Book review: Pumpkinflowers — A Soldier’s Story

THE PUMPKIN was the name given to a fortified hilltop in south Lebanon in the late 1990s, when the Israeli army was attempting to defend the border with Israel; “flowers” was the military code word for casualties. 
Book review: Pumpkinflowers — A Soldier’s Story

Matti Friedman

Biteback Publishing, £12.99

Matti Friedman was an 18-year-old soldier in the Israeli army at the time, and this is his quiet, thoughtful account of that era and its aftermath.

The New York Times has described it as the Israeli counterpart to Tim O’Brien’s famous war memoir The Things They Carried.

Formerly a correspondent for the Associated Press, Friedman was born in Canada and moved to Israel a year-and-a-half before he was called up for military service.

He was posted to the Pumpkin with a group of other 18-year-old conscripts just out of high school. There he experienced first-hand the kind of counterinsurgency warfare that subsequently became the norm in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For the soldiers, long periods of boredom and inertia are punctuated by dramatic violent incidents perpetrated by the enemy in this largely forgotten war:

‘Suicide car bombs, roadside explosives, booby-trapped boulders, videotaped attacks, isolated outposts, hit-and-run, a modern military on hostile territory fighting a long, hopeless war against a weaker but more determined enemy for unclear and ultimately unattainable goals — before Iraq, before Afghanistan, there was this protracted affair in Lebanon.’

After a short prologue describing his own experience of long nights on the hilltop waiting for a ritual at first light involving all the soldiers at the hill, known as “Readiness with Dawn”, in Part One Friedman reconstructs the experiences of a lively, mildly rebellious 18-year-old called Avi, who enjoyed the music of Bruce Springsteen and the Cranberries, and was an immediate predecessor of Friedman on the Pumpkin.

His war is reconstructed from notebooks and letters made available to Friedman after a collision between two helicopters in February, 1997 that claimed the lives of 73 young soldiers, including Avi.

The sudden death of Avi arouses feelings in the reader, not unlike the shock felt by the wider community in Israel, at the terrible news of 73 fatalities.

This gave rise to a movement led by four angry mothers questioning the need for outposts like the Pumpkin.

They bravely pointed out that the security zone might in fact be killing more people than it was saving, thereby suggesting that the army’s strategy was wrong.

This was the climate in which Friedman was posted to the Pumpkin. He conveys well the sense of boredom and pointlessness that prevailed in the quiet times.

He compares his experiences to those of his great-grandparents, one British, one Canadian, who fought in the front line in France in 1916: ‘Members of our family watched the 20th century begin and end from a sandbagged trench’.

The Israelis ritual of Readiness with Dawn resembles the dawn stand-tos described so memorably by the Great War poets.

Friedman’s war also had its absurdities: one of their courageous night-time sorties against a supposed guerilla attack turned out in daylight to have been the pursuit of three marauding wild boars.

The final section describes Friedman’s rather reckless return visit to south Lebanon in 2002 posing as a Canadian tourist, and is the least interesting.

Throughout the book there are tantalising, often accidental glimpses of the everyday lives of Israelis of Friedman’s generation, survivors of the Pumpkin and other outposts.

It would have been interesting to hear more about the demise of the old left of the kibbutz movement, for example, or the way that “a friend from the army” is understood as a different category of friend in Israeli life, or the special place that “dead young men” hold in Israeli society, and the elaborate rituals of the annual Remembrance Day.

It is rare to get a first-hand picture of Israel from the inside, from such a quiet voice. He is obviously religious, but says little about his belief: it would have been interesting to hear more.

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