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Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story by…

Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story (2016)

by Matti Friedman

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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 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Whenever a fine new piece of war writing arrives — whether fiction, history, or memoir — there are the inevitable comparisons to Tim O’Brien, Michael Herr, Robert Stone, and so on. That’s fine, and sometimes the comparisons are even appropriate.

But Matti Friedman’s striking memoir PUMPKINFLOWERS defies comparisons to other great war stories. The subtitle of his book (named for a small Israeli outpost in southern Lebanon) is “A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War.” And that subtitle says a lot. Little has been written about the Israeli combat experience in Lebanon, but that’s not the only thing that makes Friedman’s book unique. There’s something about his offbeat storytelling style and his wry, unflinching tone. He has a voice and a story that are truly his alone.

“Jonah’s crew would head out of the outpost most nights on an enterprise known as an Artichoke ambush, so named because you were supposed to use the tank’s night sight, the Artichoke, to spot guerrillas and then kill them with the cannon from afar. It was hard to imagine bad things happening during an activity named for an artichoke, but they did with some regularity, sometimes to our enemies and sometimes to us.”

This is a special book — authentic and honest. It is by turns harrowing and funny; reflective and irreverent; intensely personal and eerily disconnected. We see Friedman’s war in all its absurdity, loneliness, and terror. And we also see the unique bonds that men in combat form with each other.

Friedman had me in the palm of his hand from the very first page, and his unrelenting story never let up.

This is an essential book. More than a memoir of his own combat experience, it’s also a history of Israel’s involvement in Lebanon. Through the divisiveness of that conflict, we see reflections of Israeli society more broadly, with all its tensions. And maybe most importantly, this story of a small, forgotten war has much to tell us about events in the Middle East for the past two decades, including America’s ill-fated entanglements in that region.

Strongly recommended.

(Thank you to Algonquin for a complimentary copy in exchange for an impartial review.) ( )
  Wickabod | May 10, 2017 |
I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway. This was a very interesting account of a young mans experience serving in the Israeli military during the late 1990's. This helps the reader understand how complicated the issues are in the middle east. I also felt that the last few chapters were so eye opening because of the way this same young man was treated when he returned to Lebanon as a tourist traveling under a Canadian passport. I found it so sad that they were so welcoming and friendly when they did not know his true identity. ( )
  Thelmajean | May 7, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Matti Friedman has crafted an amazing war account that is different in perspective, time period, and battlefront than normally found for sale on the bookstore shelf, yet this book reflects themes which are universal and as old as time.

I usually go on at length about the attributes of the books I review, but I feel compelled not to do so this time. I feel compelled by Friedman’s writing itself. The book compelled the reader to peel back the layers of content and meaning with each turn of the page.

Without giving in to the temptation to explore Friedman’s treatment of themes, such as the futility of war and the massacre of innocence, I’m going to compare it to a different work of literature; for that is how I would categorize this book. It is a work of fine literature, from its complexity and sophistication in style to its masterful employment of literary devices. In many ways, ‪Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story of a Forgotten War reminds me of the Erich Maria Remarque classic, All Quiet on the Western Front.

Now wait, before you vilify me for comparing a book about Israeli youth battling against Hezbollah fighters to a book about German youth battling against Allied Forces during World War I. I acknowledge these works depict very different wars, very different time periods, very different adversaries, and very different motivations, for sure. However, in addition to both authors’ literary skills, similarities can be found within both books in regard to the destruction of youthful innocence, hope, and trust, and the replacement of these attributes by cynicism and dependency, as young soldiers are aged far beyond their years by their experiences in war. With the introduction of Friedman’s war account, it is reinforces the understanding that, regardless of whether the setting is 1916 France, 1996 Lebanon, etc., the often-overlooked casualty of war is the permanent disillusionment of young generations in society.

I highly recommend this book.

I received a free advanced copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. ( )
  mrsandersonut | May 6, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I really enjoyed this book! It shows all the turmoil and war in the middle east from a perspective that many in America haven't considered. It's well written and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys war stories and learning about motivations behind conflicts. ( )
  Jake.lang58 | May 1, 2017 |
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