Searching for Truth

By Norman Boucher / May / June 2003
June 22nd, 2007
At 10:15 p.m. on March 19 President Bush told the nation that the United States had begun “to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave dangers.”

Earlier that evening, President Ruth Simmons had stood soberly before an audience of students to prepare them for the inevitable. “A declaration of war is a grave step,” she said. The kind of high-tech warfare in which the United States was likely to engage “can appear deceptively distant from our lives,” she warned, but it should not be: “Some of the staff at Brown have been called up for active military duty. Many of the relatives of students, faculty, and staff are now on the battlefront.” Stressing the sometimes hidden suffering of war, Simmons asked students to “remember how difficult it is for all those who do not sleep in safety, eat in abundance, and live in freedom.”

But the real focus of Simmons’s remarks was the peril of indifference, and the obligations of a university in such times. Even if the conflict ends quickly, she said, “I urge that you not make this war, however brief, however minimal, however complex, a distant issue that you perceive at the comfortable periphery of your daily lives.”

After referring to the University’s commitment “to the dispassionate search for truth,” Simmons ended by saying, “I ask that you continue to pray every day for the safety of all those caught up in this conflict, whether friend or foe.”

Simmons’s words set the tone for the next few days and weeks. On March 20, the first day of the war, a campus antiwar group staged a midday walkout; students, faculty, and staff were urged to gather before Faunce House on the Green, and a few hundred did, despite a penetrating chill in the air. Among them was Claudia Esposito, a graduate student in French, who did not trust the reasons for invading Iraq. “It seems like it’s not an act of liberation,” she said, “it’s an act of destruction.” Makini Chisolm-Straker ’05 agreed. “It’s bullying,” she said, as she passed through Faunce House. “The Iraqi people can’t fight back.” But the war was also on the minds of those who stayed away from the Green.

In the Blue Room inside Faunce that day were Professor of Classics David Konstan and his wife, Pura Nieto, a classics lecturer and a citizen of Spain. Nieto said she hoped the war would be quick and was surprised at how little her own students have wanted to discuss Iraq. “I expected them to say more,” she mused.

Konstan questioned the economic motives behind the war—oil, reconstruction contracts—and called them “alarming.” But he doubted the value of the midday walkout. “I would have preferred to keep the focus on the issues and not the bravado,” he said.

Other students said they supported the invasion. “I trust the leadership of the president and his advisers,” said Craig Fountain ’06. “I think they have a lot more information.”

“Saddam has made it clear that, given the opportunity, he would use weapons of mass destruction on Israel or the United States,” said Tal Itzkovich ’06. Still, he said, “there are a lot of people that support the president but not necessarily the war.”

Many students were uneasy. Myko Hull ’03, who is training for ROTC at Providence College, said: “I don’t know. I’m confused. If this was a year later, I could be there. Saddam has it coming, but I don’t know if he really poses that much of a threat that we need to deal with him now.”

By coincidence the focus of the annual Brown University/Providence Journal Public Affairs Conference this year was “America and the World,” and the April 1 session featured a debate between Yale international-security scholar Paul Kennedy and Richard Perle, who is widely acknowledged to be one of the architects of the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy. (Moderating the debate was Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who described Kennedy as a dove, Perle as a hawk, and himself as somewhere in between: an “owl,” he said.) Antiwar activists dropped leaflets from the Salomon Center balcony as Perle began to speak, and others heckled him on and off during his remarks. But Perle was unflappable, and the overflow crowd applauded loudly when a student rose to apologize on behalf of the University for the incidents.

“We will win this war,” Kennedy acknowledged. “But I fear the collateral damage. I’m worried about the collateral damage to international organizations, especially the U.N. Security Council. I worry about the collateral damage on the home front to the federal budget, to our educational and health-care needs.”

For his part, Perle, citing all the resolutions the Security Council has passed over the past decade, observed that it had become “an empty talk shop” with little influence. “I don’t know exactly when this war will end,” he said, “but I would be amazed if this war did not end with fewer casualties than there would have been had Saddam Hussein remained in power.”

Ten days later the war was over, and what lingered from the April 1 discussion was the disagreement over its aftermath. Kennedy and Nye favor a strong U.N. role in postwar Iraq and the repair of damaged relations between the United States and its allies. Perle would like to see the U.N. charter redrafted. “The structure of it,” he said, “reflects World War II in a way that may no longer be appropriate. I don’t believe the structure of the U.N. Security Council is designed for the threats of the twenty-first century.” Until the United Nations can be “reconstituted” to deal with those threats, he concluded, “no American president, left, right, or center, will have any choice but to use American resources to deal with those threats.”

The debate, on campus and elsewhere, continues.

Emily Gold Boutilier and Zachary Block ’99 contributed to this report.
What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
May / June 2003