Book Review: Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story

Review By: 
Rabbi Robert Orkand
Pumpkinflowers A Soldier’s Story
Pumpkinflowers A Soldier’s Story

Matti Friedman was conscripted into the Israeli Defense Forces at 20, along with 19 other young recruits, and sent to a border outpost in Lebanon called Pumpkin Hill, which he describes as “a forgotten little corner of a forgotten little war.” Israeli casualties of Hezbollah guerilla attacks were code-named “flowers,” hence the title of his new book, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story (Algonquin Books, 2016).

Friedman provides us not only a superb memoir of his experiences in a battle zone, but also an insightful history of Israel’s wars in Lebanon from 1982 through 2006, which, he writes, “reverberated with quiet force in our lives…Anyone looking for the origins of the Middle East conflict today would do well to look closely at these events.”

Countries in the West, he points out, have not yet figured out how to win the kind of war in which he fought, one in which a modern, technologically superior army – with little public support at home – finds itself bogged down inside a failed state, fighting a highly motivated enemy that is willing to keep fighting for as long as it takes.

When Friedman arrived on Pumpkin Hill in the late 1990s, the ghosts of those who died at the isolated outpost were constant companions to him and his comrades. In the book’s first section, he recounts the experiences of an earlier unit that had served at the site. He focuses on Avi Ofner, a soldier whose outward disdain for the “system” masked a sensitive soul striving to maintain his innocence while engaging in vicious combat.  

From Ofner’s letters and interviews with his platoon mates and family, we sense that he was destined to become a successful novelist or poet. Tragically, that was not to be. He died in a helicopter accident along with 73 soldiers as they were leaving the Pumpkin for home. Friedman writes, “When I think of my country, I’m thinking of them.”

That tragedy turned out to be a turning point in a war that most Israelis had, until then, accepted as just. A group called the Four Mothers – one of whom was Avi’s mother – set up camp outside the Israeli president’s residence, demanding full withdrawal from Lebanon.

The strength of Friedman’s memoir is the extent to which his narrative does not follow the pattern of official military histories, which tend to be linear and clear. His telling strikes us as disorienting and ambiguous, more true to how soldiers experience of war.

We learn of the waiting, watching, and boredom at the Pumpkin, as well as the adrenaline rush and confusion when the boredom is interrupted by spectacular violence streaking out of the sky.

We learn that war often means mistakes, like the time Friedman goes on a night mission to search for three enemy fighters spotted by the Israeli sentries. In pursuit, he is almost killed by a crude I.E.D device; miraculously, he survives. At daybreak, Friedman discovers that what the sentries actually saw were wild boars, “their hoof prints mocking all of them in the sunlight.”

The author conveys, as few outsiders have been able to do, the centrality of the military to Israeli identity – as much a rite of passage before adulthood as a matter of national service. A weekend leave from the base was for, these young soldiers, he writes, a time when “your father hugged you and your mother cooked you dinner, and the washing machine whirled as you fell asleep in the room where you grew up.” And then, the next morning, it was back to the war, back to the fellow soldiers that would become an inextricable part of Friedman’s life. 

The months Friedman spent at the Pumpkin are “still speaking to me years later,” he writes. Feeling the need for closure, in 2002 (traveling as a tourist on his Canadian passport), Friedman returned to the hilltop fortress. Gazing at the remains of his former outpost, demolished by the withdrawing Israelis, Friedman came to a realization: “For a time this hill was worth our lives, but even the enemy seemed to know that now it as worth nothing at all,” he writes. “That seems to be a universal lesson for a soldier.”

Visited as a tourist, he found the Lebanese he met to be kind and generous, inviting him to picnics and into their homes. At the same time, they spoke constantly of their hatred of Israelis and Jews: “If I harbored an idea that in Lebanon I might meet some who were prepared to join me in a Middle Eastern version of the ‘Christmas Truce’ [when during World War I German and English soldiers came out of their trenches to exchange seasonal greetings],” he writes, “it was not to be.”

Raw and beautifully told, Pumpkinflowers will surely become a classic, not only because it is about a war that profoundly affected the psyche of Israelis, but also because of its unflinching look at the unrelenting forces, psychologically and politically, that continue to defy the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of turning swords into plowshares.