By now, Matti Friedman’s recently published “Pumpkinflowers: An Israeli Soldier’s Story” should be well on its way to joining the select group of wartime narratives that continue to grip and grate on the conscience long after they have been read, put back on the shelf, or passed along.
The intriguingly titled book certainly belongs in the top tier of commentary about Israeli combat, micro and macro, fiction or nonfiction. It exhumes a war (Lebanon) that never received a formal naming; one that petered out in stalemate and virtual status quo ante; one that traded a lethal enemy, the PLO, for an even more virulent one, Hezbollah; and one that persisted so long (1982-2000) that a peace process blossomed, stagnated, and withered during its entirety.
While it might be a stretch comparing Lebanon to Vietnam, the fallout from this adventure produced a loss of innocence, optimism, and the willingness to compromise across a wide swath of Israel. The army, one of the nation’s revered institutions, became bogged down defending a narrow security zone of outposts across the rugged landscape of southern Lebanon. For many of the younger generation of conscripts stationed there, the names Herzl and Ben-Gurion merely stood for streets. Additionally, a feckless ally, the Christian militia, added to the opaqueness of the mission.
Friedman’s tours as a radioman at one of the outposts (the Pumpkin) elevates his writing beyond mere reporting, allowing him to burrow into the souls of the teenaged soldiers he served alongside. These raw recruits weren’t defending a homeland attacked from all borders like the veterans of the Independence, Six Day, and Yom Kippur campaigns. They were charged with the less inspiring goal of keeping the northern communities free from shelling and incursions by guerilla forces proxied in Damascus and Tehran.
“Pumpkinflowers” is both searing and sobering. Friedman tugs at our feelings about nobility, absurdity, and tragedy by capturing mood and melancholy with the spare sketches of a gifted wartime correspondent. His soldiers command our attention in their often brutal, cynical, and bizarre settings, while they confront and process the dozens of challenges that accrue in an unconventional combat zone.
Born and raised in Canada, Friedman emigrated to Israel and spent only a year and a half there before being conscripted into the IDF at age 19. His Lebanon experiences date to 1998 and clearly stamp the hard-learned lessons of authenticity on “Pumpkinflowers.” Friedman later attended Hebrew University, joined the Associated Press as a correspondent, began a family that includes twin sons and a daughter, and wrote “The Aleppo Codex,” which won the 2014 Sami Rohr prize.
For those puzzled by the title, the Pumpkin and others like it — Red Pepper, Crocus, Cypress, and Basil — referred to earthen outposts just inside southern Lebanon, forming a security network stretching from Mount Hermon in the east to the Mediterranean in the west. Established by Israel as its main forces withdrew, the region was home to about 200,000 inhabitants, mostly Shiites. “Flowers” was the anodyne IDF code for casualties, while the fragrant but poisonous “oleanders” stood for fallen combatants.
Friedman’s depictions of life in the Pumpkin nearly replicate the static trench standoffs of World War I. For Israeli soldiers, it meant enduring long spells of inactivity punctuated by intense exchanges or high-risk sniper probes. This contrasted starkly with stunning IDF victories in earlier, more fluid conflicts and added new levels of stress and uncertainty to the lives of the outpost inhabitants.
From “Readiness at Dawn” in the morning to lights out in the triple-decker bunk bays, the soldiers tested their wills against guerrillas hiding in nearby villages like Nabatieh, who used the hills, valleys, and dry river beds running up to the Pumpkin as conduits for their attacks. Rockets and mortars posed a constant threat to the Israelis, while roadside bombs and even booby-trapped rocks often took a grisly toll on their patrols and occasional tank forays.
Structurally, “Pumpkinflowers” is comprised of four segments, each with distinct sensibilities, and all interlocking powerfully. In the first, we meet Avi Ofner, a brash, free-spirited trooper whose service at the site preceded Friedman’s by four years. Avi reads voraciously, dreams expansively, and tries to live large despite his relative shortness and the confines of the outpost.
