By Matti Friedman
Non-Fiction, 242 pages
Biteback Publishing Ltd. 2016
Reviewed by Pnina Moed Kass
To suggest that war can be an experience of boredom; that military campaigns can be forgotten; and that lives lost can be testimony to strategic errors – is to suggest that all these contain an element of truth. Matti Friedman, a former AP correspondent, author of The Aleppo Codex and resident of Jerusalem, has woven into this superb soldier's memoir a geopolitical analysis, an incisive look at military thinking and a quiet compassion for the people he writes about.
At the start, Friedman does not overlook the tragic and traumatic event that hovered over citizens and soldiers – the helicopter crash that killed 73 soldiers – an event that is imbedded in everyone's memories. The author moves from that never-to-be-forgotten event to the years between 1994 and 1998. Here, in almost diary-like fashion, he inserts us into the lives of soldiers serving at an outpost inside Lebanese territory, dubbed by the Israelis “The Pumpkin.” In this isolated pocket of land, identified as the South Lebanon Security-Belt, soldiers barely out of high school face increasingly aggressive Hezbollah actions. Guerilla attacks, roadside bombs, rockets and Russian missile-launchers aimed at the outposts’ tanks, all eventually cost the lives of 250 Israeli soldiers. The adversaries very often were the same age as the soldiers they attacked; they carried candy, gum, and a small Qur'an, in addition to their military hardware.
Love and humor, sadness and stolid acceptance are facets of Matti Friedman's depiction of the soldiers who served at the Pumpkin outpost. And some were the “Flowers” – the IDF code word for casualties; he relates the coded radio transmissions that again and again relayed attacks and losses of life. Divided into four parts, pumpkin flowers carries the reader to that critical moment when both the military and the politicians, spurred on by the group known as the Four Mothers, realize that nothing can be gained by these isolated outposts within Lebanese territory. “Past the entanglement where hopes lay strewn” a quote from the poet of war, Wilfred Owen, is often mentioned in this book; Friedman's reminder that time has not diminished the human cost of war. In the very moving last part the author (with the aid of a Canadian passport), revisits that landscape of Lebanon, where the events that occurred there remain indelibly imprinted in his memory.
“The cab was waiting in the old convoy yard. The Pumpkin receded through the rear window, and I knew I wouldn't see it again.”