Themes and Meanings
On Distant Ground is a critique of the American military and its presence in Vietnam. The events transpire during the fall of South Vietnam to the Communist north after the departure of the U.S. military in 1975. The novel is also a poignant reminder of the number of children in Vietnam who have American fathers and who are ridiculed by their society because of their mixed background.
On Distant Ground is also about confusion. Throughout the work, Butler points out that there are no easy answers to any situation. While there may theoretically be black-and-white answers to any question, this is seldom true in reality. While David Fleming does aid the enemy, he does not do so in order to betray his country. Rather, he knows that it is only a matter of time before the Americans will leave. His rescue of Tuyen is, if anything, motivated by a possibly misplaced sense of compassion.
Butler also reminds the reader that no one has a blameless past. While David has married Jennifer in good faith, he has done so knowing that he has had an affair with another woman, even though the affair with Suong was over before he and Jennifer met. He must, in the context of the novel, now tell Jennifer that he has had an affair and, more difficult, that he wants to retrieve his son and bring him to America. Again, there are no easy solutions. While Jennifer is, after her initial outrage and shock, understanding, David is asking her to do something that anyone would be reluctant to do—rear a child from a spouse’s past relationship.
The overriding theme of the novel does seem to be that good triumphs over evil. The author does, however, give an old theme a new angle. The good and bad characters are not absolutes. All the characters have good and bad traits, a condition that is more realistic, but perhaps also more difficult, for the reader to accept.