Alex Liazos’s Twelve Days in Viet Nam: The Life and Death of Nicholas Conaxis (238 pp., $14, paper) is a tribute to a young soldier from eastern Massachusetts who was drafted into the Army and who died in Vietnam in on May 5, 1968. As the title indicates, he had arrived in Vietnam just twelve days before.
As Liazos shows, Nicholas Conaxis’s twenty years were not easy ones. He came from a poor family and from age one lived in several foster homes. Still, he came through that rough childhood as a friendly, admired, intelligent young man who wrote unusually observant letters to young friends, family members, and a teacher. The letters are the best part of the book.
Conaxis, who served in Vietnam with the 4th Infantry Division’s A Battery, 6th Battalion, 29th Artillery, was opposed to the war, got drafted, questioned military practices and foreign policy, and sympathized with the Vietnamese. He was killed in an ambush in the Central Highlands.
Much of the book is about Conaxis’s life before the Army and tells a great deal about the foster care system, along with personal details of the young man’s life and the observations of the author.
Nick Conaxis’s teen-age experiences, including hitchhiking to California, and his responses to Army life—as well as his initial impressions of Vietnam and the war—should resonate with many Vietnam veterans today.
That includes this passage from a letter he wrote to his friend Bill Beckler: “I’m currently at Pleiku and war becomes a stark reality of piercing fear and unmitigated discomfort. The agony of human suffering can only be comprehended after a direct involvement. Vivid stories by wounded G.I.’s inspire awe and then a deep feeling of sympathy for the wounded and dead.”
Alex Liazos found and interviewed more than fifty people who had known his subject, including some Army buddies. His research is careful and as thorough as he could be forty years after the man’s death. The author, a retired sociology professor, was born in Albania and was separated from his own family for many years. He acknowledges in the book that he identifies closely with his subject’s youth.
The book’s website, which contains info on purchasing, is http://twelvedaysinvietnam.org
—James R. Wagner