In a car more suited to light grocery shopping or picking the kids up from soccer practice, our friends Conor Creighton and Kendall Waldman are travelling across the bottom half of the USA on a road trip from South Carolina to California. They’ll be trying to swerve the cliches to send us updates on all the cool stuff they come across. The series' name is From Sea to Shining Sea.
Outside of its soft drinks, fast food franchises and celebrities, America’s greatest gift to the rest of the world has been its military. It’s been a long time since the glory days of Uncle Sam, when troops were met with flowers and ripe virgins on their tours of liberation, but that hasn’t dampened the USA's war libido.
If Iraq and Afghanistan are the remote, sharp edges of the US military’s bench saw, then Charleston is its sturdy fulcrum.
It’s a delightful southern town on the Eastern Seaboard. In its heyday the town was the entry point for slave ships arriving in America. The central market by the waterfront, which now does a line in boiled peanuts, trinkets and T-shirts, was once America’s go-to slave market. Today there are no more slaves in the South, but producing men who follow orders like chicklets follow their mothers is still big business here.
The Citadel is the largest military school in the US. They produce officers. In 1996, Shannon Faulkner became the first woman to enrol after she used the constitution to challenge the school’s male-only policy. Why any woman would want to receive an education here is beyond me. Shannon left after just one week. Even though she was protected by a ring of federal security guards during that week, the harassment was too much.
The first week at Citadel is called Hell Week. It’s hazing like you won’t find anywhere else. Cadets, or as they call them here ‘knobs’, are kept awake constantly as they go through drills and disciplinary excercises. Verbal abuse and physical punishment are the main forms of instilling discipline in knobs, but sexual assault is not unheard of. As one cadet explained to us: “It’s basically the same conditions as a minimum security prison.”
Once you’ve made it through Hell Week, and so many knobs don’t that they have a money-back policy that expires on day seven, the life of the knob doesn’t get much better. On campus they’re forced to walk with their arms straight out in front of them, their backs bent low in an arch and their chins tucked into their chests. If someone shouts "brace" they have to bend their backs even more or risk a punishment. Punishment is basically marching hours. One tale goes that one delinquent knob received 120 marching hours for breaking house curfew. If a cadet can take a good punishing, then he can mete a good one out, too, and when these young men graduate (and most will probably end up travelling to an occupied Iran) there’s no doubt that they’ll be able to give it, and give it good.
At dinner times it’s the same awkward protocol. Knobs have to eat at right angles. They feed themselves like jerky cranes and trying to finish a bowl of soup is like painting a ceiling.
None of this is particularly new to anyone who knows anything about military schools, but the difference at the Citadel is that they’re not trying to breed jarheads, but men of honour. Students at the college don’t drink and aren’t allowed to marry during their studies. Students will emerge as ultimate military men: polite, mannerly, gracious and talkative in the flesh, and lethal and unflinching in the field. But they also graduate as gentlemen.
You would never catch a Citadel graduate not opening a door for a woman or not addressing an older man as "sir", and the rules that govern how a student walks and eats are only in place so that they learn how to strut without a slouch and don’t spill their beans at dinner parties.
“Duty is the sublimest word in the English language,” reads the inscription at the entrance to the dorm area.
And, as fits, the students are unquestioningly loyal, naturally polite but also blissfully ignorant.
“What’s your take on Iran?” I ask before we leave.
“Oh we don’t really have time for politics or news here, sir. When we’re not doing homework, we’re on Netflix.”
Follow Conor on Twitter: @conorcreighton