Southern womanhood's call to arms VMI: In agreeing at last to admit women, the school gives itself a chance to draw on a rich Southern tradition - one which may prove useful in the next war.

September 29, 1996|By HAROLD S. WILSON

In admitting women, the Virginia Military Institute has lost a valiantly contested skirmish, but it may have won the next war.

The transformed nature of military conflict in the next century may require the merging of the cavalier-warrior tradition with that of the embattled, heroic frontier womanhood of Virginia. Such a merger may strengthen rather than weaken the conduct of battle.

This assumes that there are conditions and situations where well-trained women of talent and honor can serve with distinction, but the "killing fields" will remain the preserve of men.

Founded in 1839, shortly after Nat Turner's bloody slave insurrection in Southhampton County, VMI was pre-eminently a Southern and Virginia institution dedicated to producing the warrior prince, the disciplined gentleman who knew the secrets of the military arts, so scorned in peace and honored in war.

Modeled after West Point, the graduates, mostly sons of planters, generally pursued peace in business, law, and the ministry. The Civil War proved the defining moment for the old academy. Professor Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and the cadets who fought at New Market are only tokens of VMI's dedicated fallen.

During the Civil War, Southern women were victims of extreme deprivation. Half of the Southern communities were fought over, leaving wreckage and ruin in the wake of contending armies. Behind the lines, Southern womanhood sewed, nursed, and prayed.

Almost 50,000 Southern women worked for the Confederate government in factories, clothing depots, war offices, and hospitals. More than 3,000 women, mostly wives of soldiers, worked for Richmond's Clothing Depot alone; thousands of others served in the factories of Richmond and Petersburg, as well as across the South. Reminiscent of World Wars I and II, hundreds of capable women clerked in government bureaus, with one of the most famous groups personally signing individual issues of Confederate currency.

Daring women in the Confederacy, in Washington, in Canada and elsewhere served as spies and couriers. In communities like Winchester, Va., women provided the best information to Union and Confederate forces alike. Young military cadets were deeply honored to have the likes of Belle Boyd, Rose O'Neal Greenhow, and Mary Surratt on their side, and so they should, for these women contributed greatly to Confederate victories in Virginia in 1861.

Woman, however, where not a part of the ethos of ordered violence that permeated the South.

Historian John Hope Franklin has written perceptively of how military academies, the custom of dueling, the mandated slave patrols to keep the servile population under control, and the appreciation of the martial arts reinforced each other in Southern society.

The history of the Indian frontier, the minutemen tradition of Kings Mountain and Yorktown, Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans, and the existence of a slave population amounting to 40 percent of the total, gave impulse to the "militant South."

It was in this ethos that the military academies were founded, practically one in every Southern state. These institutions sought to formalize and perpetuate the military skills learned in the Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

The goals were sublime, to preserve and defend the only democratic nation in a world dominated by hostile monarchs and whimsical despots. Even so, these military institutions were created in the face of considerable public hostility.

In the press and legislatures, there were charges that military schools were unnecessary, that they were expensive, that they trained a privileged elite, that mass democracy was threatened by notions of military discipline, that standing armies were a perpetual threat to a free society, and that the uniformed man on a white horse would invariably become one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Some have invariably interpreted the recent movement to place women in the academies as motivated in part by a similar anti-military mentality.

In contrast to the conditions of its founding, VMI faces a vastly different character of warfare in the future, one in which the best minds and talents are needed.

In the old days, volleys were fired from battle lines 100 yards apart, much like personal duels. But today the battlefield is electronic, with sophisticated robotic weapons in the offing. Instant satellite communications control and monitor action, requiring superior skills at programming and interpretation.

It is these non-gender specific skills that will determine the outcome of far-flung battles. Expertise in the realm of cryptology also knows no gender.

The weapons of terrorism are widely available without regard to gender and must be so regarded. On a larger scale, the guerrilla warfare late in this century has demonstrated the need for counter-guerrilla war. The "struggle for hearts and minds" must start with the premise that half of the enemy population are women.

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