Loss is Tree of Smoke’s major theme, and it comes in various guises. There is the loss of relationships, as seen in characters who are estranged from their parents or from their husbands, wives, or children. Almost every character has also suffered the loss of a mother, husband, or some close relative—some lost in war, others having died from natural causes. There are buddies blown up in battle. And there are bodies strewn across the road, unknown victims of combat.
On a psychological level, there is a loss of normalcy—which might at one time have included a home, a job, and a sense of security. Characters lose all notion of the difference between right and wrong as they begin to attack their declared wartime enemies as well as their comrades. Living and killing quickly become synonymous in this novel.
The loss of respect for self is depicted in the lives of women who survive only by selling their bodies. The loss of loyalty is seen when people sacrifice their relatives to save their own skins. The loss of civility is apparent when the value of life is diminished and when the law of the jungle—kill or be killed—rules. There is a loss of country as characters turn traitor and then try to double-back so that no one knows to whom—if to anyone—they are truly loyal. There is also a loss of truth: agents are trained to trick lie detector tests, and many characters have more than one fictitious identity.
The title of Johnson’s novel reflects another theme—the “tree of smoke.” The phrase refers to a beacon, a signal in the sky seen from far away and to which many people turn for direction. Colonel Sands wants to be that beacon, someone whom men will follow, but in the end he proves to be just an illusory figure, something that cannot quite be grasped—like smoke. Even in death, there was an element of illusion to the Colonel, because no one could prove that he was in fact dead.