Alok Menghrajani

Security engineer at Square. Previously co-author of Hack and put the 's' in https at Facebook. Maker of CTFs.

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A few days ago I delivered my first toastmasters talk, i.e. my ice-breaker. I presented a personal experience: serving in the Swiss army.

Toastmasters is a social club I participate in to improve my public speaking skills. It's also a fun way to meet new people and improve a bunch of other skills (e.g. running a meeting, assigning roles, etc.). At toastmasters you get to deliver short prepared presentations as well as participate in improvisation exercises.

This page contains more or less the exact notes I gathered. I had up to 6 minutes for my talk, so I ended up shortening things.

My notes

We were climbing a steep mountain. We had been in the wilderness for several days. I was carrying over 40 lbs of weight as well as many weapons. Today, I am going to talk about my bitter sweet experience serving Switzerland's compulsory military service 15 years ago.

Growing up I played with G.I.Joes and violent video games such as PacMan and Tetris. As I turned 18, I was asked to report for the army's recruiting process.

To be honest, I didn't know much about the whole process: I had talked to some friends and I got the feeling I had two choices: spend the summer drinking wine and playing cards inside some fort or join the infantry, which implied some form of physical activity.

A common myth I was told was that the infantry gets warm showers, less hazing and overall nicer treatment to compensate for the harder training.

I showed up for the recruitment process which involved a math, language and some basic fitness tests. At the end of the day, I was asked which unit I wanted to join and I choose the mountain infantry. I left feeling both, daunted and happy.

Many of my friends ended getting exemptions. Friends who were perfectly fit to play soccer had suddenly developed imaginary medical conditions. The compulsory service isn't compulsory after all.

~ ~ ~

My training was composed of a 20 weeks bootcamp, followed by 3 weeks of "refresher" every year for about 10 years.

We were taught a few core skills every week. If we learned the skill well, we would get the weekend off starting Friday. Otherwise we would get an extra day to perfect our skills and would leave on Saturday. Thankfully, I never found out what would happen if a skill wasn't mastered by Saturday morning.

Some of the skills included orienteering, cleaning our boots and guns, mountain rescue, etc. People who choose to serve as cooks, drivers or doctors gained valuable experience.

We did spend a lot of time doing meaningless tasks, such as long hikes, running up and down hills, guarding empty lockers, etc. Keeping a bunch of 20 years old busy for 80 hours a week isn't always easy.

I did a few useful tasks, such as logistics related to a sporting event, dealing with floods and working at a computer science research lab.

~ ~ ~

Switzerland is a small neutral country with almost no natural resources. The country was formed by a group of people refusing to go to war against each other. The citizens were encouraged to bear arms for self defense purpose. A concept which later influenced French and American societies.

During the first and second world wars, the army played an important role. The country's bridges, tunnels and roads were loaded with permanent explosives. A push of a button could lock Switzerland off from an invader.

Some parts of the training I received reflected an outdated army. We ran in trenches and used weapons which can only target a tank standing still. Overall the whole the process seemed costly and not effective for modern warfare.

Thinking back about this experience, it was the only time in my adult life that I spent considerable amount of time with people who were not university students or software engineers. My fellow recruits went on to become farmers, wine makers, mechanics, lawyers, etc.

This experience could have lead to long lasting friendships across social barriers, but it ended only giving me a glimpse of my country men.

~ ~ ~

The Swiss army has had its fair share of accidents: recruits drowning in rivers, getting hit by trucks, falling off cliffs. Weapon and ammunition theft, leading to accidents killing civilians.

As a result, this heritage is disappearing. Over the last ten years, the solider count has been reduced to a mere 140,000. The defense budget has had significant cuts. Bridges and tunnels no longer contain mines. We are asked to return our weapons, sometimes twice because logistics is hard.

The swiss army is disappearing, but is it the only one?

Some random facts

  • We did get warm showers and we were only left to sleep outside in the rain once.
  • The official swiss army knife doesn't have a wine opener, so most people carried two knives.
  • We were given a chance to serve for peace corp missions, an assignment requiring a year (or more?) of commitment.
  • When serving to protect embassies, we were told that our training had thought us to shoot at the chest area. In an urban setting we needed to remember to aim at the feet (to injur instead of kill).