Army. One of his most interesting books, written before he gave himself over to the fascination with geology that has inspired many of his more recent efforts. To say that McPhee writes well is a gross understatement. He is the literary father of Malcolm Gladwell, with the same characteristic ability to take an apparently abstruse topic and write about it with extraordinary lucidity, weaving a fascinating story that draws the reader in and holds the attention right to the end. If you haven't read any of McPhee's work, this would a good book to start with. Other favorites of mine include "The Crofter and the Laird", "The Headmaster", or either of the collections "Giving Good Weight" and "The John McPhee Reader".

Tom Nixon

I begin to see why The Quiet Man loves John McPhee so much- the man is amazing, plain and simple and is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. While Encounters With The Arch Druid was a fascinating look at the impact of development on the unspoiled wildernesses of America, La Place de La Concorde Suisse plunges the reader into the fascinating world of Switzerland- and their army.When one thinks of Switzerland, you don't really think of it as being an overly militaristic place. Dodgy banking regulations, excellent cheese and chocolate, crazy good watches and that fantastically neon currency of theirs, yes- but military prowess? Military power? Not so much.And that's precisely the way the Swiss like it. McPhee tags along with a variety of citizen soldiers (as all Swiss Citizens have to do stints in the army) and explores the origins of the Swiss Army, how it came to be so important and such a vital party of the national fabric of Switzerland and slowly reveals just how expensive and costly an attempt to conquer Switzerland might be for someone.Basically, the Swiss became the best soldiers because they had to be. Sitting in the middle of Europe they've had various hungry empires, Emperors and countries eye them up from time to time so defense of the Cantons that make up the Swiss Confederation became extremely important. They quickly developed a reputation as being the best mercenaries in Europe (because if you don't have a lot of fighting to do at home, you might as well get lots of practice abroad...) and the Vatican picked up some Swiss Mercenaries a few centuries back and has kept them- go to the Vatican and you'll see the famous Swiss Guards there to this day.(Interesting bit of legal chicanery I didn't know: all Swiss mercenaries apparently had a loophole in their contracts- if Switzerland was attacked, they went home automatically to defend it. So as many countries came to rely on and use Swiss mercenaries frequently, the idea of attacking the place could kind of screw one over, depending on how many Swiss mercenaries you used.)The entire Swiss military philosophy has been built around the idea of convincing various power-hungry countries that invading Switzerland would be so costly in terms of money and blood that it just isn't worth it. The geography helps a lot- as who wants to try and get an army through the Alps? But the fanatical devotion to the preservation of country and the sheer amount of practice means that the Swiss as a nation are very well trained (in as close to live-fire conditions as they can manage) and have obssessively planned for every possible eventuality. It also helps that their entire infrastructure is wired to blow in the event of an invasion- from chunks of bridges designed to collapse to rockslides waiting to be triggered to airstrips high in the Alps- they're ready for anything.True story: my Godparents live in Switzerland not far from Geneva and in their basement is an honest to goodness nuclear fallout shelter. All Swiss houses have them- and McPhee hints that there are probably whole complexes buried beneath the Alps in case of nuclear war. If that happens someday- which I hope it doesn't- I have no doubt it'll be the Swiss that will be rebuilding civilization.(Another thing I didn't know: Switzerland only appoints Generals in times of grave national Emergency- so far, there have been four of them.)Overall: Fascinating, just fascinating- a portrait of a country so devoted to preserving it's neutrality and protecting its own that it's one of the most quietly militarized societies on Earth. McPhee does it again- I felt like I was reading a novel packed to the brim with delicious knowledge cookies. McPhee wrote my face off- and yes, I do want to read more of him. If you haven't read this brilliant writer yet, you don't know what you're missing.

Jeremy Lyon

I remember after high school on a whirlwind trip of Europe stopping at Mount Titleist and seeing on the way up the mountain the fake rock doors to an underground military bunker. I thought at the time the Swiss idea of aggressive neutrality was pretty cool.The degree to which Swiss society and the Swiss military are congruent, at least back when McPhee wrote this book, was surprising to me. McPhee's distinctive style and his knack for presenting facts in the context of people who feel real and human makes for an easy and entertaining read.


Zed recently asked me how it's possible for a country like Switzerland to declare itself neutral and thereby avoid war. Why couldn't, e.g., Poland have done the same? This book gives the answer: Switzerland made itself too much trouble to invade. Belgium was neutral at the outbreak of WWI, but the Germans invaded anyway. Some of the Swiss interviewed in this book concede that they couldn't really resist a determined invasion by a powerful neighbor (Germany in WWII, or the Soviets when the book was written), but they just have to make it really really annoying.


Well, it was just OK. This is my fifth or sixth McPhee book, and this one had it's issues -some were McPhee's writing, some were his topic.McPhee occasionally uses jargon well before he gives us context to understand it -in no book will he ever get around to coming out and explaining it. In some instances, the meaning is intuitive, but in a book about the Swiss military, that jargon is in French, and expands to include nuanced geography on Switzerland.And the topic? It nearly felt like a sci-fi book - the Swiss have charges set to blow-up their bridges? Hidden airplane hangers set in holes in the Alps?If you love McPhee, don't miss this; if you aren't committed to take the McPhee Pledge, put this on the back burner.

Eric Buhrer

My father's side of the family emigrated from Switzerland in the 19th Century. In a somewhat breezy fashion, John McPhee tours the Swiss military and shows a bit of why Switzerland has never been invaded successfully. I'd like to see my country adopt a similar strategy. (Cf. Heinlein's "Starship Troopers.")

John Brown

this book is an intriguing exploration of the swiss character by studying its army and its soldiers. though many seem to be surprised to even hear of the existence of a swiss army, they are actually one of the most militarily prepared countries in the world. the country is set up like a fortress (thanks in good part to its geography, of course). the army is well trained, well prepared, and well connected in swiss society. it is also mandatory of course. mcphee is able to portray this intensely while at the same time showing the laid back swiss character and their attention to details when the finer things in life are concerned (look at the high alpine lunches of fine wines and cheeses). a very interesting book discussing some very interesting people who know how to do a few things right. you can always take some notes from the swiss, or from john mcphee for that matter.

Patrick O'Connell

Fascinating expose of the Swiss Army.


This book was engrossing from beginning to end. McPhee brings everything to life. It's like going on vacation just by reading.


Good book on the Swiss Army.


A really fun, breezy book about the Swiss Army. It's written almost like a travel book, and can be read in a day or two.

Mike Kowalczyk

A really interesting topic but I got just about as much out of a review of the book as I got out of the book itself. Interspersed amongst weakly written prose and a repetitive, unnecessary storyline are some juicy factoids about the Swiss Federation and the lengths it goes to remain neutral. But nothing that a bullet list couldn't have done just as effectively.

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