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Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story (2016)

by Matti Friedman

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War by Matti Friedman is a memoir of his time holding a small structure on a hill in Lebanon during his time in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Mr. Friedman, a Canadian living in Israel, is an award winning writer and author.

The book is divided into three sections.

The first is about Avi, a young Israeli soldier, his service and writings. The second part is written by the author about his time serving. The third, a most interesting narrative, about the author returning to Lebanon as a Canadian tourist to get a new perspective.

Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War by Matti Friedman is part memoir, part history lesson of the complicated relationship between Israel and Lebanon. Pumpkin (dla’at) was the name of his base, a POS hole in at the end of the world, inside Lebanon. Flowers refers to the code name of injured soldiers (I always assumed, but I don’t’ know, that it’s because when most of us think of the words “soldier” and “flower” together Poppies come immediately to mind due to their World War I significance. And Poppies are red).

Mr. Friedman masterfully captured the environment of defending in a small, front-line hill – not knowing why and maintaining an “us vs. them” attitude to keep sane. The book reminded me of such times, moving from the boredom of kitchen duties and maintaining the status quo, to moments of sheer terror – and back again.

When I served in the IDF, during that same time (late 80s – early 90s) we, the grunts, quickly realized that Hezbollah is not a “terrorist group” as advertised, but an organized force with quality weapons and uniforms. This notion that the IDF is dealing with a ragtag group of imbeciles has led to many mistakes by leadership and almost a disaster not long ago.

This is an important book, but as far as I know, no history has yet been written and this personal memoir, an intense eyewitness, will be an important first hand source. The most interesting part, to me, was the author’s return to Lebanon, as a Canadian tourist. He goes visiting a country he otherwise cannot go in and even try to go back to his old haunting ground (Pumpkin) but this time from a road he feared and was never even allowed to walk on. That part is a strong indication of why the region will never be at peace, everyone he met wants to drive the Israelis into the sea, peace is simply not even an option.

The book is an easy read, I finished it in two days, while not very introspective (which I didn’t mind), I found it to be an accurate, detailed account.

For more reviews and bookish posts please visit: http://www.ManOfLaBook.com ( )
  ZoharLaor | Jul 8, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is a very enjoyable, fun, quick, and informative read. Although non-fiction, it has the layout and suspense of a well-told story. If you want an insight into the politics of the Middle East, military history, terrorism or just want to read a well-written book, Matti Friedman’s Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story of a Forgotten War, a memoir of the author's experiences in Lebanon in late 1990s, is for you.

The first thing one might wonder is what does a pumpkin have to do with the solder's walking on the cover? Pumpkin was a fortified outpost in the Israeli northern security perimeter inside southern Lebanon. As part of a string of bases with horticultural names – Pepper is an adjacent outpost – their purpose was to protect settlements in northern Israel from attacks launched from across the border. Instead of attacking civilians, the logic of the security zone went, Hezbollah would be forced attack fortified, trained, and armed Israeli soldiers who could kill the terrorists. Flower was the code word for combat fatalities.

Friedman divides Pumpkinflowers into four sections. In the first, he recounts the story of Avi, a soldier who arrived at the pumpkin in 1994 and served there prior to Friedman. Avi and his comrades were young men, with an average age of twenty, and trained for a traditional war, like the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli Wars, with mass formations of armor and infantry. They were totally untrained and psychologically unprepared for the asymmetrical guerilla insurgency that faced them in almost daily Hezbollah attacks on the Pumpkin.

Nineteen ninety-seven was a turning point in the history of the Israeli presence in Lebanon. This is the subject of the second section of the book. Driven by an unusually high number of casualties, and several controversial events, a group of Israeli mothers questioned the purpose of the northern security zone. Why, they asked their government, are we still there?

