Joe Murphy’s The Last Vietnam Veteran (222 pp. $7.99, paperback; $4.99, Kindle) is a very readable, semiautobiographical novel centered on the diverse stories of the last living eleven (perhaps thirteen) Vietnam War veterans. Murphy tells his tale through the eyes of the narrator, who eventually becomes the last man standing. No spoiler alert is necessary since the reader is told who the sole survivor is at the beginning of the book.
If you are a Vietnam War veteran, reading this novel will seem like listening to and relating to the war stories Murphy spins out as if you were at a VVA chapter meeting or sitting belly-up to a bar, without having to buy a round of beers. Readers who are not Vietnam War veterans can eavesdrop and wonder if these stories are true. As one of the characters says: “When the facts and the legend collide, go with the legend!”
Some are Murphy’s vignettes are funny, some are implausible, but almost all are poignant. A few of the characters went to school with the narrator or lived in his hometown. However, most were from different units, different backgrounds, and served in the war at different times.
Several themes permeate the book. One is survivor’s guilt on many different levels. Another is the guilt rear echelons who did their jobs and went home felt since they were not in combat. Then there’s the guilt of those who were in combat but believed they should have done more. Finally, the guilt of those who never went to Vietnam while many of their compatriots did.
Another theme is the existence—and value—of Vietnam Veterans of America. Murphy, who joined the Army in 1966 and served in Vietnam with 64th Quartermaster Battalion at Long Binh, presents VVA as a forum where Vietnam War veterans help their fellow veterans and talk about their war experiences with men and women who are interested and will understand. The book is a great advertisement for VVA, which—among other things—helps preserve the national and personal memories of Vietnam War veterans’ sacrifices and stories.
The additional themes of nicotine addiction (unfiltered!), alcoholism (“Mr. Beer”), and PTSD and reoccur throughout the novel. The narrator, for example, has built a bunker in the garden of his house and keeps an extensive survivalist cache in his root cellar.
But it is survivor’s guilt that leads to his belief that “we owe” and “I did not do enough.” This accounts in part for the desire of almost all of the book’s characters to help other veterans. The narrator also reflects on how one year of a long life would dominate the remaining years of so many lives.
The answer may be contained in the cliché that although a veteran may have left Vietnam, Vietnam has never left the veteran. That that experience, in other words, cannot be left behind.
As Murphy writes: When two Vietnam vets met, one of the most common questions they ask of each other is, “When were you there?” Many a vet will pause… and reply “Last night.”
Murphy’s book posits the many reasons why this is so. Although legend, for many it is fact and it is why you should read this book.
His website is joemurphybooks.com/