On Distant Ground Summary
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.
David’s trial and his growing concern about his son occur simultaneously. He sets up a meeting with Kenneth Trask, his Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contact, and apprises him of the situation. Trask informs him that he can do nothing about the outcome of the trial; if David is not sent to prison, however, there is a chance that Trask could arrange for him to return to Vietnam to try to locate his son. Rather than a prison term, David is given a reduction in rank, a loss of pay, and a dishonorable discharge from the Army.
Trask arranges for David to return to Vietnam using a Canadian passport and other false identification papers. He is warned that Saigon will fall to the Communists in three days at the most. Once he is in Saigon, David begins the near-impossible task of locating Suong or part of her family. Her house in Saigon has been taken over by squatters, and the family home in the country is in disrepair. One servant is left, and she tells David that Suong has disappeared and her mother, Madame Trung, is still in Saigon. David returns to Saigon, and the Communists soon take over the city.
David locates Madame Trung and his son, Khai. He also learns that Suong had openly opposed the government of South Vietnam and had been in prison in Saigon for a year. Convinced that the Communist government would free her, he goes to the prison in search of information. He is taken to the office of Pham Van Tuyen, who is now the director of security for Saigon. Tuyen apparently does not recognize David, and since David is supposedly working for a Canadian organization that has Communist leanings, he agrees to try to find out what he can about Suong.
David returns to Madame Trung’s the same evening and learns that a soldier had delivered Suong’s ashes and some of her possessions earlier in the evening. Madame Trung convinces him to take his boy back to America and gives him the final payment for the illegal trip out of the country she had been planning.
David leaves during the night with Khai and makes his way to the rendezvous point. Unfortunately, the Communist officials have arrested Mr. Quang, the boat captain who was going to smuggle them out of the country. David is knocked out and wakes up in prison. From there, he is taken to a private audience with Tuyen.
Tuyen does, in fact, know who David is. Through a long interrogation, David does convince Tuyen that he is not a CIA spy and that his only motivation for returning to Vietnam was to find his son and take him back to America. Possibly in gratitude for David’s freeing of him, Tuyen allows David and Khai to leave Vietnam and return to America.