Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story is the real-life story of Israeli soldiers – youngsters – who unlike our children and grandchildren in North America – are expected and required to serve and protect their country – the State of Israel – which is constantly on guard against attacks. Because the country is so small and military service is compulsory for most Israeli citizens over the age of 18, everyone in Israel knows someone that has been affected by war, someone who has lost a spouse, parent, child, or a friend protecting their homeland, someone who has been maimed or psychologically scarred for life.
Pumpkinflowers, published in 2016, is part history, part memoir, and part journalism. The author, Matti Friedman was drafted into the Israeli army in 1997, when he was 19, having moved to Israel from Canada a few years before, and served until 2000. He later attended Hebrew University, majored in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, 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.
Pumpkinflowers takes place at the end of – not an actual war – but a military operation – in which Israeli soldiers fought Hezbollah guerillas in southern Lebanon – an operation which involved improvised explosive devices, videotaped hit-and-run attacks, and the wearing down of a modern military by Muslim guerrillas operating in a failed state. Every year – from 1985, when Israel withdrew from Lebanon leaving only the slim territorial buffer known as the Security Zone in the south, until May 2000, when it withdrew further, to the internationally recognized border – some two dozen soldiers were killed annually in that hilly country to Israel’s north – about 450 in total – a toll close to that of the Six Day War, but it was spread out, it was hard to think about and grasp. As Matti Friedman recalled about that time, “I was a soldier and like most soldiers I had a limited understanding of anything beyond the immediate demands of my daily life.”
The book’s title comes from two Israeli army terms: Pumpkin was the name of the hill where Friedman and his fellow soldiers served in south Lebanon in the end of the 1990’s, charged with keeping the northern communities free from shelling and incursions by guerilla forces; and wounded soldiers in Lebanon were known as flowers. The horticultural references may have something to do with the agricultural preoccupations of the kibbutz and of the socialist militias that spawned the army in the early years of the state, but, as Friedman explains, “It isn’t a code, because it isn’t secret. Instead the names seem intended to bestow beauty on ugliness and to allow soldiers distance from the things they might have to describe.” He adds that “You need the jargon so that an 18-year-old can say it and not be overwhelmed by what he’s saying.”
The book is divided into four sections: The first focuses on the soldiers who served in southern Lebanon through the eyes of a soldier, Avi Ofner, who was there before Friedman and whose experience Friedman recreates from archival information and interviews; the second reports on the growing Israeli sentiment in favor of pullout, which gained steam after a 1997 plane crash killed 73 soldiers who were returning to the Pumpkin from Israel, including the soldier Avi, and the efforts of two civilian mothers, Bruria and Ortna, to unravel the military’s strategy. Part three describes Friedman’s own time on the hill, and the experiences of several of his friends in the outpost’s last days, many realizing the futility of their ability to influence a decisive outcome; and the final part recounts Friedman’s return to Lebanon several years after the pullout, protected by a “clean” Canadian passport, in an attempt to understand the events and himself better. “I was definitely looking for the humanity of the other side, which I found. It just turns out that … not loving each other is very human…. In my conversations with people [in Lebanon], … there were two recurring themes: they wanted to know if I agreed with them that Lebanon is beautiful, which I did, and they also wanted to make sure that I wasn’t on the wrong side. That I understood that Israel was very bad and that the Jews were very bad.”
Friedman’s political message is important, as he writes, “for anyone looking for the origins of the Middle East of today,” as is his message that the fallout from this adventure produced a loss of innocence, optimism, and the willingness to compromise across a wide swath of Israel. Looking back at his military service, Matti reflects that “It seems to me now that the Lebanon outposts were incubators for the Israelis of the age that followed the outposts’ destruction: allergic to ideology, thinkers of small practical thoughts, livers of life between bombardments, expert in extracting the enjoyment possible from a constricted and endangered existence. The former soldiers are people used to political currents of immense complexity and capable of ignoring them. They didn’t come back from Lebanon and devote themselves to politics, defense, or settling the frontiers but rather to the vigorous and stubborn building of private lives, and these combined energies have become the fuel driving the country.”
The most poignant parts of the book for me – and what should be the most meaningful for North American youth, as well as their parents – are the lyrical and heart-felt experiences of the soldiers, expressing their humanity, and the insightful, but disturbing coming-of-age stories of young men, who finished high school and then found themselves in a military operation, and the daily routine and boredom, punctuated by intense exchanges or high-risk sniper probes by guerillas hiding in nearby villages and using the surrounding hills, valleys, and dry river beds as conduits for their attacks.
Friedman recalls his first day at the Pumpkin outpost: “It is hard to recall how little you once knew, and harder to admit it. I understood that we were Israeli soldiers; that our enemies were Arab fighters, whom we called terrorists, and that we should kill them before they killed us; that the battlefield was this place, Lebanon. That was it. Matters seemed fairly clear to me that first day.”
What followed were the unusually long nights of waiting, sometimes disrupted by a quick tragedy, and then more waiting – “sometimes you took over one of the guard posts, checked your watch an hour later, and found that five minutes had passed.” Then came the early morning ritual, Readiness with Dawn, “rousing all of those who weren’t awake already … intended as an antidote to the inevitable relaxing of our senses, a way of whetting the garrison’s dulled attention as the day began.” While ritual can remind us of who we are and keep us moving through the days, weeks, and months, no matter how extreme the circumstances, for Friedman, “Readiness with Dawn ended up being a time for contemplation. Look around: Where are you and why? Who else is here? Are you ready? Ready for what? So important was this ritual at such an important time in my life that this mode of consciousness became an instinct, the way an infant knows to hold its breath underwater. I still slip into it often. I’m there now.”
Over time, the Pumpkin soldiers became accustomed to suffering. As Avi explains, “When soldiers are glimpsed in the real world outside the army they tend to be looking their best, which can be misleading, because out of sight in their own world their existence is miserable. You are always looking for a way to keep warm, for something to eat, or a place to lie down. You are grimy, and depleted, and your life is not your own, and you are pushed at times to levels of despondence and desperation that are quite extreme.”
Avi continues, “The mood on the hill wasn’t usually one of fear…. The air at the Pumpkin was instead one of exhaustion and homesickness. It was not that the soldiers missed their cities or their friends, though of course that was part of it – they missed their real home, their parents’ home, where everyone still lived. Army service here is the end of childhood, and going home meant that your father hugged you and your mother cooked you dinner, and the washing machine whirled green as you fell asleep in the room where you grew up.”
Over 15 years later, young Israelis still are serving in the IDF; they still are coming of age, constantly on guard against attacks from Lebanon across the border. In small rooms fortified by concrete blocks, about a dozen soldiers at a time man the Lebanon border’s control rooms. They are all women, and nearly all of them are under the age of 20. Even though the work is demanding and thankless, they understand just how important it is and know exactly who and what poses a threat. And, for the soldiers, many of whom come from towns in the north, not far from the base where they’re serving, … they understand that “if something happens, it’s my home I’m protecting.” At the same time, they understand that they are fighting, not only for the State of Israel, but to ensure the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish homeland for all Jewish people – including us, our children, and grandchildren in North America.