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


Every Swiss citizen, from the lowliest street sweeper to the CEO of Credit Suisse - joins the Swiss Army at age 18 and participates in exercises until their 50th birthday. I never gave much thought to Switzerland. I think of neutrality, skiing, watches, chocolate, and secret bank accounts. This book explores the country's armed forces, which account for 10% of the entire population and operate on The Porcupine Principal. On a small level, you conclude (as everybody in the last 300 years has concluded) that's it's probably not a good idea to invade Switzerland. On a larger level, it's about being Swiss, because the whole country's identity centers around the military service that every citizen shares.

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.")


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


After a year of living in Switzerland, I am glad I read it now. It is a great description of the contradiction of being among a people prepared to go to war at any moment in a country that has not fought in a war for centuries. And all those weapons hidden inside the mountains - who knew!


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.


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.


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".


La Place De La Concorde Suisse gives an insightful perspective into the lives of the Swiss people beyond the romantic visions of the Swiss Alps and instead focuses on the more practical aspects of Swiss functioning. The book gives incredible statistics surrounding the capacity of the Swiss people to defend themselves against just about any attack by any means. Being neutral means having to defend that neutrality and McPhee highlights just the Swiss people have managed to maintain that neutrality for so long.

David Quinn

Funny, breezy and interesting. I just wish they provided translations for some of the French passages.


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.


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.

Patrick O'Connell

Fascinating expose of the Swiss Army.

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.

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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