The Rome Plow


The Rome Plow was an object of such useful beauty, so new and untouched it hovered. It brought to Willy’s mind his Dodge Dart, a railroad switch engine, or a dung beetle: compact, sturdy, powerful. Technically, Rome Plow referred to the land-clearing blade manufactured by the Rome Company of Rome, Georgia, mounted by a C-frame and braces to the front of the Caterpillar D7E crawler tractor further modified with a heavy-duty mesh grille cab guard that curved downward over the engine enclosure and rounded steel braces and gave it the look of a scarab in chain mail.

The Plow sat on scarified dirt at Fire Base Mordant, newly arrived as Willy. He felt like kicking the tires, but there were no tires to kick.

“Check out the stinger,” gushed Corporal Tennyson. The stinger (“point” in the manual) extruded from the left end of the Clearing Blade, sharp as a spear.

“A tree ain’t nothing to it,” said the corporal. “If it don’t come down with the blade you just rare back, stick that point in the trunk. Like splitting firewood. You could chainsaw them trees for days, but this here: snap crackle pop.”

Tennyson was a booster. He pointed to a widened bevel aspect of the point. “When your stinger hits the tree, the web here takes out a hunk so the trunk don’t bite down on you like it does a axe, and bind you in there.”

“Ingenious,” said Willy, still getting himself used to life on Planet Vietnam. Only the bare dirt had anything in common with Redding, California.

“Cuts underground, overground, brush, roots you know them trees with sideways church arch roots? stumps, you can grub stumps easy, hooches, you name it. Takes practice. Get in, try your hand.”

Inside the cab and the din of the engine and the diesel fumes and red dirt kicked up by a sudden dustdevil, Willy felt more vulnerable than he did outside looking in. The cab doorway was air, the spaces inside the mesh air; he pictured mine shrapnel, grenade fragments, AK-47 bullets whanging through the cab space. He perched on the seat, messed with the hydraulics, raised, dropped, tilted the blade, a heavy mother, 4600 pounds.

“How do you keep it sharp?”

“You got your portable air grinder.” Tennyson pointed at the tool box. “You got to grind it every day. Here’s your reading material.” He handed Willy a plastic pouch.


Theory and Practice

After mess, Willy stripped the tape off the pouch, emptied the contents on his cot: one heavy ignition key on a chain and a gray manual titled ROME PLOW MODEL KG7ED: THEORY AND PRACTICE.



“Welcome to Vietnam, jungle eater, sodbuster, highway man, before whom no vain objects stand upright, bringer of the new world to the old, wielder of sword and plow, plowman of the western world, we greet thee!”

Well that was different. He flipped to the cover, yes, it said Headquarters, Department of the Army, Technical Manual TM 5-3830-237-12. All right then.


“Section II. THEORY

“Before you slip that key in and turn that switch, let’s get a few things straight about your situation. There are people here and at home, in the jungle and before the hearth, who say we are at war. We are not. We are not at war, in a war, pro-war or anti-war, warless, warlike, victims or aggressors or participants in war. FOR THERE IS NO WAR IN VIETNAM.

“This may confuse you. You will see men killed, hear explosions and gunfire, smell rotting corpses, taste fear, witness groups of soldiers on the move. But back home in Catfish Springs, Redding, Hoboken, Sweetwater, you might experience those same events and there are no wars there.

“You will hear those crying war, war, when there is no war. Hippies at home call themselves anti-war to fool you into thinking there is a war. Hostile civilians in Vietnam may act as if there is a war, to the point of shooting, burning and mortaring. BUT THERE IS NO WAR IN VIETNAM.

“Frankly, if you can’t distinguish between war and peace, you don’t belong in the 62nd Engineer Battalion (Construction). You may be interviewed by sweaty men in photographers’ jackets asking you, ‘How’s it feel to lose the war, buddy?’ or ‘Don’t you wish you were out of this war?’ but you’ll ignore them or you aren’t the keen mind we think you are.”

Being talked to on this level was new to Willy and pleasing.

“Here’s a little hint, and the name of that hint is Cam Ranh Bay. You probably touched down there on your flight from the U.S. of A. You saw a massive, modern, industrial complex that would put the docks of San Francisco and the port of Marseilles to shame. But back in April 1965 nothing was there but sand dunes! That’s when our boys in the Army Engineers and the Raymond-Morrison-Knudson Corporation rolled up their sleeves and went to work to do what Jesus Christ Himself said couldn’t be done: build our house upon sand.

