Gunfire in Iraq is not a rare thing – especially at night. Most of the time, the scattered, random shots heard somewhere off in the distant shadows fade away with time, not warranting any American attention other than a brief radio report sent from the roof of the combat outpost. That’s most of the time. Occasionally though, the scattered, random shots do not fade – instead progressing into something military vernacular junkies describe as “direct” and “sustained;” i.e. a firefight. This kind of gunplay tends to require our own special brand of attentive intervention. The night of the ghost pandas was one of these times.
In vintage Gravedigger fashion, my platoon was set in a late-night OP, bantering back and forth on our internal net as a means of staying awake. Being the dedicated whYkids that we are, movie quotes flooded our verbal exchanges like a bursting dam of Americana. Pop culture keeps us connected to home in ways even the brain voodoos can’t explain.
SPC Cold-Nuts’ voice snapped across the net first. “Ron, are you paying attention?”
“Nope,” I responded, finishing the line from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. I bit my lip and racked my brain. “Looks like you've been missing a lot of work lately."
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it, Bob,” (Office Space) completed SFC Big Country, with the sensational timing of someone who has seen that film way too many times.
“I saw this saucy little thang the other day on dismount patrol.” It was PFC Van Wilder, operating on full jester throttle. “I had to ask her, ‘what are the chances of a guy like me and a girl like you ending up together?'"
“And she told you, ‘not good,’” drawled SPC Big Ern.
"You mean, not good, like one out of a hundred?"
"And then she said, 'more like one out of a million.'" The hetero-lifemates complimentary pacing, as always, was outstanding.
“So you’re saying there’s a chance!” (Dumb and Dumber). The platoon roared approvingly at PFC Van Wilder’s spot-on Jim Carrey impression, and the very obvious truth that he would have hit on a pretty Iraqi female, if allowed the opportunity to do so, in just that straightforward of a manner.
A single gunshot echoed to the east, towards the town center of Anu al-Verona. A few seconds passed by, and then a small burst of rounds erupted in the empty still. Silence followed.
Showing how much we cared about such a commonplace occurrence, PFC Boomhauer returned to the metaphorical well of comedic awesomeness that is Anchorman. “Panda watch!” he cracked, using one of my personal favorite lines and something I’ve been known to utter in meetings when fellow officers are droning on and on about unimportant, trivial, and altogether asinine matters. Time is never wasted when you’re wasted all the time – unfortunately, the Iraq War is a depressingly sober excursion. Anyways, my soldiers caught wind of my use and abuse of the Panda Watch phrase, and have thus been known to use it themselves when something happens that no one really cares about.
Honest to Allah, sixty percent of the time, the Panda Watch phrase works every time. This was not one of those times. A barrage of AK-47 output erupted just to the north of the original volley of gunfire, succeeded by the unrestrained chattering of automatic weapons. Sporadic bursts of both continued, and the black swirl of the sky lit up with tracer rounds. Our Strykers were already moving in that direction by the time CPT Whiteback told us to head that way over the radio.
The firefight continued as we got closer. Be ready to dismount. Everyone better be red direct, locked cocked and ready to rock. Gunners, let us know what you see. Ensure your night vision devices are on, and for Christ’s sake. Listen to the NCOs.
As soon as our Strykers came within sight of the main artery in town though – also known as Route Sabers to those of us not born under the Crescent Moon - all of the gunfire so prevalent moments before crashed off with the alacrity of a cliff-jumping lemming.
“White 2, does your gunner have contact with anything? Either audio or visual?”
“Negative. Neither of ‘dem got anything.”
“What about the dismounts in the rear air-guard hatches?”
“Negative. Neither do ‘dey.”
“Roger. Same here. 3, 4, you all got anything different?”“Nope.” And. “That's a negative, Ghost rider. The pattern is full.” (Top Gun).
What. The. Fuck. Over.
We kept creeping forward, machine guns scanning for any sign of movement, until we reached the northern reach of Route Sabers. In theory, this was a Sons of Iraq checkpoint, although none were currently manning their posts. Subsequently, PFC Cold-Nuts spotted a group of crouching silhouettes off the street and in the adjacent field, all oriented southwards. With the arrival of our Ghost Tanks, the Sawha rediscovered some gumption, and scurried over to us, where we met up with them on the ground. Sonic provided the translation, although most of it wasn’t necessary. Frantic, panicked pointing transcends most known language barriers.
“Ali Baba shoot us! From down there!”
“Yes! Yes! Ali Baba! Shoot! We shoot back!”
“We shoot back lots!”
“Okay … did you actually see who was firing at you?”
“Okay … did any of their bullets actually hit anything around here? Like damage or something?”
“Okay … did any of you do anything but fire indiscriminately in the general vicinity that you heard gun shots come from?”
With this triple negative complete – thus rewriting any and all known grammatical rulebooks – I told the Sons of Iraq to resume their posts on the street, while we pressed south on Route Sabers. Slim as it may be (and I’m talking LT G in Iraq sweating into a skeleton slim here), there’s always the chance that somewhere in this hellhole, someone is actually stupid enough to present themselves as a known enemy and as a viable target.
Not a soul stirred as we pressed south – like most settlements mired in a war zone, Anu al-Verona can disintegrate into a ghost town instantaneously when the breeze brings in trouble. We eventually made our way to the very southern intersection of Route Sabers, finding a near-identical reflection of the scene we had just left in the north. Here though, a group of Iraqi Police and Sawha huddled in doorways instead of lying in a field. They ran up to us, and frantic, panicked pointing followed.
