This article is the final installment in the five-part War at Brown series.
University Chaplain Reverend Janet Cooper Nelson often jokes that the steps of the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center are really held together by melted wax — candlelight vigils in recent times of war have been “a political signature of Brown,” she said.
“I watch people who are way too young hold themselves accountable for something as dastardly as the world can cook up,” Cooper Nelson said.
Despite its removal from episodes such as the Gulf War, 9/11 and the subsequent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Brown has been affected socially, academically and economically by these modern incarnations of war, which have forced the University to confront questions of culpability and reframe perspectives on the world that produced these events.
The University is not a neutral place, said Luther Spoehr, senior lecturer in education. When Brown benefits from many government policies, like its tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status, “should there be a University position on the wars the federal government has authorized?”
Nationally, the wars have spurred greater interest in Middle East Studies, brought in research dollars to fund military research and given rise to new questions about academic freedom and student discourse, Spoehr said.
Though the conflicts are now part of Brown’s history, recent wars “are not over in any way, shape or form for veterans, for Iraq or for Afghanistan,” said Catherine Lutz, professor of anthropology and international studies. Their effects will be felt at least into the middle of the century.
A distant gulf
“The war kind of came on by surprise,” said David Whitney ’91, a former Herald opinions columnist. “It was just handed to us — here’s what’s happening, and here’s what we’re going to do about it.”
Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, 1990, seizing oil fields and positioning troops along the Saudi Arabian border. The United Nations immediately condemned these actions, and Saudi Arabia requested the aid of U.S. troops shortly thereafter.
By the time students returned to campus that fall, the first U.S. military forces had already arrived inthe country.
In a Sept. 4, 1990 column, Whitney described the anticipation of wondering if he would be called to war if the conflict escalated.
“I don’t think Iraq should be in Kuwait, but I don’t feel ready to kill anyone over it,” he wrote. “I’m not ready to concede that violence is the only solution, and I’m certainly not ready to undertake it myself.” Looking back, “it wasn’t hard to imagine that as a person that age, we might be asked to get involved,” he said, but the conflict was far enough that most students were not directly affected.
“It was a whole lot different than 9/11, for example, which sparked a very different response because it was so close to home,” he said. “It was hard to see (the Gulf War) as completely our problem.”
A new discussion
Teach-ins and panels were common as the conflict escalated. “At a place like Brown, there is not much knowledge of what Islam is,” said Manal Alasnag ’91, a member of the Muslim Student Association’s Executive Board, a group that hosted several such events, The Herald reported at the time.
“It was happening in a part of the world that a lot of us weren’t paying much attention to and didn’t know a lot about,” Whitney said. “My feeling was that I needed to know a whole lot more.”
“From the Islamic point of view neither side is justified,” said Imran Sayeed ’92, another member of the Executive Board, calling the conflict “a political situation,” The Herald reported.
During Parents Weekend in October 1990, then-Professor of Anthropology William Beeman told a crowded Alumnae Hall full-fledged war in the Middle East was imminent, The Herald reported.
In November, the editors of all Ivy League daily newspapers unanimously endorsed a statement opposing the war.
“Jobs and low oil prices at home are not worth a war,” the statement read. “Our original stated intentions of upholding international law and protecting sovereign borders were far more worthy.”
Diplomatic efforts between U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz ended in a stalemate Jan. 9, 1991, and Congress granted Bush permission to wage war three days later.
A brief war
Steve Christie ’92, who joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps after his first year at Brown, said he did not see the anticipated student protests upon returning from winter break. “It seemed like a non-issue, because the war was over so quickly,” he said.
But nearly 200 students gathered in Sayles Hall Jan. 23 in opposition to the war. They planned an open mic speak-out and a sing-in on the Main Green and encouraged delegations of Brown students to attend a peace march and National Student and Youth Campaign for Peace in the Middle East meeting in Washington, D.C. the following weekend, The Herald reported at the time.
For others, opposition came in the form of weekly interfaith vigils to pray for peace hosted by University chaplains,, Cooper-Nelson said. But the community grew difficult to maintain as war drew closer, especially for Muslim students. “There was a sense of the increased intensity and importance for their community to pray for themselves,” she said.
