A couple of years ago, honored as keynote speaker at a gala hosted by the stunning Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Chicago, I asked those assembled a question that I never stopped asking myself upon receiving this nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor: Why me?
For, over the course of my service in Iwo Jima during World War II, there were men around me whom I had always thought gave so much more to the war effort—to our fight for freedom--and of those men, too many among them who never returned home, never got to experience once again the country that led the world living the values for which they sacrificed themselves.
What the United States saw in my wartime actions as being worthy of this great recognition, I chose to take a step further in seeing myself as but the envoy to and embodiment of the memory of those true Marines I knew so well and miss so much.
Since then it has been my most cherished hope that new generations of Americans will learn to appreciate what is really, ultimately, involved in appreciating a country such as ours; what values have gone into creating out of this magnificent experiment in democratic ideals born from a revolution, the greatest global power in human history.
When anyone, or anything, threatens the erosion of those fundamental values, it is then time, once again, to fight.
Often, at those times, this fight does not consist of physical battlegrounds and artillery, but, instead, of a war of ideas--one in which the best weaponry is intellectual integrity, reasoned principles, and the wisdom of history.
When hearing of the legislation known as “JASTA”—the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act”, or “9/11 Bill” as it is called--enacted into law by Congress this past September, my first thought went to the Gold Star families in this country, some of whom I have had the honor to meet.
It is very difficult for me to fathom what our members of Congress were thinking in creating a law that will have as its ultimate outcome the placing of our servicemen and women—and all of the civilian diplomatic and intelligence-gathering support that military personnel will need—at litigious risk around the world. These individuals will henceforth be subject to the legal whims of countries who will want to extract God knows what sums from us by conveniently accusing us of ‘acts of terror’.
For those unfamiliar with this law, JASTA allows private, individual litigation against foreign governments in U.S. courts based on allegations that such countries’ actions abroad made them responsible for terrorism-related injuries on U.S soil.
It was written with the events of 9/11 in mind, and was intended—if not explicitly—as an action against Saudi Arabia. But the implications of the law are far broader and universal. Above all, it sets in motion the erosion of the traditional idea of sovereign immunity—the internationally recognized principle of diplomatic protection against the legal jurisdiction of other states.
What will now happen is that other countries will enact similar legislation in response, and much of that will be directed against the United States—in fact, it’s already happening. What will begin to happen is that the United States will be put on trial before the whole world.
As powerful as we are, there is no stopping the immense international legal chaos brought about by such a law, with trial lawyers everywhere—many of them here--ready to take advantage of lawsuits that will easily hover in the billions of dollars, in each and every case.
We have been in three wars since 1991. We are currently fighting a complex war against terrorism. We are dealing with new threats every day.
The United States funds and equips numerous counterterrorism and intelligence-gathering units around the world. These are complex situations, and they are not without their controversies and difficulties. But we pursue such operations because we must; because our own future depends on it.
When I think back at my own experience, it is difficult for me to conceive of the idea of being told that my military engagements at Iwo Jima would one day be used against me, used against my country.
It is inconceivable that I, as an American, would be told that my acts were motivated by a terrorist inclination. It is unthinkable that as an American Marine crossing a network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines and black, volcanic sands, that my intention was not to fight a hostile nation that had declared war on us, but to terrify a population.
When I and my fellow Marines were subject to hours under fire at a time and we prepared demolitions with flame throwers to stop the bayonets thrust at us by destroying them with bursts of flame…when I think back on those events, and consider what would it be like to have to be hauled in before the global court of public opinion to explain my actions, I have to ask myself if our Congress members have any historical awareness of what a war for freedom is about.
I must ask if they realize what it means to position our military and civilian apparatus in engagements the world over for the very sake of that freedom.
It is universally accepted by all who call themselves human that the civilian carnage that comes with war should be avoided as much as possible, and at all costs.
We also know that war is ugly, devastating, and takes a toll on life in a way that is, at times, as spiritually annihilating as it is physically destructive. U.S. counterterrorism strikes have been a successful component of our own counterterrorism efforts, but these strikes do occasionally cause civilian casualties.
Yet to expose the United States to lawsuits in foreign courts because of these actions, or the actions of those local groups on whom we must often rely, will only open the door to intrusive lawyers seeking billions of dollars of claims against the U.S. government.
This is not a path we want to go down. Furthermore, we should ask members of Congress to pass laws that would exempt our service members from lawsuits for actions taken while following orders during time of war.
No sane person can possibly detach his- or herself from the anguish on the part of victims of terror and their families. But to pass a law that, in essence, tells the world that they may drain from us the very resources that we have put into fighting for freedom on the world’s behalf, is not the America I know.
Nor is it that of those fellow Marines of mine in whose memory I have always worn my Medal, but in whose honor we as a country remember Freedom.
Hershel "Woody" Williams is a retired United States Marine and Medal of Honor recipient for his actions in the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War ll.