“Before we could build we had to make roads, roads require rock and there was no rock. So we found a quarry abandoned by the French and quarried our rock. There was no water, we had to dig wells. There was no wood to make the frames to set concrete, and hostile civilians wouldn’t let us use their wood, so we brought it all the way from the USA. The DeLong Corporation in South Carolina prefabbed the piers and towed them across the mighty Pacific. And six months later, quicker than you can say ‘In the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress,’ there was a city at Cam Ranh Bay!

“But a city needs people and no people lived in those dunes. That’s where our friends in Saigon came in. We put out the call and they came by the thousands, poor, impoverished people with all their worldly goods in sacks and bags, fleeing their economically unviable jungle villages, leaving their Stone Age past, just as our ancestors fled decadent Europe to seek the Good Life in America. You should have seen the look in their eyes!

“A modern city with television, hospitals, supermarkets, runways, massage parlors, and dental facilities had risen where once the lonely seagulls cried. So, engineer, when we hear the disaffected cry of war, we proudly respond, THERE IS NO WAR. There is only NATION-BUILDING.

“Now if you’re the kind of fellow we think you are, you’ll be lying on your cot, cursing the dust and the flies, and asking of this booklet: if there is no war, only nation-building, what do you mean by nation, and how do I help build it? Where do I fit in, jungle-buster, operator of the Plow from Rome? This question of nationhood has raised a ruckus since the days of King David, singer of Psalms, who wrote ‘Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.’

“The American way is to ask YOU, layer of concrete, to search your own philosophy, to set your values to work to create your individual, goal-related, self-actualizing definition of a nation. We of the U.S. Engineers can only help guide you on your way.

1-1  Perhaps you’re the kind of guy who grounds his values in the social theory of the Enlightenment and agrees that a nation is defined by the state. You’d say ‘right on’ to Locke when he posits that the natural society of free men is endangered by our unfortunate tendency toward partiality and the bad habits of those who would harm others and this danger has to be remedied by common consent to a social contract and a civil government.

“You’d recall that Condorcet spelled out the stages of human development toward enlightenment, virtue, and happiness, beginning with barbarity and proceeding through societies of hunters, pastorality, and agriculture, to the nations of Greece and Rome. You’d notice that nations and jungles are incompatible. Where there’s the most jungle, there’s the least civilization and vicy-versy. The law of the jungle must be replaced by the law of the open road. How are we to achieve that? With bridges, roads, and harbors. Look around you. Where is the state strongest, most vital, and secure? Where there’s the most cement. Where is the state weakest, the nation most at risk and ill-defined? Where there are the most trees. (Unless, of course, it’s a National Park).

“Your task is clear. Backing you all the way are Immanuel Kant, the music of Bach, the science of Newton, and the spirit of reason.

1-2  On the other hand maybe you’re the kind of fellow who distrusts such atomistic freethinking philosophy. You believe a nation is its language, its culture, its soul. You wouldn’t mistake an American for a Frenchman or a Greek. A Greek who drives a cab in New York City is still a Greek; he speaks the language, loves the Parthenon, eats stuffed grape leaves. In your view a real American can’t choose NOT to be an American; he’s a kid from Hill Street in Redding, California and always will be. You can take him out of America, but you can’t take America out of him.

“You’d step up to the plate with Johann Fichte when he says we strive for a world in which we can act responsibly and fulfill our duties to others. There are five historical epochs in human life, says Fichte:

1. Quasireasonable conduct (Red indians)

2. The authoritarian imposition of laws by a minority (Roman Empire)

3. A state of lawlessness (Vietnam)

4. Rational enlightened policies (the USA)

5. Full spiritual humane fulfillment (the sweet bye-and-bye)

“That’s why we’re in Vietnam, you’d say, just trying to give em a leg up from stage 3 to stage 4. And how are we to achieve this moral victory over the VC, who daily choose NOT to celebrate the soul of the Vietnamese nation but to impose foreign Marxism on its timeless songs and lofty mountains?

“How else but with bridges, roads, and harbors?

