Many books about soldiers in wartime are colorful, gung-ho accounts filled with blood-and-guts drama.
Not Matti Friedman’s sober new book, “Pumpkin Flowers: A Soldier’s Story,” a recollection of the last years of an almost two-decade Israeli Defense Forces presence in Lebanon that began with an Israeli invasion in 1982. His book, part reporting and part memoir, is fittingly low key in its depiction of how keeping Israeli soldiers in a “security zone” in southern Lebanon over time became a military, moral and political quagmire. The venture, which some describe as Israel’s Vietnam or its Forgotten War, was intended to protect the Golan region from terrorists by pushing back Yasir Arafat’s PLO deeper into Lebanon. But it evolved from a highly supported venture within Israeli society to a perceived failure.
As Friedman notes, the critical turning point was a collision of two IDF helicopters in February 1997, about to transport 73 soldiers into the security zone. There were no survivors. The tragedy, the worst aviation crash in Israeli history, not only plunged the country into grief but helped prompt a national debate over the efficacy of Israel’s policy in Lebanon.
Four women with sons of army age formed a group calling for Israel’s pullout from Lebanon. Their efforts, and the steadily increasing number of IDF casualties from roadside bombs, began to take its toll.
The power of the telling of this important tale is in Friedman’s restraint, employing straightforward language and a wry tone in recounting how Israel’s military gamble (the first of its wars started by the IDF), ended with a whimper — a hasty, unilateral withdrawal in 2000.
“There was nothing much heroic about us as soldiers during my time in Lebanon,” said Friedman, a native of Canada who made aliyah as a youngster and served from 1997 to 2000. The Israeli public “didn’t know much about the war. It had gone on too long, and toward the end, support plummeted precipitously. We went from being heroic protectors of the border to being seen as victims of bad policy.”
The publication of “Pumpkin Flowers” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), already praised here as a classic war memoir, comes at a time when the IDF, Israel’s most respected institution, is seen as threatened from within the government. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s choice of Avigdor Lieberman, a controversial and widely distrusted politician, as defense minister has helped make the current coalition the most right-wing ever. Netanyahu’s willingness to replace Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, highly respected as a military and political leader, with Lieberman has many worried about the prospect of the scrupulously independent IDF being manipulated for political purposes.
Friedman, who was on a book tour in North America when the political machinations went on in Jerusalem, said he feared the Lieberman appointment would have “a huge negative impact on the psyche of Israeli parents,” who trust the IDF with their sons and daughters.
“Nothing good will come of it,” he said.
But his book is not a political treatise, and he is even uncomfortable describing it as a memoir. “I didn’t think of it that way,” he said. “It’s not really about me. I didn’t want to get in the way” of the story, which sheds light on a conflict many Israelis would like to forget.
Trained To Fight A Conventional War
During the course of the IDF’s long presence in Lebanon, its mission — and primary adversary — changed dramatically.
Over the years, the enemy had morphed from Arafat’s PLO, whose frequent attacks across Israel’s northern border precipitated the conflict, to the emerging, Iran-backed Hezbollah, after Arafat and his guerrillas were forced to relocate to Tripoli. Only in hindsight did it become clear that the First Lebanon War, as it is now known, and its lingering aftermath, were a first in other ways as well.
“This was the first war for 21st-century” combat, Friedman told me the other day. “It’s what war looks like today, not just for Israel but for the world.”
No more armies clashing on a battlefield. Instead we find an asymmetrical scenario, with a nation’s armed soldiers defending against and in pursuit of shadowy bands of insurgents in civilian clothes who fire rockets and sometimes blow themselves up to kill, maim and terrorize innocents as well as soldiers.
“We were trained to fight a conventional war,” said Friedman. But he and his fellow IDF soldiers soon found that their heavily armored tanks, targeted by roadside bombs and snipers, were literally unable to keep pace with the rapid changes of guerrilla warfare.
