They Didn't Attack Switzerland

Switzerland has not been in a war of any kind since 1815. It has not been in an official foreign war since 1515. This would be astounding, even miraculous, for any nation. But Switzerland borders Germany . And France . And Italy . And Austria . And Liechtenstein . Now the Prince of Liechtenstein has rarely lashed out in Blitzkrieg in a desperate bid to reign uber alles, but ALL of Switzerland 's other neighbors have devoted a lot of effort to invading other countries.

In addition to the encircling foreign marauders, Switzerland itself is composed of several different ethnic groups that get along as well as, e.g., Germans and French. But they haven't ethnically cleansed each other for two centuries, either.

You would think that peacekeeping performance of this kind would make Switzerland an object of study in every political science and civics course worldwide. "WHY Didn't They Attack Switzerland ?" should be the title of many a textbook. This is not the case. Very few political scientists study Switzerland .

Switzerland is of no interest to politicians, because the features of the Swiss system that keep the peace are the same features that make Swiss politicians unimportant. Do you know the name of the Swiss President now serving out his nonrenewable one-year term? No, you do not (it's Samuel Schmid, but you won't remember tomorrow). His name doesn't matter, and he doesn't matter to the defense of Switzerland . There is no central location of Swiss defense, no Pentagon or NORAD into which you can crash a 757 or a black-market Kazakh nuclear weapon. The defense of Switzerland is the entire people of Switzerland itself.

The features of the Swiss system for keeping the peace are simple. They mind their own business, and they have very strict gun control. By which they mean that every Swiss male must have a gun, except for those who have to carry a mortar or missile launcher. Females are not subject to universal military training, but if you go to a Swiss rifle range, there are always girls blasting away too. After 9-11, teh Swiss carried on as usual, somewhat different from the US response of panicked victim-disarmament. (You are aware that 99% of US pilots are STILL disarmed?)

As a final defense, the Swiss have rigged the vaults of their banks for demolition. Any dictator attacking Switzerland will find the gold in his numbered bank account buried in rubble hundreds of meters under a mountain. It is known that Hitler had a numbered account.

Switzerland has also provided for defense of the lives of its civilian population against nuclear terrorism. Realizing after World War Two that nuclear weapons in the hands of power-mad idiots posed a public health threat, the Swiss started a nationwide shelter-building program in 1960. By 1991, there was enough shelter space in Switzerland to protect everyone in their home or apartment, and also enough at their workplace and school. A Swiss citizen is generally never more than a few minutes from a fallout shelter with an air filter.

The entire Swiss shelter program was accomplished for somewhere on the order of $35 (1990 dollars) per year per capita. The US spends vastly more every year to achieve a military only capable of intervening in Third World nations that don't have WMDs. The combined US armed forces are incapable of shooting down a single ballistic missile, or even intercepting low-flying propeller planes. Nor are there bunkers with filtered air supplies for the inhabitants of our glass cities or crackerbox suburbs. The only civil defense in the US is for the President and the bureaucrats under Iron Mountain . Everyone else is nuclear fodder, except for those provident few (such as the Mormons) who build their own shelters to protect their families.

Switzerland does not send troops to intervene in other nations. Switzerland does not spend tens of billions of dollars yearly to fund dictators around the world, nor did Switzerland donate hundreds of billions of dollars to the Warsaw Pact through bank "loans." Switzerland does not send billions of dollars worth of weaponry every year to the warring tribes in the Middle East . Switzerland has no enemies. Yet the Swiss are armed to the teeth and dug into every hill and under every building.

US policy is the evil-parallel-universe inverse of the Swiss. The US intervenes everywhere, spies on everyone, supports every faction in every dispute. We have as many enemies as there are disputatious people in the world. Yet we spend more effort on disarming our own airline pilots and other law-abiding citizens than on providing shelters for our children against nuclear, chemical, or biological attack. We have an expensive conventional army, and quite a few aging offensive nuclear weapons. But no defense for our children.

But Who Would Attack Us? We're Such Nice Guys'

What groups might think to benefit from a WMD strike on the US ? A partial list:

1. The US kleptocracy, which has reaped such vast increases in power from terrorism and war. 'War is the health of the State,' and terrorism drives citizen support for war.

