Distributed March 19, 2003
For Immediate Release

News Service Contact: Mark Nickel

Ruth J. Simmons

Remarks on the eve of war: Universities have an important role to play

At 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 19, 2003, less than an hour before U.S. armed forces began their attack on Iraq, Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons addressed a meeting of students in the Salomon Center for Teaching. The text of her remarks follows here.

Two nights ago, the President revealed to the world his intention to invade the nation of Iraq if the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, fails to acquiesce to conditions spelled out to avoid imminent attack. American troops in the region are now in a high state of readiness and it is expected that, unless Saddam Hussein and his sons step down, the United States and its allies in this conflict will declare war and move militarily against the Hussein regime.

A declaration of war is a grave step. Every individual of conscience and concern will inevitably be praying – up to the moment of military engagement – for the possibility that conflict and loss of lives can be avoided. Yet, as much as we pray for peace, we must be prepared for what could unfold in the days and months ahead if war should come.

Modern means of superpower conflict resolution and warfare can appear deceptively distant from our lives. The complexity of the issues and the enigmatic historical and political factors that often generate a nation’s actions can make it unlikely if not impossible that the average citizen will feel qualified and empowered to make a judgment or offer an opinion as to the justness of any declaration of war. Technological advances in war-making and the removal of conscription as a means of raising an army might have a tendency to make us feel that such decisions are far removed from our immediate sphere of concern. In addition, the deployment of extraordinary force intended to minimize casualties can suggest that impact will be minimal, and efficiency is assured. I have heard many declare in recent weeks that, even if such an action commences, the war will be over swiftly.

If all of this is true – that the issues are far too complex for the non-expert to engage and fully comprehend, that there will be minimal casualties, and that the war will be over quickly – it still does not absolve a democratic people from its fundamental responsibilities to probe rigorously the causes and circumstances of war, to be active in understanding how the conflict progresses, and to participate in a process by which our government is continuously informed of the opinions of the public that it represents. 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.

There are times in our lives when the discomfort of caring too much is welcome. I hope that you feel some of that now as our friends and families face the prospect that their loved ones and friends, colleagues and acquaintances, may encounter a terrifying choice of laying down their lives for the country that they love. 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.

I hope you will feel some of that now as we see families hunker down with deep uncertainty about the present safety and future outlook for their children. Terror and war acknowledge no innocents or bystanders. All pay the price.

In the weeks ahead, we will need to pursue every course to understand better what is taking place. We will need to study this region, as never before, to understand how we can play a fruitful role in helping to foster peace and stability there and elsewhere. We will need to be respectful of the tremendous price being paid daily by American soldiers and public servants. We will need to resist the temptation to be bystanders or indifferent observers of these distant, complex events.

In such times as these, each individual must decide how they wish to respond to events of this magnitude. Some will decide that the best direction is to conquer fear and to proceed with life, drawing out of one’s daily experience a fuller measure of what it means to live in safety and freedom. Some will decide that direct involvement is required and will participate with others in either supporting or condemning the war. Still others might decide to focus on the aftermath of war and on long-term measures for reducing world conflict, instability and inequality.

Universities have a particularly important role to play in the advent of war. As in all times, universities must today cling to their commitment to the dispassionate search for truth. The danger of self interest overwhelming truth is most acute in these moments. At a time when we are at risk and fearful of attack, the relentless examination of the many facets of our intellectual, political and social perspectives can give way to a more passive role. As scholars, true to our task, we are morally obligated to continue and strengthen that examination, bringing to light questions and insights that could be useful to the nation in the unwinding of war and the restoration of peace and prosperity. The task of the scholar to probe deeply and the role of the university to foster edifying debate must be protected especially in times of war.

Civil discourse, the primary medium for the advancement of this debate in a healthful context, will be important as we help the nation through the days ahead. Advocates of war should have their say and so should the advocates of peace. While the battlefront is understandably not the site for respectful, orderly exchange, we can cast a vote for peaceful resolution by maintaining our commitment to orderly debate and examination in spite of innermost doubt and fear. We will be establishing forums for discussion, we will be encouraging continued study throughout this conflict, and we will be emphasizing what is to be learned in singular moments such as this.

I ask several things of you in this difficult moment. First, that you take great care in your comings and goings, observing the safety guidelines placed at your disposal. Second, that you determine to be resolute in your studies so that you do not squander the tremendous opportunity you have to develop your intelligence in the service of the world. Third, that you remember how difficult it is for all those who do not sleep in safety, eat in abundance, and live in freedom. Fourth, that you act honorably in this moment and according to the dictates of your conscience, taking care to respect the right of others to do the same even if they are diametrically opposed to the part you have taken. Fifth, that you remember to bring this close to you, taking in the lessons of war. Finally, I ask that you continue to pray every day for the safety of all those caught up in this conflict, whether friend or foe.