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La Place de la Concorde Suisse

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  903 ratings  ·  68 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, Reissue edition, 160 pages
Published April 1st 1994 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1983)
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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 Béart 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 like ...more
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Awkward English at best, arguably not even a real sentence, something perhaps emanating from the quill of Henry James, the Second Amendment has proved to be a challenge to those charged with interpreting it and a slippery opportunity for those seeking to exploit it. For a couple of hundred years the United States Supreme Court gave full measure to the f
When an English friend here in Geneva said he buys up all the copies of this he can find, I broke the habit of a lifetime and asked if I could borrow it. I'd recently been discovering the ferocious history of the Swiss Army which I guess is one of the factors that still has its influence. Another is that the people are the army, the army the people. Eye-opening for me - though I guess it is blindingly obvious if I'd ever stopped to think - is that neutrality isn't a moral position, it's a functi ...more
Left Coast Justin
May 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel
This is the most lighthearted of McPhee's ouevre -- perhaps his only book where he is so often going for laughs.

If you are unfamiliar with John McPhee, this might be a great place to start. This is one of his shortest books, and definitely the lightest. His choice to explain the Swiss army by hanging around a group of low-ranking, poorly-performing soldiers turns out to have brilliant, as it gives him ample opportunity to both explain and skewer the institution. That said, he comes across as a c
Tom Nixon
Sep 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 r
Aug 07, 2007 rated it really liked it
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 fa
Roger Shaw
Jul 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
John McPhee is my favorite writer, and with this, I've now read every single one of his books. All 31. I can't wait to read them all again. ...more
Carlos Miguel
Actual rating: 2.5/5

Quite an interesting book to understand Swiss mentality through its army. The book was written in the 80's which means parts of the book is not up-to-date. The book already assumed a wide knowledge of the country and its customs, which makes it hard to read unless you are Swiss or live here for a couple of years. I wouldn't recommend this book to most people.
Sep 09, 2022 added it
Hard book to rate because it is so odd, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Would love to read a modern review that touches on what has (or hasn’t) changed in the Swiss army since it was written; I suspect some parts are timeless but others very dated now.
Jul 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing
As a New Yorker staff writer, McPhee’s written many classics of long-form journalism, which I have been slowly trying to get through over the years. Fortunately, one of my customers this summer was married to a man who had just written his PhD thesis on McPhee, and who was looking to unload some trade paperback copies of McPhee’s books before moving to a new university, giving me the chance to check a few articles off my list. This book is about Switzerland, the “Army with a Country,” which has ...more
Ian Duffy
Dec 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
Hysterical, lighthearted, and beautifully written, but If you're like me you'll feel like a lot of the jokes go over your head because they're over your tax bracket. ...more
Dec 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This book was the result of a tour John McPhee made of Switzerland back in the day, following a band of Swiss men on their yearly volunteer service in the Swiss Army. It is amazing how much you can learn while being totally entertained by a piece of writing. I find that I often learn new facts from the books I read, whether I'm aware of it or not; the trouble is, with novels, you can never be entirely sure if a presented piece of information is actually true. Not so with nonfiction, and especial ...more
Paul Jellinek
Nov 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
A typically McPhee-ian account of the Swiss Army, which has managed to keep its country out of wars for at least the last 400 years--no mean feat when you consider that most of the neighboring countries have been at each other's throats for at least half of those 400 years (okay, it's a rough estimate). Written with McPhee's usual bone-dry humor and laced with the kinds of McPhee-style factoids that you can use to spice up a particularly dull Thanksgiving dinner, it's a provocative little book t ...more
Jul 05, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
McPhee is the master of long-form journalism, and aspiring writers and reporters would do well to read everything he has written -- nearly three dozen books and counting. In this case, he takes us along on patrol with various units of the Swiss army, which hasn't fought a war in centuries, but is among the best-prepared fighting forces in the world. In the process, he gives us a portrait of Switzerland and its people. In fact, we learn that the Swiss people and the Swiss army are the same thing. ...more
Apr 15, 2021 rated it really liked it
I always love a John McPhee book, even if it's about something I never had much interest in, like the Swiss Army. But somehow he manages to make anything fascinating, and I cam away from this book with unforeseen understanding of the Swiss and what it takes to maintain neutrality in a world such as this one. ...more
Aug 25, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great book, very skillful writing. Its about the swiss army - an army so powerful its never been attacked. I never could decide if the story was true or fiction, or whether it was a little bit satire or dead serious. That made it a fun read. I recommend
Jun 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A 162 page New Yorker article from 1983 about the Swiss Army. "Switzerland doesn't have an army. Switzerland is an army." ...more
Peter Tillman
Jul 10, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: lost-interest
Eh on reread, may not finish. Swiss army. Well-written but pretty dull.
Vinny Minchillo
Feb 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Quick, short read about the enigmatic, but strangely effective, Swiss military.
May 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
My favorite John McPhee book to date.
Maggie McKneely
May 30, 2021 rated it really liked it
This book changed my entire perspective of the Swiss. You don’t maintain a lifetime of neutrality by just eating chocolate and herding goats, after all.
Joe Vess
Jun 17, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wonderful and fascinating, as are all of McPhee's books. I only wish this one was longer. ...more
Pat Cummings
May 21, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
Switzerland was about as neutral in those days as had been Mongolia under Genghis Khan… They were so chillingly belligerent that even if they were destroyed in battle they had been known in the same moment to win a war. One afternoon in mid-Renaissance, a few hundred Swiss who were outnumbered fifteen to one elected not to run away but to wade across a river and break into the center of their opposition, where all of them died, but not before they had slaughtered three thousand of their French e
Vel Veeter
Mar 23, 2020 rated it liked it
This is an odd little book. Over all, I liked it, but it’s limited in its scope and appeal. John McPhee has written a long profile (likely an extension of a long-form essay/reportage) on the Swiss Army. He begins with the same kinds of assumptions probably most non-Swiss people have about the Army, that there’s a kind of in born joke to the whole thing, but then goes from there.