Coming in the wake of the mothers protest movement, the author arrived at the pumpkin in 1998 for his military term of service. Friedman's personal experiences from his arrival through to the abandonment of the security zone in 2000 comprise part three. Like Avi, Friedman and his comrades arrived young and green at the Pumpkin. He tells their stories, sharing a full range of experiences from the humorous to the tragic. Like all soldiers they were driven not to let each other down and bound together by a shared, unique experience that only they understood. While the soldiers at the Pumpkin believed that they were doing the best thing for the nation, their countrymen seemed no longer to appreciate it. By-and-large Israelis believed that if they placated Hezbollah and withdrew from the fortified positions in Lebanon, that they would satisfy the enemy and bring peace and stability to the region. They dismissed Hezbollah's outrageous calls to eliminate Israel from the map as nothing more than a hyperbolic negotiating ploy. They were wrong.

In the fourth section, Friedman describes the post-Pumpkin world, both in terms of his personal life and as a turning point in the Middle East. Just as Americans were feeling the shock of 9/11, suicide bombings rocked Israel. Activated as a reservist for stints in 2001 and 2002, Freidman returned briefly to Lebanon. This was a new Middle East, but not the one that wishful Israelis had hoped for when the security zone was abandoned. Instead, widespread insurgency, religious war, and terrorism against "soft" civilian target ushered in the twenty-first century. The Pumpkin in this last section of the book haunts Friedman. It is not just his personal transition from front line combat to civilian life; it is how the destruction of the Pumpkin served as a powerful metaphor for the destruction of the very idea that there would ever be peace in the Middle East. He made the dangerous decision to return to Lebanon as a tourist to see the Pumpkin and the war he fought from the vantage point of his adversaries. Travelling on a Canadian passport, Friedman made a10,000 mile journey, to see the ruins of the Pumpkin. To me, this was the most interesting part of the book. ( )
  gregdehler | Jun 25, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This memoir was at first told simply as one man's story of his time in the Israeli army as a defender of a small hill in Lebanon called the "pumpkin". Slowly the narrator reveals the true significance of this small piece of land behind enemy lines to himself and his comrades who were under continuous fire, but also to Israel and finally as the beginning of a new kind of war in the Middle East. This is a war where there are no winners or losers but only continuing local skirmishes (IED's, etc) with each side firmly entrenched in their hatred of the "others" and each separate attack leading to more hatred and more revenge. It brought to mind the American"Hatfield and McCoy" feud but in the amplified arena of the Middle East. The writer skillfully weaves the different story lines into a compelling story of hatred and suffering but also of goodness and compassion which occurs on both sides of the conflict. ( )
  dallenbaugh | Jun 20, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This author’s memoir shares his experiences while a soldier in the IDF during the Israeli-Lebanon conflict. He focuses on his time on the Lebanon border on a base called ‘The Pumpkin Outpost.” We learn about the men in the author’s unit who were all mainly teenagers of whom some did not survive this tour of duty. The author once he finished his military service went undercover into Hezbollah controlled territory. With his experience he writes his insights into the Israeli perspective on Lebanon and its political ramifications. ( )
  hermit | Jun 19, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book is the story of an unknown part of the Israeli/Lebanese conflict. Young men were sent to a remote place called Pumpkin Hill, in order to protect the border between Lebanon and Israel; the conflict cost many lives on both sides over several decades. It also possibly changed the course of history in the Middle East. The book is written in such a way, with an almost casual relating of events, as a reporter would relate them, so that the import of the message is sometimes lost in the fog of the war, but the dedication, loyalty and the sacrifices of the Israeli soldiers is not. In Israel, the injured soldiers are called flowers and the dead are referred to as oleander. The twelve outposts overlooking and securing the Israeli/Lebanese border also had colorful names.
The hill was used as a media tool by Hezbollah. In 1994, they staged a surprise attack on this tiny outpost and filmed it in such a way that Hezbollah could use it for propaganda purposes to recruit soldiers into their ranks. Although the Israelis were afraid, so too were the attackers, who were not filmed running away. The media was complicit in creating their story. It turns out that the media may be the best weapon anyone can use.
The Lebanese conflict may have spawned the suicide bombers and rise of Hezbollah. The Israeli show of force and presence on the border may have inspired further rebellion. The reader will have to judge for themselves exactly what the catalysts are for the expanding Middle East conflict. For sure, the events on that hill inspired the Four Mother’s Movement which finally brought the occupation to an end. With the election of President Barak, Israel pulled out of Lebanon, in 2000.