2. Angry relatives of the thousands of victims of 'Shock and Awe.'

3. Fundamentalist Muslim politicians.

4. Fundamentalist Israeli politicians.

5. Every emerging power on Earth. The more the US sinks into the Mideast quagmire, the more chance for new powers to rise to dominance.

6. Citizens of nations ruled by US-backed dictators and oligarchs, who are victims of our Aid To Dependent Dictators programs.

7. FOX News, always looking for higher ratings.

This would have been more concise if I had listed the groups that would NOT benefit from anonymous WMD attacks on the US , to wit, the world's libertarians, capitalists, and peace lovers of all stripes. Unfortunately, the 'non-aggression principle' won't prevent anyone from being killed by terrorism and/or anti-terrorism. So, we must all determine the best risk management strategies within our budgets.

The Likely Attacks

There are two basic categories of attacks. One type is the Jerry Bruckheimer Movie attack, typified by 9-11. Spectacular attacks that kill only a few thousand people are great for raising the Homeland Security budget, but they don't raise the individual's risk level that much. For most people, it would be more worthwhile to put some effort into avoiding heart disease and cancer than to try to avoid random, low-level terrorism. However, it is prudent to avoid targets with high cinematic value, like the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge , Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc.

The second category of attack is the 'anonymous warfare' strike, intended to seriously damage the US . While it might be hard for a minor power to inflict crippling physical damage on the US , anonymous attacks can rely on a high 'Homeland Security Multiplier Effect.' For every dollar of damage done by the 9-11 attack, post-attack 'security' measures have done ten more. And a nuclear attack would make the post-9-11 hysteria look orderly and rational by comparison. One anonymous strike could paralyze the US for decades.

Such an anonymous attack might be nuclear, using the leftover weapons from the Cold War that are available in various backwater marketplaces:

Or budget terrorism could be launched with poison gas, germs, or even conventional explosives planted in vulnerable areas such as dams, gasoline storage tanks, chemical transport trains, etc. etc. etc.

US: Strictly DIY Civil Defense

One might think that a Homeland Security budget of over $40 billion would provide a little bit of protection for US citizens. Governments are never efficient, but some of them at least spend some tax money on its putative purpose. Swiss, Israeli, and many other nations' civil defense programs distribute gas masks, radiation meters, financial aid for constructing shelters, etc. However, US Homeland security has provided us with: free advice from Tom Ridge . According to Tom, all a US citizen needs for protection against WMD is some duct tape and enough food for three days. Personally, I don't think that this advice, even in full-page ads, was worth $40 billion. In any case, American families will receive no help from Homeland Security's new director, either. US civil defense is strictly DIY.

Balancing Risk

A DIY civil defense program is limited by the fact that the majority of our discretionary income has already been allocated to other uses by federal, state, and local tax authorities. Most of us can't afford to protect our families and ourselves properly, because that money is in Iraq and a hundred other foreign-aid regimes.

Still, most of us can do better than duct tape. Contrary to media 'wisdom,' one or even a thousand nuclear bombs won't kill everyone. Nuclear fallout radiation intensity falls by a factor of a thousand over two weeks, so if you can hide in a well-stocked basement with a crude air filter for that long, you would probably survive . . . IF you knew what you were doing and had made some preparations. Germs and gas have their own limitations, and terrorists probably won't have the biggest and best of anything. Of course the terrorists still have an advantage, because most Americans aren't even up to Tom Ridge 's suggested level of preparation.

There are several elements of civil defense:

  1. Location

  2. Threat warning

  3. Protective gear

  4. Protective construction

  5. Networking

Location, Location, Location

The best location is: not in the US . If your work can be done in Costa Rica , Switzerland , or some other nation that hasn't attacked anyone for decades, you could move. Unfortunately, most of us have sentimental or economic ties to US target zones.

Within the US : if you live downstream from one of those high dams in California , just stop reading this and get in the car. What were you thinking anyway?