The most important thing to say is that the Swiss, at least according to the book here, are very very serious about the
Christmas present from my dad. Written in the 1980's about McPhee's rare glimpse at Swiss Army training maneuvers in the Alps and elsewhere. Interesting, but hard to judge: McPhee seems too wide-eyed and sycophantic at some points, and too cynical and flippant at others. Never exactly 'objective,' in any case. Maybe he developed a complicated relationship to the Swiss Army during his time traveling with these guys. Maybe the Swiss Army is complicated. Maybe the Swiss Army put the American Writer ...more
Sep 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
1983 book in which McPhee "embeds" himself with the citizen soldiers that make up the Swiss army. Officially neutral since the sixteenth century, the Swiss rely on the terrain and a force of a half million reservists to protect themselves. At the time this book was written the Swiss took the idea of citizen participation in the military very seriously, although of course some more than others. McPhee travels about the Alps with a recon patrol of French speaking reservists who are somewhat handic ...more
Glen Engel-Cox
Dec 03, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: amazon
La Place de la Concorde Suisse is about the Swiss army, but, as they say, when you talk about Switzerland, you talk about their defense. Because everyone in Switzerland is in the army, you are talking about their country. An incredibly rich country, and thus, an incredibly paranoid country. Although many people are now looking at the Swiss, and especially their banks, with new eyes following the revelations of Nazi war booty being hid within their anonymous, numbered accounts, McPhee put them in ...more
John Brown
Feb 13, 2008 rated it really liked it
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 w ...more
Jul 30, 2013 rated it liked it
McPhee travels on manuevers with the Swiss Army in the early 80s, recounting a bit of history, the tight link between the army and elite Swiss business culture, and the thorough nature of Swiss preparation. He accompanies French-speaking Swiss scouts, though he talks to many officers as well. The scouts are not especially disciplined (not German, though they are well-trained), scouts being the place where those with trouble with authority are sent. This makes them a little cynical about the mili ...more
Nov 17, 2008 rated it it was ok
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
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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 P ...more

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