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Storming A Bastion Of Machismo


Storming a Bastion of Machismo


Shannon Faulkner, the Citadel and a Changing America

By Catherine S. Manegold

Knopf 330pp $26.95

Catherine S. Manegold's In Glory's Shadow so piqued my curiosity about its subject, the Citadel (formally known as the Military College of South Carolina), that I recently checked out the school's Web site. I was struck by the items the college considers Web-worthy. In addition to general information, under "Cadet Life" there is a page on "The Ring," including a close-up photo and a description of the prized emblem-embossed band of gold awarded upon graduation. There is also a mind-boggling, encyclopedic glossary of "Knob Knowledge"--knobs being the freshmen, whose closely shaven skulls resemble doorknobs, and knowledge being the college lore they must memorize. With Manegold's book in mind--its subtitle is Shannon Faulkner, The Citadel and a Changing America--I looked up "harassment." Besides misspelling the word ("harrassment"), then defining and prohibiting it, the glossary directed me to click on a link to "more on harrassment." That link led to...Surprise! No such page.

I had no doubt hit a glitch. But to point out that the topic of harassment has long been a major glitch for the Citadel would be an understatement. Manegold, who covered the Faulkner story for The New York Times, takes on the job of placing in historical, legal, and cultural context the attempt by Faulkner, starting in 1993, to become the first coed at this bastion of American-style machismo.

It is a colorful story, and Manegold recounts it ably, if at times melodramatically. Faulkner, after three years of court battles and hideous personal harassment, did manage to scale the battlements. But hers was a Pyrrhic victory: Within a week of achieving her dream, she abruptly quit, apparently overcome by the accumulation of fear and emotional exhaustion.

Clearly, Manegold is fascinated by the Citadel's byzantine ways. It was established in 1842 as an all-male, state-funded school for cadets who would protect the citizens of Charleston and its environs in the event of slave uprisings. That role gradually expanded. On its way to becoming the anachronistic military college/torture camp that Manegold describes when the courts finally cracked it open, the Citadel contributed battalions of graduates who served America in various conflicts over the years. But at the same time, an undercurrent of nostalgia for the Confederacy blossomed among some students into a full-blown subculture of hate--complete with Nazi insignia.

This vision of the Citadel as parallel universe is credible because of Manegold's reporting skills. She had open access to the campus for a year and interviewed hundreds of cadets, administrators, and employees. She was at ground zero on Hell Night, an annual hazing ritual, during which upperclassmen brutally abused the knobs, sometimes landing them in the hospital. Periodic attempts by the administration to lower the level of cruelty largely foundered in the face of new, ingenious ways of getting around rules.

Not surprisingly, as the 20th century progressed, the Citadel's denizens found themselves increasingly alienated from an America that was undergoing sociocultural gyrations with a distinctly liberal tilt. Indeed, the school, Faulkner, and her lead lawyers--especially Valerie K. Vojdik, of the New York white-shoe firm Shearman & Sterling--lived in three distinct worlds.

The Citadel was stuck in a world of absolutes, such as duty and patriotism. By contrast, Vojdik, just 15 when the Vietnam War ended, "learned early that nothing was quite fixed...wars could be won or lost, Presidents honored or ousted, and laws radically changed to suit the changing times." As for Faulkner, when she applied for admission, she was a determined, if unsophisticated, high school senior. What had appealed to her about the Citadel was the tightly knit brotherhood that graduates shared. It didn't dawn on Faulkner, a child of liberated times, that the brotherhood was just that. Manegold weaves these dynamics into a panoramic backdrop, setting the stage for the inevitable clash, as Faulkner and her lawyers sought to liberate the Citadel.

Manegold is sympathetic to Faulkner but never quite brings her to life. It occurred to me that the author might have had trouble understanding why any woman would want to attend the Citadel. And once Faulkner bails out, she virtually disappears from the book. Oddly, the epilogue focuses on a rambling series of anguished e-mail messages about Citadel life that the author received from an anonymous cadet.

There is such a raft of good material about the Citadel that it's understandable that the school looms so large in the book. But Manegold recounts far more about its past administrations than is necessary, making for some tedious reading. Sometimes she seems unable to ditch an annoying "you are there" reportorial style that relies on random anecdotes and gratuitous details.

Faulkner now teaches at a public school, having graduated from a small South Carolina college. The Citadel is technically co-ed, boasting a few female cadets. On its Web site, the "Cadet Prayer" now reads "his (her)" in the appropriate places.

For those readers who are curious about this little-known corner of America and how it was dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world, In Glory's Shadow is, flaws and all, a worthwhile read.By Marilyn Harris; Former Business Week Editor Harris Has Covered the Military.Return to top

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