When seventeen, I was a member of my school swimming team. Amongst the various organizations we competed against was a team from the British army. These were young men of our own age from all over the UK who had 'signed up', often for many years. Conscription in the British army ended in 1960. Since then the UK has depended on volunteers for its recruits. This means that, as with the team we swam against, many young men join the army because there is simply no employment in their area or they are not capable of any other work.

Our swimming team's visit to the army camp was an eye opener in many ways. We saw for example that the army ate better than we did at school. We also saw that although we thought we were disciplined hard, it was nothing compared to the discipline in her Majesty's armed forces. We also saw first hand the type of soldier the British have in their army. We were warned before entering the army base to leave nothing of value in our clothes when we got changed. Usually someone ignored this warning and learned the hard way. Every pocket was picked and all money and valuables were stolen while we were competing in the pool.

The British army took these young men of what we might kindly describe as limited potential and by hard training and tough discipline built them into a fighting force that would go anywhere and do anything under orders. This often meant that when the starter's gun fired at the swimming pool they would dive into the pool and swim for all they were worth, even though it was not their race. The British army takes tough boys from tough neighborhoods and makes them even tougher.

This is the British army. While Swiss recruits may travel by train round the country, the British 'squadies' have to be transported by truck because they destroy trains in acts of vandalism. Swiss Soldiers not only manage to travel on public transport without destroying it, but they are entrusted to keep their rifle and their ammunition at home without playing with them. While the Swiss army is made up of a cross section of society from professionals like doctors, architects and bankers through factory workers from all walks of life. The British army at lower levels contains young men who would often otherwise be in prison or at best permanently unemployed.

It is a credit to the skill of the British army that they can mold these raw and apparently unsuitable recruits into a modern, flexible and successful fighting army with a long history of victories and a well-proven record. Today on active duty in Iraq, the British army fought in the two 'world wars' and numerous more recent smaller conflicts including Indonesia, Malaya, Aden, Korea, Palestine, Kenya, Suez, Cypress, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf War and the Balkans.

It is so often said that what today's British youth need is a couple of years in the army, that it has become a cliché. I was too young to be conscripted, but have worked with colleagues who did their "National Service". All they seemed to have learned in the army is how to do as little work as possible, while appearing to be very busy; a technique which they then applied to their careers in civilian life. Likewise recruits into the Swiss army are introduced to the pleasures of smoking and drinking beer.

The Swiss army is famous round the world, not for battles, campaigns and victories, but for knives, watches and sunglasses – which sadly the army does not appear to have earned any money from. The Swiss army has never been tested beyond practice maneuvers and border duties. Hopefully it never will be. But if it were, how would it perform? Would a band of architects, administrators and salesmen who train a few days a year be capable of repelling an invading force? It appears that even the mundane task of guarding Bern's embassies from 2006 onwards is proving a difficult job for the Swiss army and the army's takeover has been extended by a year.

The fact is that the Swiss army is highly unlikely to ever be called to do what armies do, and so will never prove whether or not it is capable of defending this land. And the idea of Swiss troops to waging war on foreign soil is today unthinkable. So what is the point of this huge militia - an army theoretically larger than the British army's 212,000 troops? Similar questions are being raised in Bern and a slimmed-down army of 10,000 professional soldiers is one possibility being talked about.

However Switzerland has a unique opportunity to show this increasing violent world the way forward to a sensible and peaceful future. This would be a bold and daring move, but one that would win the admiration of the rest of the world: disband the Swiss army completely and in the unlikely event that an army is ever needed, hire the British one.