By Feb. 8, the number of U.S. troops in the Gulf exceeded 500,000. Less than two weeks later, then-President Vartan Gregorian issued his first statement addressing the war.
“War is more than military conflict. It is an intense clash of interests, ideologies, worldviews and political beliefs,” Gregorian said. “A crisis of this sort requires that we rededicate ourselves to the convictions that universities are centers of learning and hope and that the vital mission of universities — the exchange of ideas and the creation of knowledge — can be directly useful and effective to the peoples and nations engaged in or affected by violent conflict.”
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein announced the country’s withdrawal from Kuwait Feb. 26, and Bush declared Kuwait liberated the next day. In the following week, student groups like the Coalition for Peace in the Middle East and the Muslim Students Association held teach-ins reacting to the implications of the conflict for the region. The region, also seeing new interest among academics, would be the center of American military conflict for the coming decades.
In the first months of then-President Ruth Simmons’ tenure, four passenger airliners were hijacked by Al Qaeda militants, crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and killing 2,977 people.
“This is all going to work fine as long as no one dies,” Cooper Nelson remembered joking at an all-staff meeting for the Offices of the Chaplains and Religious Life the morning of 9/11. The first plane hit the first tower 46 minutes later, she said. “Someone is literally screaming into the telephone at me — ‘Turn on the television!’”
After hearing the news, Professor of Biology Ken Miller ’70 P’02 said he raced to a large auditorium where another professor had started projecting the attacks on a screen for his class as soon as he realized what was happening, Miller said.
Few could access live video coverage of the attacks on their personal computers at the time, Miller said. “That made it a collective experience, which was astonishing.”
“It was such an exquisitely blue-skied day,” Cooper Nelson said. “It just didn’t seem possible how something this awful could be happening.”
A campus reacts
At least 1,400 people attended a mid-day gathering for a silent prayer, Cooper Nelson said. The campus was covered in tea light candles on dessert dishes borrowed from Dining Services, serving as a signal of hope and communal caring, she said.
Simmons chose not to cancel classes but encouraged faculty members to use class time “as they (deemed) appropriate, to engage in conversations with students about these tragic events,” The Herald quoted her at the time.
That night, students, faculty members and administrators gathered for a community forum in Salomon 101, sponsored by the offices of the Dean of the College and Campus Life and Student Services. The auditorium was filled to capacity, and the forum was simulcast on the Main Green, in Wilson Hall and on BTV for all students to watch, The Herald reported at the time.
“There are regions of the world that we understand not,” Simmons said that evening. She encouraged students to decry discrimination and prejudice in the wake of the attacks and explained her decision to continue to hold classes to draw the community together, The Herald reported.
To help students cope, administrators announced extended hours for chaplains, deans and Psychological Services. “There were some Brown alums on the airplanes,” Miller said. “Some Brown students lost their parents.”
“On Monday afternoon, the deans’ offices in University Hall were crowded with students concerned about shopping period. A day later, the same offices were filled with students hysterically searching for contact with endangered loved ones,” The Herald reported at the time.
In the aftermath
The day after the attacks, the Office of Alumni Relations announced plans to launch a web page to track the safety of alums who may have been caught in the attacks and help friends and classmates check on others. The office emailed nearly 9,000 alumni in the New York area, asking them to email a special email address.
In an editorial published Sept. 12, Herald editors wrote, “Yesterday was our shot heard ’round the world, our Pearl Harbor, our Kennedy assassination.”
“Today there’s not much any of us can do on our own,” they wrote. “Do what you can: Give blood. Reach out to those around you touched by the tragedy. Pray if you want. Resolve to use this Brown education to do something that counts. Remember that we don’t yet know who did this and that suspicion is no way to recover from the wound.”
That same day, Providence Police Department officers stopped an Amtrak train and questioned and detained four men on board, eventually determining that the men were not involved in the attacks, but arresting Sher Singh — an Indian-American with a long beard and a dark-green turban — for carrying a knife. “Cheering bystanders chased the PPD car as it carried Singh,” The Herald reported at the time.
“Considering the situation, I can understand racial profiling,” said Hashim Mehter ’02, president of the Brown Muslim Students Association, The Herald reported at the time. “It’s not something I’m happy about, but rational minds don’t always prevail. In the Muslim community, we’re as dismayed and as sad as anyone.”