Other places require trade-offs; small towns are safer in most scenarios, but may not have lucrative jobs. If you live in a smaller city, you're likely to get some warning of fallout or disease outbreak. The safest locations are rural, but not everyone can afford to live well in the country. The general rule is to avoid large cities if you can, and especially Washington , DC and New York . These cities are self-terrorizing anyway, between the draconian victim disarmament laws and the crime.

Threat Warning

9-11 was our warning. Homeland Security has given us hundreds of useless 'warnings' since then, but it would be sheer coincidence if any of these actually preceded an attack. The 'Emergency Broadcasting System' isn't going to know about a terrorist nuclear attack until after they see it on CNN. Warnings of biological threats may be subtler; sudden outbreaks of 'flu-like' symptoms in odd patterns might be signs of biowarfare . . . or they might be signs of flu, which might kill you anyway since the FDA seems to be protecting us very efficiently from flu vaccine. Again, the best way to have warning is not to be in the immediate target area.

Protective Gear

Minimum: A small water and food stockpile (if you don't have to leave your house for a month, you'll make it through plague or fallout a lot more easily).

A HEPA filter in the living room would make Tom Ridge 's 'seal up your bedroom with duct tape' idea work much better . . . as long as the power stayed on. Ideally, you should be able to seal up your house and use a hand-cranked blower to provide filtered air, but now we're getting into the 'protective construction' area.

Cheap insurance would include a gas mask in car, and potassium iodide pills to give some protection against fallout (they also help against nuclear-power accidents, unlikely as those might be). Antibiotics are potentially useful but more expensive and perishable. A firearm (and some practice in its use) is a prudent investment for most people anyway, but is even more important in a scenario when you can't afford to be looted or carjacked. A high-rate radiation meter doesn't cost very much, and makes a great coffee-table decoration:

And yes, some duct tape is always a good thing (those two weeks in the fallout shelter might get boring otherwise).

Protective Construction

Optimally, everyone desiring to opt out of the ill effects of war and terrorism could live in a concrete dome, such as those produced by the good folks of Italy , Texas .

100 psi blast waves just slide off a concrete dome (especially if it's partially buried), as do tornadoes, hurricanes, drive-by shootings, and blast waves from asteroid impacts. Other forms of underground (or hillside, like Bilbo Baggins') construction can also be inherently attack-resistant. Anyone who is living in a probable target city for economic reasons should at least consider hobbit-style construction instead of Styrofoam and 2 x 4s . . . of course local building codes often practically forbid underground construction.

If you have a basement, only relatively little work is needed to make it into an effective fallout shelter. Terrorist bombs might well be more on the scale of 15-kiloton Hiroshima-killers than the 25-megaton Cold War monsters. A 15-kiloton bomb from an old tactical artillery shell or rocket warhead would have a lethal blast radius much smaller than even a small US city, but fallout could be lethal for 20 miles or more downwind.

The basement is usually easier to seal against chemicals and germs, too. Just remember that Swiss basements have hand-cranked filtered air blowers; if you succeed in sealing up a basement tight enough to keep out VX aerosols, you're going to need an air supply. Don't forget to invite Tom Ridge along to crank it for you; he's not busy changing threat level colors anymore.


The whole subject of Civil Defense is about preparing for the failure of the normal system of economic specialization. But the more normal social ties that we can preserve, the more effective protective measures can be and the quicker civil society can recover. On a personal level, if all of your friends believe that 'the best thing to do in a nuclear attack is go outside and die quickly,' then you should probably try to add a few acquaintances of a more practical bent.

The Swiss have avoided war for 200 years by being mentally and physically prepared for it. Even if Switzerland were attacked by nuclear terrorists, their mental preparation (and their courage, another essential commodity that Americans have failed to stockpile) would save them from hysterically scrapping their Constitution and civil liberties.

We Americans have been at war throughout most of the same decades that Switzerland has been at peace. Now that America has mutated from Republic to Empire, we are at perpetual war with every nation that wants to be independent of the whims of the POTUS. At the very least, we must all recognize the fact, and be prepared for the shocks to come. Civil society can recover from a lot of destruction; it can't recover from cowardice and refusal to prepare for trouble until chaos is already upon us.

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Bill Walker's picture
Columns on STR: 16

Bill Walker lives in Plainfield NH.