“Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story,” by Matti Friedman, Algonquin Books, 256 pp., $25.95
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A good war memoir never makes war look glamorous. Rather, it puts you in the shoes of the soldier or civilian at those incredible moments when life hangs by a thread, unpacks a few of the conflicting political forces at play and, ultimately, breaks your heart. It must, because you meet characters who will die, good people whose lives will be wrecked, and you eventually find yourself wondering, along with the narrator, whether there was any point to this bloody war in the first place.
“Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story,” a new memoir by writer Matti Friedman, manages to do all of that with prose that itself resembles a soldier’s body: lean and muscular, understated but elegant beneath the fatigues. “Pumpkinflowers” focuses on a war that bears no name and enjoys no monument. Anyone who lived in Israel during the 1990s will remember this conflict simply because of its association with the words retzuat bitachon (“security zone”) – a nine-mile-wide strip of land that Israel withdrew to in 1985 following its invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
When it was created, the Israeli establishment reasoned that there “must” be a buffer zone that would prevent terrorists roaming southern Lebanon from attacking Israeli communities in the north. In Lebanese eyes it simply became an occupation zone, and an ascendant Hezbollah came to see attacking Israeli soldiers there as their raison d’etre, a cause that earned them sympathy because they could claim they were simply resistance fighters waging a war to eject an invading army from their soil.
By the time Friedman, a Canadian-born immigrant to Israel, was deployed to southern Lebanon as a soldier in the late 1990s, being shipped off to an Israel Defense Forces outpost on a hill was par for the course. Able-bodied young Israeli males were expected to go, and the casualties were initially low if steady enough that it was mostly individual families – and not the whole nation – paying the emotional price of burying sons soon after they finished high school.
These deaths came to be expected every time “heavy exchanges of fire” were reported on the radio. A team of officers arriving on the doorstep in dress uniforms – one grieving mother described them as the “green angels of death” – delivered the bad news to unfortunate parents. They came, Friedman writes, to “enact the secret ritual at the country’s heart.” There was no official war on, the mission was viewed as a purely defensive one, and so many of the losses along the way seem to have been “recorded nowhere, except in some mother’s heart.”
In fact, soon after Israel unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon in the spring of 2000, it was as if the war that defined Friedman’s cohort had disappeared altogether from the country’s memory. “Our society hardly paid a thought to the security zone war once it ended,” he writes.
Indeed, that chapter has hardly been addressed or successfully captured until now – save in the award-winning 2007 film “Beaufort,” based on a Ron Leshem novel by the same name. And that is part of what makes Friedman’s book not just insightful but important. Without overreaching with big policy prescriptions, by doing more showing than telling, Friedman quietly leads us to wonder whether that unnamed war was necessary or inevitable – and whether the doctrine that promoted it was ever examined. Was placing Israeli soldiers on vulnerable hilltops a strategic blunder to begin with, one that was bound to end with dead soldiers, an embarrassing withdrawal and a marketable PR victory for Hezbollah?
Friedman, for his part, was sent to an outpost known as “the Pumpkin” – a seemingly innocuous name at a time when the IDF was naming posts after vegetables and spices, and used other food names like “omelet” as code words for maneuvers. “Flowers,” urgently radioed back to base, meant casualties, some of whom could be evacuated and saved, many others who could not.
The author explores the variety of feelings that went through the minds of young soldiers, including his own. The boredom, the exhaustion, the fear. At the time though, the soldiers felt a sense of optimism and believed peace was inevitable. These were the years following the Oslo Peace Accords as well as an Israel-Jordan peace treaty. The very word "peace," Friedman notes, could still be used with enthusiasm rather than irony. “Now it feels like the word 'telegraph' or 'wedlock' – a curio.” The recruits he served with were not particularly ideological or patriotic, he writes. For them David Ben-Gurion and Theodor Herzl were street names. And if they harbored any hatred of the enemy, it never showed.
The turning point in this plod-along war came in February 1997, when two military helicopters collided on their way to the security zone, killing 73 Israeli soldiers – including some of Friedman’s characters. They were being transported to Lebanon by helicopter because Hezbollah had become so successful in planting roadside bombs and orchestrating ambushes. This seminal event and the casualties that continued to result started to wear down public support for maintaining the security zone.
Although the idea of a unilateral withdrawal had been floated here and there, an unlikely group formed to lead the campaign: The Four Mothers. Mothers whose sons were serving in Lebanon formed a protest group that started with small demonstrations at road junctions and eventually led to a vigil outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. And although their numbers of active participants remained in the dozens, the Four Mothers began to make an impression on the nation. In the public discourse, they succeeded in turning soldiers into “children.” They didn’t have to work too hard to raise the question of whether more kids were dying than would-be victims in northern Israel were being saved.
It took Ehud Barak’s reserve to uphold his 1999 election promise to actually withdraw the forces. But the Four Mothers, Friedman says, deserve most of the credit for leading Israel out of this “self-inflicted war.” Representatives of the left have yet to achieve much since. “The triumph of the Four Mothers was, in retrospect, the last charge of the kibbutzniks, the final instance in which those Israelis would lead anything of national importance,” Friedman writes. “By the end of the pivotal year, 2000, they receded into the margins, where they remain.”
A risky journey
In a world in which most contemporary war memoirs released in the U.S. market are focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, Friedman aptly points out how different his experience is to that of an American soldier serving in one of those countries. Lebanon, for Israelis, is not a place halfway around the world. Moreover, it appears numerous times through the Bible, Friedman notes. Hezbollah’s threat has not gone away – and in serving as a proxy of Iran it won’t anytime soon. Sadly, the “new Middle East” his generation was promised not only failed to materialize, but grew significantly less stable in the 16 years since Israel pulled out its troops.
Friedman, who went on to become a journalist and, more recently, author of the award-winning book “The Aleppo Codex,” has a curiosity that serves him well. It wasn’t enough to experience life and brushes with death at the Pumpkin while it was in Israel’s hands. He decided to return to the scene of the crime, now firmly in Lebanese hands. Aided by a clean Canadian passport and the pretense of being just a tourist, he took a risky journey to Lebanon. The enlightening if eerie trip back speaks volumes about how Israel is viewed north of the border – or at least was at the time of his visit in 2002.
Anger at Israel and even outright anti-Semitism ran deep, and Friedman found himself pretending not to speak any Arabic for fear a word of Hebrew might slip out. And of course, that world of Israel’s military in southern Lebanon was now dead, a place of parched hills with chunks of concrete still decorated with Hebrew graffiti. But the region, seething with problems, would come to see far worse times than anyone could have imagined.
“On the hill we had been at the start of something: of a new era in which conflict surges, shifts or fades but doesn’t end, in which the most you can hope for is not peace or the arrival of a better age, but only to remain safe as long as possible,” Friedman writes. “None of us could have foreseen how the region would be seized by its own violence – the way Syria, a short drive from the outpost, would be devoured, and Iraq, and Libya, and Yemen, and much of the Islamic world around us. The outpost was the beginning. The present day might still be the beginning. The Pumpkin is gone, but nothing is over.”
Ilene Prusher, a Haaretz columnist, began covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 1993. She is currently a member of the multimedia journalism faculty at Florida Atlantic University, where she is also a faculty fellow in the Peace, Justice and Human Rights Initiative.