What happened on Pumpkin Hill, beginning in 1994 and continuing until 2000, is not recorded for public consumption, but the circumstances surrounding the holding of the hill made the Israelis rethink the efficacy of the Lebanese military operation. Matti Friedman participated in the protection of that hill. These are his thoughts and memories coupled with the testimony of others who were witnesses and willing /or unwilling participants. The hill remained with him, even after the outposts were destroyed.
In 2002, he made a trip into Lebanon, concealing his Israeli identity, and revisited the places there that were visible from his watch post on Pumpkin Hill, the places they joked about someday visiting as tourists when peace would come. Now, a decade and a half later, peace has not come as hoped, but he has recorded the story of Pumpkin Hill and its effect on the soldiers who held it, on the Israelis and the Lebanese, the Christians and the Muslims, in essence, on all involved. He has recorded his impression of his clandestine trip back to Lebanon. Was the effort to hold that hill and that border worthwhile? Is it indeed necessary for Israel to take all of the defensive actions it has taken and will continue to take, perhaps, in order to survive?
When the Israelis evacuated their outposts, the South Lebanese Army faded into the background or joined forces with their former enemies; they had no other choice. The world watched the rise of Hezbollah and the suicide attacks on Israel. Will this simply be the way of life in Israel forever? Will they be able to simply go about their daily lives as if the attacks are just a normal part of their lives, as if life is simply portable, one day here, one day not here. If they do, it will not be apathy, but rather it will be a determination to survive, an indication of their strength and fortitude in the face of constant turmoil, living in a place that wants only to reject them and erase their country from the pages of history in much the same way Pumpkin Hill has been wiped from the pages of Israeli history.
I had mixed feelings reading the book. At first I was horrified, thinking that perhaps Israel had instigated the Middle Eastern conflict by their reactions, criticized in all quarters at all times. After all, both sides suffered the loss of life. One side treasured and tried to protect them, though, while the other side sacrificed them in their cause. As I read, I thought, no, this conflict continues because the enemies of Israel refuse to accept its existence as a Jewish state, to accept its historic place there, to acknowledge its holy sites. Whatever the reason for the conflict initially, its perpetuation lies in those facts. Israel usually retaliates to protect itself; the survival of the country is and has always been the prime mover and motive of its leaders. As a Jew, I hope it continues to be. Long live Israel. I pray for a short lived existence of the sponsors of its enemies. I am not too hopeful, but, I too, am determined that it remain a viable democracy in the cradle of civilization. It is up to history to judge the events in the Middle East. Hindsight seems to always be the clearest perception of events.
At the end, the first words of the song “What’s It All About Alfie?” kept playing in my head. “What’s it all about Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?
I gave the book five stars because it is an honest appraisal of both sides of the issue, the loss of future men and women and the pain left behind by their absence. It humanizes the soldiers, their families and the country, and grounds them all in reality. They were, after all, just boys being told what to do, but they were expected to act like men! They were the country’s human treasure. They persist and prevail still. ( )
  thewanderingjew | May 19, 2017 |
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Amazon: It was just one small hilltop in a small, unnamed war in the late 1990s, but it would send out ripples that are still felt worldwide today. The hill, in Lebanon, was called the Pumpkin; flowers was the military code word for “casualties.” Award-winning writer Matti Friedman re-creates the harrowing experience of a band of young Israeli soldiers charged with holding this remote outpost, a task that would change them forever, wound the country in ways large and small, and foreshadow the unwinnable conflicts the United States would soon confront in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Pumpkinflowers is a reckoning by one of those young soldiers now grown into a remarkable writer. Part memoir, part reportage, part history, Friedman’s powerful narrative captures the birth of today’s chaotic Middle East and the rise of a twenty-first-century type of war in which there is never a clear victor and media images can be as important as the battle itself.

Raw and beautifully rendered, Pumpkinflowers will take its place among classic war narratives by George Orwell, Philip Caputo, and Tim O’Brien. It is an unflinching look at the way we conduct war today
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