The Martial Spirit and the Masculine Mystique

“The Lords of Discipline,” by Pat Conroy

October 19, 1980
PAT CONROY does not like military academies. A 1967 graduate of the Citadel, he has written here about a fictional “Carolina Military Institute” that combines some of the more quaint and murderous aspects of the Citadel, West Point, and Virginia Military Institute. Set in the Charles­ton of his own senior year, The Lords of Discipline is Conroy’s rendering of life in an insti­tu­tion whose mission is the making of men — or rather, the making of men and the breaking, deliberate and absolute, of those boys who fail to measure up.
What Conroy has achieved is twofold; his book is at once a suspense-ridden duel between con­flict­ing ideals of man­hood and a paean to brother love that ends in betrayal and death. Out of the shards of broken friend­ship a blunted triumph emerges, and it is here, when the duel is won, that the reader finally compre­hends the terrible price that any form of man­hood can exact. Conroy’s personal triumph is in con­veying all this in a novel that virtually quivers with excitement and conviction.

The Lords of Discipline, by Pat Conroy. Houghton Mifflin, 499 pages

The story centers on four senior cadets who have roomed together since their plebe year: Mark San­toro and Dante “Pig” Pignetti, physical speci­mens of Italian des­cent from up north; Tradd St. Croix, “the honey prince,” effete young aristo­crat from the cob­webs of old Charles­ton; and the narrator, Will McLean, awk­ward, self-conscious, rebel­lious, and sharp-tongued, a low-born Irish cracker too sen­sitive to play South­ern military man with much enthu­siasm. What began as a plebe-year alli­ance of brawn and brain has grown by August 1966 into a cir­cle of brotherly devo­tion — a cir­cle hardened by the cruci­ble of life at the Insti­tute, where the one thing they teach you is to hang onto your brothers, don’t ever stand alone.
The Insti­tute is about to get its first black cadet, and as the year begins the commandant gives Will the unofficial assignment of making sure he gets through his plebe year without being castrated, lynched, or worse. As the corps bolshevik, Will is a natural for the job: he’s the one who makes the grade but refuses to become one of the boys, the one they have to respect but can never quite trust. Soon after the grotesque breaking-in period (known as cadre) gets underway he assumes res­ponsibility for another plebe as well, a fat-faced Caro­lina boy named Poteete who has the mis­fortune to be per­ceived as a cry­baby. It is Poteete’s spectacular break­down and almost anti­climactic suicide that set Will on his pur­suit of the shadowy brother­hood known as the Ten.
The Ten is a secret mafia whose existence has long been rumored but never proven, a silent and malevo­lent force dedicated (or so it is said) to maintaining the purity of the Institute — racial purity included. For Will, they become the insub­stantial embodi­ment of all evil, the ultimate perver­sion of power. But though they provide the impetus that propels the four room-mates head­long into disaster, thematically they seem almost super­fluous. For The Lords of Discipline is not simply about the abuse of power by a few; it is about the allure power holds for every­one, the weak most of all.
Will’s clash with the Ten, though it makes for compelling reading, soon develops the unlikely thrill quo­tient of a Hardy Boys adventure, but his clash with the idea of discipline is recounted with gravity and passion and style. In an 80-page flash­back called “The Taming,” Con­roy takes us back to Will’s own plebe year, and life at the Insti­tute begins to fall into place. After grace­ful treatises on the “refined cruelty” of Charles­ton — that beauteous pearl of a city whose gentility is caked with the blood of slaves — and glimpses of the terror its citadel of man­hood can inspire, we are slowly let in on the secret of how the Insti­tute goes about its task.
The Taming is the process by which the cadre flushes out those weak­lings who fail to break under normal hazing: a boy is singled out from his peers, and within 48 hours he is shattered. Graham Craig was afraid of heights, so they wrapped him in a mattress cover, tied it to a rail, and left him dangling high above the quadran­gle. Bill Agee was caught mastur­bating too often so they made him wear a single white glove until be became the school joke. Will him­self was selected for the Taming but spared at the last moment by forces beyond his con­trol: “The shoe I was licking was with­drawn,” Conroy writes, “and I heard a violent argu­ment break out.”
Conroy does not neglect the perverse sex­uality that the lust for mastery implies: “His lips touched against my ear in a malig­nant parody of a kiss,” Will informs us after he’s been anally threat­ened by a cadre officer’s swagger stick during the induc­tion known as Hell Night. “There was some­thing night­marishly erotic in his brutality as I listened to his ugly whispers burning into my ears. I thought of the taking of beleaguered cities, the fury of plunder. . . . That’s what it is, I thought. That’s what it is, as I sur­veyed the images before me. This was the rape of boys.”
As with the Spartans, however, the ritual violation of boys is not without purpose: Will goes on to cite the birth of “a malignant virility” in the hearts of plebes that night, a virility they would come to use against future boys on this same quadran­gle. Conroy’s dispute is with this idea of virility. His is a harsh judg­ment, stunningly ren­dered. But he does not reject all he has learned, for he is a South­erner and no South­erner can escape his upbring­ing entirely. A sense of brother­hood is implanted on the quadrangle as well, and it is not coin­cidental that his narrator’s most terrible moments occur at the end, when Will takes on the Ten and the code of brother­hood is betrayed. Love your friends, Conroy warns; they are all that matters.
Will bears an uncommon resemblance to Ben Meecham, the Marine brat and high-school basket­ball star who bests his father and, in a moment of supreme Oedipal ful­fill­ment, drives off with his mother and siblings in The Great Santini, Conroy’s auto­bio­graph­ical first novel. There are times, in fact, when Will’s tale sounds less like a work of fiction than like an anguished cry from the heart — except, of course, that it is so tightly bridled, Conroy having learned well the importance of order and mys­tery and control, those ideas which stand at the center of the military mys­tique. The problem with Conroy is that he has seen too well, learned too much. “A Southern man is incom­plete without a tenure under military rule,” Will tells us in the pro­logue. “I am not an incom­plete Southern man. I am simply damaged goods, like all the rest of them.” ■

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