January 3, 2018

One Fought; the Other Protested: Two Men Recall Their Vietnam Experiences

FROM DIFFERENT SIDES: Ashley Wright, left, and Lewis Maltby will discuss their experiences during the Vietnam War on Wednesday, January 10, at Princeton Public Library. The discussion will follow the screening of the fourth episode of the documentary “The Vietnam War.” (Photo by Hannah Schmidl)

By Anne Levin

After watching the initial episode of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary The Vietnam War at Princeton Public Library last month, Lewis Maltby was leaving the library’s Newsroom when he was approached by a man who looked to be of a similar age. The man asked Maltby if, like him, he had served in Vietnam.

“I thought, oh boy, this could be bad,” recalled Maltby, an anti-war activist who had vigorously protested against the conflict. “But instead of having an argument, we ended up having a really good discussion about our experiences. It was one of those chance encounters that, if you’re of that mindset, it’s karma.”

The veteran was Ashley Wright, who served in Vietnam as a junior Army artillery officer along the DMZ in 1968-69, giving long-range heavy gun support to elements of the U.S. Third Marines. Maltby had enlisted in the Army Reserve in 1969, but was unwilling to go to Vietnam. He went on to become a civil rights lawyer and is an active member of the Coalition for Peace Action.

Both men are longtime Princeton residents, but had never met. Struck by the depth of their initial chat, they approached the library’s programming director Janie Hermann following the screening of the second episode. As a result, Maltby and Wright will be on hand for the presentation of Episode Four: Resolve on Wednesday, January 10 at 10:30 a.m. (the entire series is being screened at the library through the end of February).

“I think the hope is that after the screening we will start a little discussion,” said Wright. “We are there to just get the ball rolling. It’s an open discussion.”

Wright had watched the documentary on television, but attended the library showings because he was anxious to see it on a large screen. “You get a lot more out of it when you can see all of that background stuff, which I’m interested in,” he said.

After serving in Vietnam, Wright ended up returning to Asia, getting a master’s degree in journalism, and becoming a reporter for the Hong Kong-based Asian Wall Street Journal. Additional journalistic credits include the The Far Eastern Economic Review.

When he attended the first screening at the library, Wright noticed that most of the people in attendance were women of his generation (he’s 73). “My guess is that many of them had husbands or brothers who were in the war, and they were curious. Because most of us don’t talk a lot about the nitty gritty to our families.”

Maltby was one of the only other men in the room. “I went to the first episode. I thought it would be a lot more fun to watch on the big screen instead of sitting in my house,” he said. “I got up afterward and headed out the door, and this guy who I’d never seen in my life came up to me and said, ‘Hey, were you there?’”

Maltby and Wright ended up in conversation, but it was “exactly the opposite of what I was concerned it would be,” Maltby said. “It was more about, ‘why did you make the choice you made, what was it like for you, and how do you feel about it now?’ It was a comparison of the two roads that each of us had taken. It wasn’t about who picked the right road. It was so fascinating a conversation that I thought other people who are interested in those times — especially those who weren’t around to experience it first-hand — might like to talk about the documentary and two people who were there, and took different roads.”

Wright said, “Lew was worried we’d get into an argument. And that says a lot about this great void that exists between war veterans and the rest of the community, and Princeton is a microcosm of that. There are a lot of misconceptions about veterans.”

Have Maltby and Wright become friends? “We’re on the road to becoming friends,” said Maltby. Their appearance on January 10 “is not supposed to be a debate. It’s a discussion for people interested in the era, to learn more about what it was like.”

“The Vietnam War” is being screened through February 28 in the library’s Newsroom. “When we plan programs on difficult historical topics like the Vietnam War, we hope that people make connections like this and the library can be a space for dialogue,” said Humanities Program Coordinator Hannah Schmidl. “We’re really pleased that Lew and Ashley met each other and volunteered their time to participate in this discussion.”