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La Place de la Concorde Suisse Paperback – April 1, 1994

4.6 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Anyone who has ever traveled in Switzerland cannot help but to have remarked upon the overwhelming tranquility of the country. But this tranquility is illusory. As John McPhee writes in La Place de la Concorde Suisse, a rich journalistic study of the Swiss Army's role in Swiss society, "there is scarcely a scene in Switzerland that is not ready to erupt in fire to repel an invasive war." With a population smaller than New Jersey's, Switzerland has a standing army of 650,000 ready to be mobilized in less than 48 hours. The Swiss Army, known in this country chiefly for its little red pocketknives, is so quietly efficient at the arts of war that the Israelis carefully patterned their own military on the Swiss model. You'll understand why after reading this outstanding book.


“McPhee, in showing us as many aspects of the Swiss Army as their famous knife has blades, has produced one of his books.” ―Edmund Fuller, The Wall Street Journal

“The Swiss have avoided fighting a war for almost 500 years. To preserve that enviable record of peace, they maintain one of the world's largest armies, on a per capita basis. This paradox . . . is the core of McPhee's engaging La Place de la Concorde Suisse.” ―Jack Schnedler, Chicago SunTimes

“Delightful . . . What McPhee saw and learned he writes about with his inimitable light touch.” ―Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

“'Switzerland does not have an army,' says one of John McPhee's informants in La Place de la Concorde Suisse. 'Switzerland is an army' . . . McPhee put his reader inside Switzerland with elegance and insight.” ―Jonathan Steinberg, The New York Times Book Review


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reissue edition (April 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374519323
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374519322
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #368,987 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The Pine Barrens (1968), A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles (collection, 1969), The Crofter and the Laird (1969), Levels of the Game (1970), Encounters with the Archdruid (1972), The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973), The Curve of Binding Energy (1974), Pieces of the Frame (collection, 1975), and The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975). Both Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is the first book I've read by Mr. McPhee, and I really enjoyed it. The author started out as a journalist and a lot of his pieces originally appeared in "The New Yorker." This background is apparent in the way he writes. He picks an unusual topic, or at least he looks at something from an unusual angle, and he is very economic with his words. This is not a criticism. You don't feel that you are being "shortchanged." Being linquistically economic allows Mr. McPhee to cram an awful lot of interesting information into a short book, in this case just 150 pages. We learn a lot about the workings of the Swiss Army and how it permeates the entire society. We get insight into the Swiss mentality and their philosophy of "neutrality." We also get a little history.....both concerning WWII and going back further, back to the days of the Swiss mercenaries. The famous Swiss precision even comes into play in the construction of bomb shelters: "....the Swiss started building one-bar (i.e.-being able to withstand a certain amount of pressure caused by an explosion) shelters to protect the extremely high percentage of the population that might survive explosions but without the shelter would be destroyed like the citizens of Hamburg and Dresden. Swiss calculations showed that something as thick as, say, a ten-bar shelter would be of negligible extra value, for the increased area of protection would be slight rather than proportional; for underground hospitals and command posts, three-bar construction was chosen." And even though Mr. McPhee is never wasteful with words, this doesn't stop him from occasionally inserting his dry sense of humor.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
When I first read this book (and for a long time thereafter), I had no idea who John McPhee was. Although I enjoyed his idiosyncratic and engaging style, it was the subject matter of this brief study that interested me most. I've read a couple of McPhee's other books since, and enjoyed those, too. But this one is my favorite, because it's still the subject, rather than the author, that intrigues me most.
It's been said that Switzerland is not a country with an army, but rather an army with a country. McPhee shows us how the militia-army concept -- the every-citizen-as-soldier idea that has been emulated by Israel, for example -- plays out in the lives of Swiss citizens like Luc Massy, McPhee's host on a series of military training exercises. The exercises are more like camping trips for the soldiers, but McPhee shows that behind the breezy attitudes, national defense is a deadly serious business for the Swiss nation and people.
Switzerland's pastoral countryside may never look quite the same again, once you realize that nearly every bridge has been fitted with explosives, the faster to destroy them in case of invasion. That any snow-capped peak may hide artillery emplacements or entire squadrons of fighter jets. That a silent glacier (like the title Place de la Concorde Suisse) may become a front-line airfield at the first sign of trouble. And that, of course, most every farmhouse contains firearms and men and women trained to use them.
Since this book was first published in 1983, there has been a spate of books about the Swiss in World War Two. Coming as it did before that storm, 'La Place de la Concorde Suisse' is a useful way to get a feeling for the Swiss militia system, uncolored (pro or con) by the strong feelings that arose a decade or so later. I recommend this book to anyone interested in a look at Switzerland's unique national defense system in practice.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The latest reprint of John McPhee's 1983 La Place de la Concorde Suisse is a perfect complement to Stephen P. Halbrook's TARGET SWITZERLAND: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II. As a Swiss-American, in 1951 I saw the WW II defensive preparations: valley to valley anti-tank barriers; rail iron roadblocks that could be set up in minutes; gun emplacements covering roads and passes, and a Reservist army of every male still on maneuvers. Today most men have an automatic weapon or pistol and sealed packet of cartridges at home. Yet a national mentalite' - a word that may be translated as an accute sense of the responsibility inherent in possessing a gun - precludes the use of these weapons in criminal acts. They're registered, just as automobiles are, and private gun ownership is strictly regulated by cantonal laws. None protest that their to right to own guns is infringed! McPhee follows a reconnaisance patrol of French-speaking reservists as they cull information in the mountains: how many men can fit in a cable car? Are explosive charges in place under a bridge? How long would a relief force take to reach a certain village? (89 minutes.) The leader of this somewhat laid-back unit is a vintner in civil life - when pondering a problem he uncorks a bottle of his own wine and shares it with his men. He has no ambitions toward promotion, although many Swiss corporations see a correlation between the prestige of army rank and their executives' jobs. Swiss preparedness and determination deterred invasion in WW II by implementing the dictum, "Switzerland doesn't have an army, Switzerland is an army." Today, not everyone agrees, but the national attitude may summed up in a bumper sticker: "Everyone talks about wanting peace. Our army assures it." Albert Noyer; author The Saint's Day Deaths.
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