It is 1974. Major David DeRussy is ordered to return to Cambodia for a second year as an assistant army attaché to the Khmer Republic. Something is odd about this. Why is he being suddenly pulled out of an active army division to return to Cambodia? His young son asks him the same question. He learns the sordid truth just days before he leaves for war.
Because he doesn't believe that the Khmer Republic is worth dying for, DeRussy's survival strategy is to trust no one, take no chances and stay off active battlefields. Two days after his return, his plan dissolves. He is once again under fire, walking behind attacking soldiers.
Pol Pot's murderous Khmer Rouge are growing stronger and more aggressive. At the same time, the Republican army shows signs of crumbling. Its defense perimeter might pop like a soap bubble. If that happens, DeRussy's chances of perishing in country change from possible to probable.
Even though battles rage around the capital, Phnom Penh's diplomatic corps continues its lively social life. Smitten by the sight of Maggie Hartwell, the CIA's on-site analyst, DeRussy wrangles an invitation for the two them at a wine tasting hosted by the West German economic attaché. It's a magical evening that sparks what the French call a "coup de foudre." Lightning strikes them. They become inseparable.
In a lull in fighting after months of sharp combat engagements, DeRussy comes upon a body in tattered black pajamas floating spread-eagled and floating face up in a pond. He finds himself taking perverse comfort from this apparition, now at absolute peace, so perfectly aligned with the nature surrounding it. It occurs to him that perhaps there is no time more liberating than the moment following the clear realization that death is imminent.
He asks whether he can influence any outcome to this war. The answer is obvious. The only thing he can control is himself. Only the woman who has captured his heart, his son and his parents now mean more to him than his Khmer comrades in arms. If he is to die, going down with his Cambodian brothers is as good a way to leave this life as any he can imagine.
America's newspapers, magazines and television news programs all say that the United States is going to abandon the Khmer Republic. How is he to answer when Cambodians ask him whether America will run away?
All indications are that his country will betray the Khmer people. So why should any Cambodian lay down his life to protect him? A Khmer soldier's smart play would be to deliver DeRussy to the enemy and save his own skin. Rolling the bones on any battlefield is every soldier's challenge. How much greater is the challenge when DeRussy cannot trust the men beside him?
Sure enough, he can't. A Khmer colonel sets DeRussy up in an ambush by fire. Suffering a head wound, DeRussy is evacuated to Japan where he cajoles the medical staff into releasing him back to Cambodia.
DeRussy's damaged mind is assailed by specters that hover at the end of his bed in the night. Maggie calls them bhuts, the Hindu word for poor souls trapped between transmigrations because of a violent end and the lack of a proper funeral. She suggests that he burn turmeric-scented incense to ward them away.
He never tells Maggie what these dead Cambodians are like. A flicker ignites when he shifts his gaze. He can sense their downcast eyes flash open. The upturned edge of their lips is anything but tranquil. Their mouths part to show a thin line of white, transmitting hideous knowledge that makes him dread the night. He had known fright in combat but never the terror these ghosts bring to him in the dark. They had been denied renascence, and they blame him. He had been, after all, an agent of a government complicit in the violent deaths of more than two million of their compatriots, one out of every four of their countrymen. Not one of those who perished had been accorded a proper burial.
Maggie's bhuts take on greater significance.