The Lords of Discipline

May 2017 – Pete

Pete’s Pick
May 2017

The Lords of Discipline
Pat Conroy
Originally published in 1980

This book is a novel depicting life as a student at a military college in Charleston, SC during the latter 1960’s. It is a depiction of the culture of a military school, set in the culture of quaint and very southern Charleston, and during a very turbulent time in the United States during the Vietnam War and the political stress that created in our society. The novel follows four roommates and friends through their four-year educational and personal experiences of growing up during this turbulent time.

Pat Conroy is a writer specializing in great story-telling and a masterful use of language to tell the story. He is perhaps most well-known for his novels The Prince of Tides and South of Broad. Several of his novels, such as The Great Santini, have been turned into major motion pictures. Mr. Conroy is a graduate of The Citadel in Charleston and his experience there in the 1960’s is the basis for this novel. Mr. Conroy died of pancreatic cancer in March 2016.

This book tells the story of four young men who attend the Carolina Military Institute in Charleston, SC during the mid-1960’s as the Vietnam War is raging in SouthEast Asia. Most of the graduates of the Institute end up being commissioned in the military services and many are sent off to fight the war in Vietnam. The story is told from the perspective of Will McLean whose father was a graduate of the Institute. One of his roommates is Tradd St. Croix is from an established, old Charleston family. His other two roommates are Mark Santoro and Dante Pignetti.

The story follows these four students through their four years at the school. The most difficult year for any student is the first year, known as the Plebe Year. This is the year when the upperclassmen work their most dastardly efforts to haze, harass, and intimidate the plebes to get them to crack under the pressure and ultimately resign from the school. The philosophy behind this process is that the school wants to only graduate young men who have the character and discipline to succeed in military service to the country, particularly during times of war. The story reveals there is virtually no limit to the extent that the hazing and harassment will take. Through their experience, Will, Tradd, Mark, and Dante will form a friendship and bond that will last through their four years together.

Early in his experience at the Institute, Will is introduced to the concept of the existence of a group of Institute graduates called The Ten. Their purpose is to ensure that each graduate exemplifies the character and integrity of the school and to work behind the scenes to ensure that unworthy individuals who survive the Plebe Year are ultimately weeded out of the Corps of Cadets. The process The Ten uses defies societal norms of behavior and even law. They appear to be beyond reproach and their existence is officially denied. Again, no holds are barred in this process. Will is challenged by the Commandant of Cadets to find out about The Ten. Much of the story looks at Will’s experience as he tries to determine whether such a group exists and to bring it to public knowledge.

Much of the story is a description of intense military culture. Those who have served in the military and particularly those who have attended any of the military academies will readily identify with much of the story, however uncomfortable that may be. It is a story that follows the development of deep friendship and brotherhood that survives the greatest tests that can be imagined. It is a story about honesty, integrity, fairness, and societal norms told in a captivating manner that creates a tsunami of emotions in the reader. The end of the story is an incredible exclamation point on the experience of a military-styled education.

The Lords of Discipline is a novel of intense experience in a military school which will appeal to many, particularly those who have been through intense training experiences in the military. It is a novel which examines the incredible culture of the great southern city called Charleston. It is a wonderful look at the southern traditions of the Carolina low country, the values of the 1960’s, and the process of growing into adulthood. Pat Conroy tells a story like few other writers. His use of language and his crafting of sentences and thought is absolutely captivating. At his 70th birthday party with friends and family, he said, “I have written [my] books because I thought if I explained my own life somehow, I could explain some of your life to you.” He does this in a way you will seldom encounter with any other author.

I highly recommend it.