“Ali Baba shoot us! From up there!”
“Yes! Yes! Ali Baba! Shoot! We shoot back!”
“We shoot back lots!”
Before I could reconfirm the validity of the triple negative rule, the unmistakable tread-churning of T-72 tanks rolled in from the west. The Iraqi Army had responded to the scene too, and as per their standard operating procedure, were taking a sledgehammer to a fly. They were clearing every house within a three-block radius, filling the streets with irritated families while producing zero insurgents.
Ten minutes later – after the arrival of the IP command – damn near every security element in Anu al-Verona was perched somewhere along Route Sabers. After a rather heated discussion with the IA Lieutenant and Sawha commanders, the IP Colonel and I were able to convince them that the majority of rounds exchanged had been friendly fire (that ultimate of oxymorons.) While I was open to the possibility of an enemy combatant firing a few rounds at the southern checkpoint initially, it was evident from the piles of brass collected and the various stories of those present that they had fired in one another’s directions wildly, without anyone getting anything resembling positive identification. The IPs thus returned to their normal patrolling, and I instructed the Sons of Iraq to go back to their checkpoints. Then I asked the IA LT, a chubby man with an obnoxiously immaculate moustache, what his plan was for the duration of the night.
“I … I cannot say in front of my men.” Having worked with this guy before, I knew that choosing between paper and plastic would be an overwhelming decision for him. Still though, I at least expected a half-hearted lie on his part. SSG Chico and PFC Boomhauer turned around from their security positions, bemused as I was by this secret plan of no plan.
“What do you mean you can’t say? If you have actionable intelligence, action on it. Do you need our help? I seriously doubt clearing every house is going to do anything but piss off the locals. Why don’t we go back to the combat outpost, make some calls to informants, and -”
Is this motherfucker seriously walking away from me? Wrong dude to ignore, chief. I got more brashness in my right nut than you have in your entire being. You wanna play these petty Arab caveman manhood games, okay, I’ll play.
The red clarity seized me. We’re old friends, the red and me.
“HEY!” My voice echoed across the side street we had huddled on, startling everyone but we three Americans. Standing my ground and waving the IA LT back to me with my index finger, I tried to make my lecture as constructive as possible while still lacing it with a few verbal powerbombs. “If I’m gonna risk the lives of my men by coming here tonight, we’re going to work fucking together or I will fucking skull-drag you back to the unemployment line myself.” I paused, letting Sonic translate my words while he attempted to match my anger. The IA LT was staring back at me dully, but when I looked at him in the eyes and glared, he dropped his glance to the ground. I hate these petty games, I thought. They offend my idealistic liberal sensibilities. Oh well. So it is.
“I know your Major insists that we work together, so you better drop this bullshit attitude of yours and realize that smashing things isn’t always the correct course of action.” I contemplated using my favorite “square peg, round hole” quip, but decided it wouldn’t survive the transition into Arabic. A favorite local analogy would, though. “A tiger needs a tail. Now,” I said, taking a deep breath – “this is your mission, your town, and your country. We are willing to help. Do you need it? Yes or no. Either way, brief me on your plan.”
He looked back at me, with his eyes darting back and forth. “I … I do not know who shot at the checkpoint. Perhaps it was a ghost.”
“That’s cool man, I don’t know who shot at the checkpoint, either. It wasn’t a ghost, though.” I looked at my IA counterpart, and couldn’t help but feel a little bad for him. Men who can’t admit that they don’t know something or refuse to admit that they were wrong about something always fail as leaders, be them American or Iraqi. I’m no Dick Winters, but I know enough to understand that people respond to authenticity, and soldiers are no different in this regard. This poor bastard never stood a chance. He worried too much about what people thought about what he was doing rather than just doing it in the first place.
The IA LT finally said that he’d meet me back at the combat outpost, and we’d plan from there. He left some of his men at the Sawha checkpoints, beefing up their security temporarily. We exchanged forced pleasantries and a too-hearty handshake. As we walked back to our Strykers, SSG Chico and PFC Boomhauer were laughing about having watched their normally goofy lieutenant turn into Conan the Barbarian.
“You should’ve punched him,” SSG Chico said. “We had your back.”
“You know whatcha shoulda said, Sir?” PFC Boomhauer offered.
“You shoulda said, ‘Panda Watch!’ That woulda really confused him.”
I laughed, which helped filter out the remaining bits of rage still left. Once again, this young soldier displayed his natural Southern keenness. This whole situation was ridiculously stupid and an absolute waste of time; as worthy of the Panda Watch title as any other event. “He was so desperate for answers, he would’ve jumped all over that,” I said. “Ghost pandas! Of course! It was ghost pandas that fired at the checkpoints!”
After mounting back up on our vehicles, I briefed the rest of the platoon on what had happened. The reaction was universal: let's make a break for it and escape the madness. "You boys like Mex-i-cooooo?" crooned SSG Boondock, offering an all-too tempting alternative to the now. (by way of Super Troopers.)
We rolled back to the combat outpost, and made some telephone calls to various informants. They all said the same thing - there was no one on that street except for the Sawha and the IPs manning their checkpoints. They must’ve been firing at each other. That’s the only explanation that makes sense.
What a boring theory. I’m partial to the gun-toting, barrel-blazing ghost pandas, myself. Since when does this war have to make sense, anyways?