On Distant Ground is the fictional account of Army captain David Fleming and his internal and external conflicts with his experiences in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Within the novel, Robert Olen Butler has not used formal chapter breaks; rather, white space divides one section from the next. The first two-thirds of the novel alternates between scenes in present time and scenes from Fleming’s time in Vietnam. It is in these flashbacks that the reader is given the background for Fleming’s court-martial.
The novel begins with the preliminary stages of David’s trial and the birth of his and Jennifer’s son, David Junior. David is being tried for aiding the enemy. He kidnapped Pham Van Tuyen, a known Viet Cong officer, from Con Son, the island where Tuyen was being held prisoner by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). Carl Lomas, David’s lawyer, seems more concerned about the trial than David and tries to get him to think of anything he might be able to say in his own defense. David cannot think of anything; he freed Tuyen out of compassion when he saw the words “hygiene is healthful” written on Tuyen’s vacated cell at the interrogation center in Bien Hoa.
During the preliminary trial stages, Jennifer and David’s son is born, and David realizes that he now has another responsibility, that of a family. Both he and Jennifer become brittle as the pressure surrounding David’s position and the real possibility of a prison term become more real to them. Adding to the tension is David’s sudden realization that he has a son in Vietnam. He has no concrete knowledge of this situation, but he sees the news reports about children of American servicemen being evacuated from Vietnam and realizes that the reason Suong, his Vietnamese lover, disappeared was because she was pregnant. Suddenly obsessed, he realizes that he must return to Vietnam and bring his son home before Saigon falls to the Communist government.
(The entire section is 812 words.)