“Harbors to unload the rational enlightened policies of America, roads to deliver them, and bridges of steel to bear them across the rivers of enmity, where Vietnamese can meet real American men who exemplify our national culture and its products, as ingenious as the aerosol can of self-heating instant shaving cream and as eternal as Article 1 of our Constitution forbidding the imposition of duties on any vessels bound from one State to another.

“Johann Fichte would sit back, smile, and say ‘Sounds to me like the triumph of moral consciousness over causality.’ And he’d be right.

1-3  Now then, you may not be that type. Up in Redding, or wherever you come from, people may say, ‘I love chow mein and don’t mind Mexican-style fiestas; I get along with my neighbors, black, brown, and purple. That’s America to me.’ You believe that a nation is defined by its common heritage, as Ernest Renan said in his famous 1882 lecture Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?, not by its ethnographic and linguistic groups, no sir. To have a nation, people must have common memories, a mutual history, preferably of suffering, and most important ‘To have done great things together.’

“We Americans have. We took a raggedy-ass continent of squirrels and quasireasonable conduct and built it into the greatest nation on earth.

“But men die and memories fade. What can we engineers contribute that the Vietnamese will see when we’ve moved on? What will be forever ours and eternally theirs in this nation-in-the-making? That’s right. But it’s not just bridges, roads, and harbors, it’s parking lots, freeways, interstates, dams, runways, on-ramps, ballparks, ice cream factories. A nation exists when its great endeavors endure in concrete edifices to which its citizens can point with vicarious pride and grateful loyalty. Without which this place you’re in would remain the squalid wasteland of burned-out, defoliated, bombed, and poisoned jungle it is today.

“That’s nation-building, plowboy, and we know how to do it.

1-4 Maybe you’re not a son of the middle border; you’re a son of the real border. You look south across the river from El Paso and think, If it weren’t for God and the Rio Grande I’d be a Mexican from Juárez. And because we’re not prejudiced, there’s a kid on the other side looking at you and saying the same thing. You each have a fatherland and a motherland, lands you were born to, the territory that defines the nation. Without territory you may be a cult, a family, or a bunch of people; you may have a flag and a compound, but you’re not a nation. Without land, no landlords; without landlords, no rent; without rent, no social contract; without social contracts, no society; without society, no nation.

“Not only that, but territory defines an inside and an outside. That’s why we call foreigners outsiders. Without an inside, you have nothing to defend; without an outside you have no one to defend against. In Vietnam, we have a problem: outsiders who call themselves insiders. We need a border to chase them across like we did Santa Ana in 1836, or the French in New Orleans. We have to draw a line in the sand. How are we going to do it?

“With a Rome Plow, boys.

“And lest you think we forgot harbors, roads, and bridges, not to mention checkpoints, border crossing stations, and customs offices, imagine a nation without them.

“The land awaits the plowman, and that’s you.

1-5  Maybe you’re a Negro and lately you’ve been reading Frantz Fanon. You think of a nation as defined by a common aim, of nation-building as protest, as kicking the white man out of the colonies. That’s us. We did that to the British honkies in 1776. Pick up your dog-eared copy of THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH and turn to the chapter on “The Pitfalls Of National Consciousness.” Brother Fanon can really lay it down.

‘National consciousness, instead of being the all-embracing crystallization of the innermost hopes of the entire people, will be in any case only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been.’ Then the bro goes on to rap down the intellectual laziness of the European-trained national elite, their spiritual penury, their weak hold over territory carved out not by tribal allegience, language, or common suffering, but by the former colonial power, on whom they humiliatingly depend.

“These new leaders, these cheap-Jacks lacking all ambition except to occupy the offices of the former ‘mother country’ oppressors, content to serve their former masters who return for big game hunting, whores, and casinos, decked out with a new flag, a palace guard, and a haughty unconcern for the peasantry and workers, have in short, says Fanon, an attitude “stupidly, contemptibly, cynically bourgeois.”

“Tell it like it is, bro. How better to describe the government in Saigon? Our allies need to take off those Gucci sunglasses and get their hands dirty, learn a trade, build something of their own. You guessed it. Bridges, roads, and harbors. If it takes a state to make a nation, let’s roll up our sleeves and give it something to do.



“Insert key in ignition and turn in a clockwise direction.”