The result is that wars are no longer won convincingly. One round ends after UN intervention, and the terrorists lick their wounds and re-arm with ever more rockets to prepare for their next planned assault.
Much of the book’s action — more often, anxious waiting — takes place in a spare IDF bunker fortress, nicknamed Pumpkin, in the security zone as Friedman and his unit fend off attacks in the night and rarely get a look at the elusive enemy. (“Flowers” was the IDF code word for “casualties.”)
Talk among the soldiers was “never ideological,” Friedman recalled. They were doing their job. “Israel was their home and this was what was asked of them,” he said. “To raise the issue of Zionism and its ideals would be laughed at,” and there was little reflection on combat’s increasingly complex moral components.
The book is his attempt to help explain how the war was conducted and its impact on the soldiers, who, unlike their fathers’ generation, came back from service in Lebanon and eschewed public service and engagement. They sought to return to private lives of inner satisfaction with family and friends, perhaps beaten down and disillusioned by the realities of a confusing conflict that has never really ended.
Friedman sought his own form of personal closure by going back into Lebanon, as a tourist via his Canadian passport, a few years after completing his service. He writes that he hoped “to meet the people I had glimpsed through binoculars” and “to see the hill [the Pumpkin] without fear, and privately mark the end of that time.” He comes away, though, with the realization that the war marked the beginning of a new era, as seen in Afghanistan, Iraq and today’s Middle East, “in which conflict surges, shifts or fades, but doesn’t end.” And he felt a “retroactive fear,” appreciating how fortunate he was to have survived.
‘The Post-Heroic Moment’
Friedman, in our interview, noted the contrast with the IDF soldiers of the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars, as depicted in Yossi Klein Halevi’s masterly “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation.” Those soldiers emerged as national, even mythical, heroes from the battlefields of 1967 and 1973, and went on to engage deeply — as hawks and doves — in the service of the country, both inside and outside government.
“The IDF of the Lebanon years lacked this drama,” Friedman told me. “We were the generation after Entebbe, part of the post-heroic moment.”
Klein Halevi, who has high praise for Friedman’s book, says “Matti’s generation are the children and grandchildren of the Six-Day War paratroopers who were civilians in uniform and soldiers as civilians. For them the lines were blurred” (between military service and civilian life). They fought in three, even four wars, and in between, took responsibility for the fate of the country — in politics, the economy, culture and other areas.
“My generation,” continued Klein Halevi, who is in his mid-60s, “fought against armies and expected and achieved victories. These kids today [in the IDF] fight against terrorists in impossible wars that are not won. How do you declare victory?”
As a result, he says, young Israelis who have experienced this kind of warfare “tend to be more cynical,” though no less committed to the state. In fact, he says he is inspired by the younger generation because, unlike the soldiers of previous generations, “they go to battle without having inspiring leaders, without a self-sacrificing society or a strong ideology. And they are facing an ugly kind of warfare” not seen since 1948. “It’s harder for them in every way and yet they fulfill their responsibilities to the state and in some ways are more heroic.”
Friedman said he found heroes among his contemporaries, like his superior officer, Harel, who when asked how he returned to the battle in Lebanon after all the other members of his unit perished in the 1997 helicopter collision, answered simply, “on the bus.”
It’s that kind of sense of duty, unadorned by ego or excess rhetoric, that characterizes Friedman’s book.
He said he was pleased “Pumpkin Flowers” is being reviewed and read as a book about war, not politics. “It allows people from different ideologies” to appreciate it.
He believes “it is important that Israel’s story be moved ahead to the present day, to explain where the country is now — a more complicated, prosperous, open and less ideological society” than it was in earlier decades.
“The Israel debate runs to such hysteria; it’s such a political minefield,” Friedman said. “We need to ratchet it down. War is so painful, and I felt the best way to approach it is in a reserved, almost oblique way. So I was just trying to tell the story calmly.”
It is that composed style, in fact, that can leave the reader feeling punched in the gut.