Stand Forever, Yielding Never

As a cadet at The Citadel, my roommates and I had an ongoing joke about what the school might look like by the time our sons could attend. (That we assumed we’d have sons says much about us, but says something about the culture of The Citadel in the mid-1990s, too.) Would it be co-ed? Would it still be a military college? Would it even exist?

This was in the brief window between the day-long matriculation of Shannon Faulkner, the first female cadet, and the arrival, our junior year, of an actual class of women. It was very much a conversation fueled by our anxiety regarding our futures, which is normal for any college student. It was also a conversation fueled by our anxiety regarding the future of the institution, which, I believe, is not.

Had it existed at the time, I’m not certain if John Warley’s magisterial "Stand Forever, Yielding Never: The Citadel in the 21st Century" would have soothed or discomfited us. Warley, a ’67 grad, a lawyer, an accomplished novelist and an intimate of Pat Conroy, has written a history that, while rich in detail, often reads like a legal and moral thriller in which the future of the college is habitually in doubt.

The arc is essentially this: By the time Gen. Mark Clark retired as president in 1965, The Citadel was foundering, underfunded and mired in “a 19th-century mindset,” its relevance rapidly being eclipsed by a changing world.

Yet The Citadel now stands as one of the nation’s great academic institutions. This is not to say things are perfect. “There have been high hurdles, missteps, and setbacks along the way,” Warley writes. Nevertheless, “The Citadel is vastly different, and, it must be said, vastly better” than its earlier incarnations.

The Corps of Cadets is more inclusive in every regard. Academics are more rigorous and the faculty — “once an all-male, all-white semi-sinecure for retired military” — more experienced and qualified. The campus has been refurbished and rebuilt while maintaining its distinct architecture.

Warley tells this story — a story, to my mind, of progress and renewal — through the eyes of the college’s presidents. It’s a device that allows Warley (his 2014 "A Southern Girl" is one of the great novels of Charleston) to write history with an intimacy and eloquence usually reserved for fiction.

There is Lt. Gen. George M. Seignious, a veteran of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army and “a Citadel man to the soles of his highly polished shoes,” who arrives on campus during a “winter’s night of uncertainty.” Air Force Gen. John W. Rosa Jr., chooses The Citadel presidency over “a return to the cockpit, to the perfume of jet fuel and the sheer rush of Mach 2 with only an acrylic canopy between him and his Maker.” There is Maj. Gen. John Grinalds, who, as a plebe at West Point, hides “an orange under his rain coat on a particularly nasty day.”

This intimacy, this level of precision, brings an urgency to the issues Warley narrates, and what emerges isn’t an institution insulated from the world so much as an institution grappling with the world. What are generally passed over as milestones — the integration of women, the first transgender cadet — are seen here in their specificity. While told through the eyes of its presidents, "Stand Forever, Yielding Never" is very much a “people’s history.”

This won’t please everyone. There is a certain contingent of alumni — I know them well — that take Warley’s title (from the second verse of the alma mater) as an imperative and claim that change isn’t progress; it’s a weakening, a softening. Yet at every turn Warley undercuts the tired dogmas of stasis. The “devotion to duty and honor” that drew a young Joe Riley remains and is tempered now by an open-mindedness as welcome as it is necessary.

In 2016, an incoming cadet requested an exemption to the dress code in order to wear a hijab. I remember discussing this with one of my old roommates: Should it be granted? “I don’t know,” he told me, “but thank God The Citadel has become the sort of place where we can have this discussion.”

Thank God, indeed. And thanks to John Warley for so beautifully telling the story.

Reviewer Mark Powell, Citadel class of '98, is the author of five novels, most recently "Small Treasons" from Simon and Schuster. "Stand Forever, Yielding Never" is published by Evening Post Books, a division of Evening Post Industries, which also owns The Post and Courier.