Cruelty culture spreads fear in sublime city; CHARLESTON DAYS

Why is it that unspeakable things tend to happen in the most sublime settings? Charleston, I can assert with authority after almost six years of living in America, is the most beautiful city in the land.

And on the northern edge of its historic district lies a group of austere, white-painted buildings, crenellated like a Moorish castle, clustered around a vast green parade ground lined with palms and oaks. These are the barracks of the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. By the standards of such institutions, it too is an architectural ornament. What goes on there, however, is not so much beautiful as bestial.

For two years the once all-male Citadel has been attempting to comply with a Supreme Court order that it must admit women. In 1995 Shannon Faulkner, who sued to force open its doors, became its first female cadet. She lasted a week, broken not by the traditionally brutal treatment of new entrants but by isolation.

In August 1996, four more women enrolled. This week two resigned, unable to put up with "hazing", or persecution, that included physical assault, being drenched in nail varnish remover which was then set alight and being forced to drink tea till they threw up. And straightforward sexual harassment.

Now, "hazing" is illegal. But in truth it is just an outgrowth of the Citadel's strange, savage culture since it was founded in in 1842 to "graduate young men who have been taught the high ideals of honour, integrity, loyalty and patriotism". Duty, says the sign in the barracks courtyard, "is the most sublime word in the English language", to be instilled in what a visitors' guide calls "a unique holistic and adversarial environment".

As euphemisms go, that takes some beating. The freshman enters this military academy knowing his life for a year will be, by deliberate design, not so much adversarial as hellish. He will be bullied, intimidated and humiliated, all in the aim of moulding the perfect soldier - disciplined, unselfish, and utterly obedient. Small wonder one in five drops out during year one.

Now, one may well ask, why should any woman in her right mind want to submit to this perverted warrior culture? Her right to do so is beyond constitutional dispute. But boys will be boys. And after spending two years and millions of dollars to keep them out, the Citadel would not make it easy.

True, it has gone through the motions. Panic buttons have been installed in the quarters of female cadets. Two male cadets have been suspended, and 11 may be disciplined after the latest incidents. "The Citadel's future is co-educational," its interim president Clifton Poole assured us this week. But, he added even more revealingly, it did not need "outsiders telling us what to do".

Charleston may seem dreamy and sensuous, suspended amid marshes. But only with conformity and discipline can the beauty of old streets be maintained. Every half-hidden garden, every portico and patio must be perfect, preserving the order of a vanished world. Be it a woman at the military college, or graffiti on the walls of an East Battery mansion gazing out towards the Atlantic Ocean - the sacrilege is the same.

South Carolina was the first state to withdraw from the Union in 1860, and hothead Southern soldiers fired the first shots of the American Civil War. And in a way, you feel, it has never really ended. Back to Charleston, decides Rhett Butler at the end of Gone With The Wind, "where there's still a little bit of grace and charm left". Indeed there is. Alas, however, not at the Citadel.