On Distant Ground

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Robert Olen Butler is becoming recognized as one of the best writers on the Vietnam War. Butler, who was with the United States Army Military Intelligence in Vietnam, speaks Vietnamese, and his portrayal of the army and its involvement in the Vietnam War carries the authority of his experience—the facts are right. Furthermore, his clean style and his tight focus on event make for easy reader access. Yet he is more than a reporter: He has the novelist’s strong sense of story and character, which enables him to explore the moral ambiguities of that experience for the kind of meaning that only an artist can wrest from his materials.

On Distant Ground completes a loosely joined trilogy focusing on three men who made up a small intelligence unit that operated just north of Saigon. Each novel has a different protagonist, who appears as a secondary character or who is at lest mentioned in the other novels. Although each novel touches on events that involved direct fighting, Butler is not primarily concerned with the experiences of combat but, rather, with the “clash of specific cultures, back where the gunfire was out on the horizon, that had the larger, unique effect.” This concern is most dramatized in Alleys of Eden (1981), Butler’s first published novel and the first novel of the trilogy, whose protagonist is Clifford Wilkes, an army deserter who falls in love with a Vietnamese prostitute and, when Saigon falls, who escapes with her to the United States. Although Alleys of Eden opens a bit awkwardly, which is typical of many first novels, the characters in their situations become powerfully compelling to a degree Butler has never quite matched in his subsequent, more carefully constructed novels. In Sun Dogs (1982), the middle novel of the trilogy, the protagonist, Wilson Hand, is an investigator in the oil fields on the North Slope of Alaska, whose life is haunted by flashbacks to an incident when he was taken prisoner by the Vietcong before being rescued by Captain David Fleming, the protagonist of On Distant Ground.

Butler has written a fourth, unrelated novel, Countrymen of Bones (1983), about an archaeologist who is excavating an important burial site near Los Alamos, New Mexico, concurrent with the testing of the first atomic bomb. Butler’s concerns in Countrymen of Bones are similar to those in his trilogy. He writes of the relationships between an individual’s sense of his own identity and the cultural surroundings in which he lives—in particular when those surroundings involve the violence of war (World War II is part of the fabric of Countrymen of Bones). Also rooted in the subject of self-definition is his concern with relationships between men and women, with the accompanying exploration of the sexual impulses toward life or death involved in such relationships. Although Butler portrays his women characters with sensitivity, he has always presented his materials through the consciousness of men. The point of view in Countrymen of Bones switches between the consciousness of the two leading male characters, and each novel of the trilogy remains tightly focused on the mind of the protagonist.

Butler has been termed a novelist of ideas. In his exploration of moral ambiguities, as in the fiction of Saul Bellow or Norman Mailer, the ideas arise from the actions of fully developed characters involved in significant situations. The central situation in On Distant Ground is the court-martial of David Fleming in the spring of 1975 at Fort Holabird, Maryland, for an action that he himself does not understand: During the war, he went to inordinate lengths to free an important North Vietnamese officer—Pham Van Tuyen—held by the South Vietnamese in the infamous Con Son Island tiger cages; after whisking Tuyen away at gunpoint in a dramatic helicopter escape, David returned him to his base of operations where Tuyen could continue to wage war against the United States military and the South Vietnamese army. The key factor in the trial is David’s motivation for freeing the officer.

Butler took a master’s degree in playwriting before going to Vietnam, and his training as a playwright is evident in the novel’s sharp dramatic focus, whereby he uses the apparatus of the trial to force David to explore his motives for his past actions in Vietnam. (The playwriting experience is also a contributing factor in Butler’s ability to write crisp, character-revealing dialogue, which—given Butler’s focus on the mind of the protagonist—is essential in portraying secondary characters.) Initially, as David sorts through his war experiences in a series of flashbacks, no clear answers emerge. Yet, as the trial develops, his reflections intensify into a journey to self-knowledge that provides the key structuring device of the novel.

This journey will lead Butler to explore what Duncan C. Spencer has termed “the highest themes of literature, the exploration of the human heart, the terrible loyalties of blood, the instinctive springs of honor.” David has a great sense of integrity; he is an honorable man. His trial lawyer, Carl Lomas, suggests the possibility of a defense based on his Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) related activities: Because David was a model career officer who was very effective in achieving military objectives in conjunction with CIA operations in Vietnam, the lawyer would like to suggest that the freeing of the officer was part of a CIA operation whose scope cannot be investigated at the trial because of its secret nature. Yet David knows that he cannot fabricate such a lie; that defense might indeed by successful, but it would rely on his convincing the officers of the jury. His sense of integrity in juxtaposition with his past actions has created a present indecisiveness, which he senses would betray him on the stand.

Since returning from Vietnam, David has married a young woman, Jennifer, who is very devoted to him and who gives birth to their first child during the course of the trial. Jennifer Fleming is Butler’s best American woman character, a stable middle-class woman who reflects David’s essentially middle-class views of the world. All of Butler’s protagonists are basically middle-class people, college educated, with typical middle-class biases and...

(The entire section is 2593 words.)