He and his unit, the Fighting Pioneer Youth, were trained for the open desert warfare of earlier campaigns instead of the guerilla counterinsurgency in Lebanon. “It was 1994, but the army’s clock was still set at 1973,” Friedman writes. At 19, Avi was assigned to the Pumpkin in the wake of a close Hezbollah infiltration, during which the enemy took crude propaganda footage that caused a sensation in the Arab world. The incident came to be known as “The Disgrace” in Israeli headlines.
During the next two years, Avi participated in enough action and witnessed sufficient loss of life and limb to discharge himself mentally from the army before his term of service ended. On what was scheduled to be his last deployment to the Pumpkin, he stopped to pick up a bag of burgers for his comrades, a unit tradition, before boarding one of two giant troop helicopters. (Many convoys were considered too exposed by then.)
The choppers flew uneventfully to the northern edge of Israel and had just cleared Kibbutz Dafna when they collided. The rotors of one craft sliced into the belly of the other, sending both ships dizzyingly earthward. Avi and all 72 aboard lost their lives in the Finger of Galilee. It was February 4, 1997.
The dimensions of the tragedy and personal loss mobilized the efforts of a core of kibbutz women against the war. We meet Bruria, Ortna, and their cohort in the book’s second segment. Their tactics include hectoring motorists at busy intersections with the Four Mothers petition; plastering bulletin boards with copies of a withdrawal manifesto, and trying to convince the nation’s movers and shakers to redraft policy.
Slowly, their pleas began to be heeded by ordinary Israelis and they were no longer derided as “Nasrallah’s whores.” They organized earnest convoys of bikes and jeeps nationwide to spread their message, referring in many instances not to the loss of soldiers, but to the deaths of their children. “The idea that soldiers are children, everyone’s children, the joint custody of all Israeli adults, caught on then and has never really gone away,” notes the author.
Friedman kept tabs on the growing civilian displeasure with Lebanon while serving a new tour at the Pumpkin. And he observed more rote and resignation among the troops this time around, despite the continuing attacks and provocations. The third segment of “Pumpkinflowers” dwells deeply on the most uncomfortable ironies of war, with the men acting somewhat like prisoners behind their own bunkers, many realizing the futility of their ability to influence a decisive outcome.
The mission in Lebanon ended on May 24, 2000, with both a whimper and a bang. Hezbollah paraded into areas abandoned by the Lebanon militia, while the Israelis blew up their outposts one by one. The Pumpkin resisted detonation to the last, requiring heroic efforts by an officer to prime the charge. The few remaining soldiers then scampered into armored vehicles and made for the border.
After he was discharged, Friedman majored in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University. Then, at 25, he decided to re-visit Lebanon, protected this time by a “clean” Canadian passport rather than an armored column. In a bittersweet fourth segment of the book, more of a coda really, he flies to Toronto, where he re-acquaints himself “with drooling my vowels instead of spitting them,” before proceeding to London, and finally Beirut.
The Lebanon sojourn allows him to share café tables and conversations with shopkeepers and Shiites. Posing as a tourist, Friedman hears the locals roundly condemn Israel, Jews, and Americans. As he heads south, he dances and picnics with a young group of revelers along the banks of the Qadisha River, and listens to them debate intermarriage with Christians. Next, a visit to the Hezbollah museum in an old prison at Khiam, where graffiti proclaimed “Jews are AIDS.”
Finally, Friedman’s battered taxi brings him to the cusp of the Pumpkin. He’s traveled thousands of miles to reach a point 20 minutes from his parents’ home on the other side of the border. He walks the last leg to the top of hill and passes Hebrew graffiti reading, “Aryeh, we want invitations to the wedding.”
Under the rubble, remnants of the Pumpkin greet his trained eye. He navigates the old trench line and observes the unrelenting natural forces of southern Lebanon slowly overwhelming the outpost with vegetation. The Pumpkin holds one last surprise for him: a mystery woman who sits on the western embankment and murmurs until a man calls her away. She doesn’t spot Friedman, who walks back to his cab knowing his odyssey has come full circle.