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Peace Rising

06/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In sacred remembrance of all those we have killed, and are continuing to kill . . .

The flag waves, the heart stirs, the music rends the air. Memorial Day 2009. I stood at a bubbling fountain in downtown Chicago and listened to speakers from Vietnam Veterans Against the War -- speakers with hard-earned and grown-up attitudes about war -- apologize for the wars still going on today and plead for awareness that they must stop, that we must learn how little they solve and how long they linger, and that only in committing ourselves to the end of all wars can we honor the dead. Then, toward the end of the small, solemn gathering, the passing of Zak Wachtendonk was mourned.

"Zak's name will never be on the memorial, but he died in Vietnam just as surely as my nephew did," said Barry Romo, who earlier had talked about the death of his relative.

Romo's comment opens up the select world of this day's honorees in a way that has left me disturbed in wave after wave of overwhelming remorse.

Zak, who died in March, a month after his 30th birthday, was the son of a Vietnam vet who had been exposed to Agent Orange; he was born with chromosomal damage and severe birth defects that made living an extraordinary struggle and, indeed, he was not even supposed to see his first birthday. Loving parents gave him a life; he was able to thrive emotionally even though he struggled physically. He was a wonderful young man and his passing tore a hole in people's lives. It also signaled how long modern wars are capable of lasting.

Consider Agent Orange, a defoliant containing dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals known to science. Better yet, consider the planners and bureaucrats who dumped more than 19 million gallons of this substance and other herbicides, some with even higher doses of dioxin, on the jungles of South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. Killing millions of trees and poisoning the earth -- the rice paddies -- to gain a military edge on "the enemy" is the strategy of psychopaths, or so it seems in retrospect, but we have yet to have the public accounting, the truth commission, that lays the matter bare and allows our moral progress to resume.

Instead we had another war, after the fact, waged for decades against the vets who fought in Vietnam, denying them, for as long as possible, any claim against the government for their shattered health. The strategists had nothing to prove to anybody when they decided to wage chemical warfare, but the victims of that war -- or a small slice of those victims, the Americans, who had some legal leverage -- were required to satisfy exacting standards of evidence to demonstrate the link between the poison they ingested and their vast array of symptoms, which included, for some, birth defects in their children, before any government aid was forthcoming.

With this in mind, consider the vast forgotten victims of Agent Orange: the Vietnamese themselves. Then multiply the suffering of Zak Wachtendonk and his family by at least 3 million. That's the number of Vietnamese suffering ill effects from their exposure to the defoliant (out of 4.8 million who were exposed), according to a lawsuit on behalf of the victims filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2007.

Consider also the scorched earth, the poisoned flora and fauna of Vietnam. According to the International Peoples' Tribunal of Conscience in Support of the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange, which met in Paris May 15-16, some denuded areas of the country may take 200 years to regenerate; some may never come back. Never. My God, what kind of war requires the death of a country?

The illnesses the spraying of dioxin has visited directly on the Vietnamese include cancer, skin disorders, liver damage, pulmonary and heart diseases, nervous disorders and reproductive defects, according to the Tribunal. Indirectly, on their children, dioxin has brought severe physical deformities, mental disabilities and shortened life spans.

This, and nothing less, is war, and any remembrance of it that fails to acknowledge the vastness of the sacrifice it exacts, on the willing and on the innocent alike, is a sham. The word the Tribunal used to describe the failed and wretched -- the criminal -- U.S. strategy in Vietnam is chillingly modern: ecocide.

And because the nation's post-Vietnam accounting was stillborn -- the war's opponents were blamed for our "defeat" and our bellicosity turned inward -- the conscience of the security establishment remained untouched. The next wars of choice and aggression it succeeded in fomenting, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iraq again (as well as the "humanitarian intervention" in Kosovo), perpetrated cancer, birth defects and ecocide with even more impunity, through the use of depleted uranium munitions and other criminally lethal substances.

The number of victims has multiplied, while peace remains only a scattered longing. But as we mourned together on Memorial Day 2009, I felt it rise as a global force, born on the tide of awareness.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

© 2009 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.