In Pumpkin Flowers, Matti Friedman provides a brief, finely written account of an army outpost in Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon in the 1990s and the men who served there. ‘Pumpkin’ was the outpost’s name, while ‘flowers’ was the Israeli army’s code word for wounded soldiers. The term, writes Friedman, reflects “a floral preoccupation in our military intended to bestow beauty on ugliness and to allow soldiers distance from the things they might have to describe.” The Pumpkin itself was far from poetic, a “rectangle of earthen embankments the size of a basketball court” where there was “nothing unnecessary to the purposes of allowing you to kill, preventing you from being killed, and keeping you from losing your mind in the meantime.”
Born and raised in Toronto, Friedman had only been in Israel a year and a half when, at the age of 19, he was stationed on that hill. While he tells a personal story, the parts of the book where he describes the endless waiting, the bursts of combat, and the yearning for home contain a universal message that applies to every soldier in every war on every battlefield. Friedman himself only enters the book about halfway through. In order to give a fuller account of life on the Pumpkin, he starts with the story of Avi, one of the soldiers he would eventually replace. Although Friedman did not know Avi, he was given access to his letters and discovered that the soldier wrote almost as well as he did.
In February 1997, only a month away from discharge, Avi died in a mid-air collision between two IDF helicopters ferrying troops to their outposts on the security zone. All 73 aboard the two helicopters were killed. Although Hezbollah would take credit for Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, it was this accident, Friedman says, that shifted Israeli attitudes against the occupation. People began to believe the security zone was killing more people than it was saving—that instead of being a solution to a problem, it was itself the problem.
Friedman, who went up to the Pumpkin in 1998, offers not a hint of braggadocio about his own experiences, although it is clear he acquitted himself well under fire. He writes that a simple message hung from the wall of every outpost: “The Mission: Protecting the Northern Communities.” By the time Friedman left, he admits he no longer believed the message. “[B]y this time, like many Israelis I had replaced one simple idea —‘the Mission: Protecting the Northern Communities’—with another, that ceding the security zone to our enemies would placate them.” Israel pulled out of Lebanon only a few months after Matti completed his service on May 24, 2000.
Two years later, using his Canadian passport, Friedman traveled to Lebanon by passing himself off as a Canadian tourist. It was a gutsy thing to do and provided a coda to the book, but it was also reckless, which Friedman fails to acknowledge—if he had been caught, he would have become a trading card in the hands of Hezbollah. Israel has released hundreds of terrorists in exchange for prisoners, even the remains of prisoners. In fact, the 2006 Second Lebanon War would be triggered when two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped. Fortunately, Friedman’s tour of Lebanon passed without major incident. He even managed to view the old hill with its ruined outpost. His fellow soldiers had joked they would all return one day to Lebanon to eat at a restaurant—really just a shack on the Litani river—which they often passed on their patrols. His platoon mates must have been amazed to learn that Friedman actually did it.
Friedman’s experiences foretold much of what was to come in the war against Islamic extremists. American troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan would face methods of warfare first tested against the Israelis in Lebanon: the hit-and-run tactics, the booby-trapped boulders, the suicide car bombs, the IEDs or improvised explosive devices. While the American military was no doubt aware of the Israeli experience, the lessons didn’t penetrate, judging from the causalities it suffered from IEDs and the length of time before vehicles were adequately armored.
Then there are the terrorist propaganda videos, which ISIS has since raised to a high form. These too made their debut in Lebanon. In fact, it was a terrorist propaganda video that made most Israelis aware of the Pumpkin’s existence. In October 1994, Hezbollah fighters snuck up to the outpost and videotaped themselves planting a Hezbollah flag while guerrillas attacked the hill. It played throughout Arab countries and on Israeli TV. “In the days that followed,” Friedman writes, “the Hezbollah man entered everyone’s living room, raised his arms, and drove his flag in again and again. Israelis were horrified … The incident was taken to be not a small failure, the kind of thing that happens to garrisons whose senses are deadened by routine, but a sign of decay in the army.” Friedman writes that this incident was the beginning of videotaped violence and the media war—which is a war not for territory but for “consciousness.”
Unfortunately, the importance of all this was not obvious to either Israelis or Americans at the time. Israel was still caught up in its post-Oslo illusions in the 1990s. There was talk of a ‘new Middle East’, a favorite term of then-Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres. But as Friedman relates, the new Middle East being born was “not the one anyone imagined. It was happening in the scrub among boulders and concrete fortifications on a hill in the south of Lebanon. Only a few young people were present for the delivery.
Friedman would go on to work for the Associated Press as a reporter, eventually exposing the ways his employer—and the press as a whole—slanted its coverage against Israel. More recently he wrote The Aleppo Codex, a true-life detective story of how the most complete copy of the Bible reached Israel.
If this book has a flaw, it is that Friedman skips too lightly over the implications of Israel’s withdrawal from the security zone in Lebanon. He makes clear that peace hopes were a mirage, that Hezbollah was determined as ever to get rid of Israel after the withdrawal. He also notes the impact that withdrawal had in galvanizing Palestinian Arabs, who saw “resistance and martyrdom” as a path to success, that “what happened in Lebanon can be repeated in Palestine.” But he does not mention that the withdrawal from Lebanon began an era of unilateral retrenchment culminating in the withdrawal from Gaza, which led to the relentless shelling of southern Israel and periodic wars to stop it. The pattern has been set. Now 214 Israeli generals propose more withdrawals on the West Bank, in exchange for nothing at all.
Nor does Friedman discuss the betrayal of the South Lebanon Army, the militia of Christians, Druze, and Shia that had helped Israel control Southern Lebanon, or the dire consequences, once it was gone, of the complete takeover of the south by Hezbollah. What was once a security zone has become an insecurity zone. Despite Israel’s efforts in the Second Lebanon War of 2006 to take down Hezbollah, the country faces threats that dwarf anything it has faced before. Hezbollah’s capabilities now include 130,000 rockets of various kinds—an arsenal larger, in sheer numeric terms, than that of all of Western Europe—plus a 10,000-man standing army that could swell to two or three times that in wartime. The rocket launchers are hidden within Lebanese population centers.
Hezbollah has thus created a situation ideal for the video wars it pioneered, in which Israel suffers doubly: once from the death of its own citizens and again at the hands of a biased press that will hold it responsible for collateral damage. The most serious effects of the loss of the Lebanese security zone lie ahead.