The next week, Providence residents painted South Main Street with images reflecting “a widespread sense of loss and a search for peace and stability in America,” during the Convergence Street Painting Festival, The Herald reported at the time. Meanwhile, Brown students erected a blank wall on the Main Green, providing an outlet for students to write and draw their thoughts.
On September 19, members of the Brown community gathered in front of what was then Faunce House for a moment of silence with college campuses across the nation.
A military response
President George W. Bush directed U.S. military forces to “be ready” for action in response to the terrorist attacks in a Sept. 21 speech. Simmons appeared on national television with ABC’s Peter Jennings for post-speech analysis.
“Young people will naturally be concerned about the future we’re going to face,” she said on the show.
That day, more than 200 students rallied for peace on the Main Green, joining campuses nationwide in a demonstration to discourage aggressive action in response to 9/11.
Oct. 10, the day after the U.S. first bombed Afghanistan, 120 students walked out of classes in protest of the “racist war,” and several faculty members dismissed class early in support of the walkout, The Herald reported at the time. A small group of students held a nearby counter-protest supporting the war.
Admission season brought concerns over anthrax contamination in the mailroom, and the Office of Environmental Health and Brown University Police and Security sent an all-campus email outlining procedures for handling suspicious packages. At Princeton, early applicants were asked to submit the first pages of their applications by fax after several letters at a regional post office tested positive for anthrax spores, The Herald reported.
An unwanted escalation
Two years later, when the possibility of entering Iraq came to the fore of the national discussion, many on campus opposed military escalation.
In December 2002, Cooper Nelson co-chaired an anti-war group that sought to articulate what its members saw as the problems of a potential war with Iraq. The Brown Faculty, Alums and Staff Against the War felt “enormous frustration with some of the stupidity behind aggressive actions,” she said.
But the University disassociated itself from the group, Cooper Nelson said. “There was a great fear from administrative ranks that somehow there being a Faculty and Staff against the Iraq War would in a sense throw the University into some kind of jeopardy.”
As missiles flew over Baghdad March 4, 2003, Simmons addressed Brown in what The Herald then described as a “gravely delivered speech.” Simmons called on students to uphold their “democratic responsibility to probe rigorously the causes and consequence of war” and to engage in civil discourse in the University setting.
“Bring this conflict close to you,” Simmons said. “Pray every day for the safety of all those caught in this conflict, whether friend or foe.”
U.S. troops invaded Iraq March 19. Campus antiwar activists staged a walkout the following morning. Ethan Ris ’05, president of the Brown College Democrats and a former Herald staff writer told The Herald at the time, “A lot of people in the club feel very small right now, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop being very vocal.”
Adding up the costs
In 2013, the Watson Institute for International Studies launched the Costs of War project to examine the war’s effects on Iraq a decade after invasion.
“One obvious way to talk about the costs of war in terms of terrorism would be a body count, but we decided not to do that,” said Megan McBride GS, who co-authored an article entitled “Terrorism after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq” as part of the project. The article argues that despite claims that invading Iraq would curb terrorism, it had the opposite effect.
“We had a really good sense of community after 9/11, but that means there was a groupthink — we lost dissenting voices,” McBride said.
“We haven’t been encouraged by our media to ask the harder questions about the use of military force,” said Lutz, the anthropology professor and a co-director of Costs of War.
Ten years later, McBride could draw on more dissenting voices, she said. “We become more critical with some distance.”
Across the nation, university research in areas examining how to wage counterinsurgency war in Iraq and Afghanistan “has been relatively well funded,” Lutz said, noting that 10 percent of Brown’s research dollars come from the military. “Those are things that bear examination,” she said.
But according to David Savitz, vice president for research and professor of epidemiology, obstetrics and gynecology, the University does not engage in research that would be classified and is not researching methods of waging counterinsurgency war.
The Department of Defense supports University research in cybersecurity, political science, engineering and biomedical sciences, but such research “is not directly related to military research” and “has applications beyond the scope of military combat,” Savitz wrote in an email to The Herald.
In a follow-up email to The Herald, Lutz argued that even unclassified military funding “has distorted” what univerisites choose to pursue.
Because researchers are studying phenomena that could offer military applications, Lutz wrote, “those researchers are not working on something else that their discipline or some other pressing human needs might lead them to study.”