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Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story of a Forgotten War

Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story of a Forgotten War

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Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story of a Forgotten War

4/5 (78 valutazioni)
266 pagine
4 ore
May 3, 2016


“A book about young men transformed by war, written by a veteran whose dazzling literary gifts gripped my attention from the first page to the last.”The Wall Street Journal

“Friedman’s sober and striking new memoir . . . [is] on a par with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried -- its Israeli analog.”The New York Times Book Review

It was just one small hilltop in a small, unnamed war in the late 1990s, but it would send out ripples that are still felt worldwide today. The hill, in Lebanon, was called the Pumpkin; flowers was the military code word for “casualties.” Award-winning writer Matti Friedman re-creates the harrowing experience of a band of young Israeli soldiers charged with holding this remote outpost, a task that would change them forever, wound the country in ways large and small, and foreshadow the unwinnable conflicts the United States would soon confront in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Pumpkinflowers is a reckoning by one of those young soldiers now grown into a remarkable writer. Part memoir, part reportage, part history, Friedman’s powerful narrative captures the birth of today’s chaotic Middle East and the rise of a twenty-first-century type of war in which there is never a clear victor and media images can be as important as the battle itself.

Raw and beautifully rendered, Pumpkinflowers will take its place among classic war narratives by George Orwell, Philip Caputo, and Tim O’Brien. It is an unflinching look at the way we conduct war today.
May 3, 2016

Informazioni sull'autore

Matti Friedman’s 2016 book Pumpkinflowers was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book and as one of Amazon’s 10 Best Books of the Year. It was selected as one of the year’s best by Booklist, Mother Jones, Foreign Affairs, the National Post, and the Globe and Mail. His first book, The Aleppo Codex, won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize and the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal. A contributor to the New York Times’ opinion page, Friedman has reported from Israel, Lebanon, Morocco, Moscow, the Caucasus, and Washington, DC, and his writing has appeared in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post. Friedman grew up in Toronto and now lives with his family in Jerusalem. 

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A map of the Pumpkin distributed to soldiers (1998)

NIGHTS ON THE hill were unusually long. They were inhabited by shadows flitting among boulders, by bushes that assumed human form, by viscous mists that crept in and thickened until all the sentries were blind. Sometimes you took over one of the guard posts, checked your watch an hour later, and found that five minutes had passed.

The enemy specialized in the roadside bomb artfully concealed, in the short barrage, in the rocket threaded through the slit of a guard post. We specialized in waiting. An honest history of this time would consist of several thousand pages of daydreams and disjointed thoughts born of exhaustion and boredom, disrupted only every hundred pages or so by a quick tragedy, and then more waiting.

At night four sentries waited in four guard posts that were never empty. Four crewmen waited in a tank, searching the approaches to the fort. Ambush teams conversed in whispers and passed cookies around in the undergrowth outside, waiting for guerrillas. A pair of soldiers drank coffee from plastic cups in a room of radio sets, waiting for transmissions to come through.

Before the earliest hint of dawn each day someone went around rousing all of those who weren’t awake already. Groggy creatures dropped from triple-decker bunks, struggled into their gear, and snapped helmet straps under chins. Now everyone was supposed to be ready. Lebanon was dark at first, but soon the sky began to pale through the camouflage net. Sometimes first light would reveal that the river valley had filled with clouds, and then the Pumpkin felt like an island fortress in a sea of mist—like the only place in the world, or like a place not of this world at all. There was a mood of purposefulness at that hour, an intensity of connection among us, a kind of inaudible hum that I now understand was the possibility of death; it was exciting, and part of my brain misses it though other parts know better.

This ritual, the opening act of every day, might have been called Morning Alert or some other forgettable military term, with any unnecessary syllable excised. It might have been shortened, as so much of our language was, to an acronym. But for some reason it was never called anything but Readiness with Dawn. The phrase is as strange in the original Hebrew as in the English. This was, in our grim surroundings, a reminder that things need not be merely utilitarian. It was an example of the poetry that you can find even in an army, if you’re looking.

The hour of Readiness with Dawn was intended as an antidote to the inevitable relaxing of our senses, a way of whetting the garrison’s dulled attention as the day began. It was said this was the guerrillas’ preferred time to storm the outpost, but they didn’t do that when I was there. I remember standing in the trench as the curtain rose on our surroundings, trying to remember that out there, invisible, was the enemy, but finding my thoughts wandering instead to the landscape materializing at that moment beyond the coils of wire: cliffs and grassy slopes, villages balanced on the sides of mountains, a river flowing beneath us toward the Mediterranean. Things were so quiet that I believe I could hear the hill talking to me. I’m not sure I could understand then what it was saying. But now I believe it was What are you doing here? And also Why don’t you go home?

That hill is still speaking to me years later. Its voice, to my surprise, has not diminished with the passage of time but has grown louder and more distinct.

This book is about the lives of young people who finished high school and then found themselves in a war—in a forgotten little corner of a forgotten little war, but one that has nonetheless reverberated in our lives and in the life of our country and the world since it ended one night in the first spring of the new century. Anyone looking for the origins of the Middle East of today would do well to look closely at these events.

Part 1 is about a series of incidents beginning in 1994 at the Israeli army outpost we called the Pumpkin, seen through the eyes of a soldier, Avi, who was there before me. Part 2 introduces two civilians, mothers, who helped bring about the unraveling of the military’s strategy. Part 3 describes my own time on the hill, and the experiences of several of my friends in the outpost’s last days. The final part recounts my return to Lebanon after these events had ended, in an attempt to understand them better.

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.

Part One


AT AN ENCAMPMENT imposed upon the sand near an empty highway, teenagers lined up in a yard. There were perhaps three hundred of them, and in their floppy sunhats they looked like comical green mushrooms sprouting in rows from the tarmac. The conventions of military writing seem to require that they be described from now on as men. But this would hardly have applied a few days earlier.

Someone read from a list, and two dozen strangers whose names were called became a platoon of engineers. This, at least, was how one of the military clerks might have explained what had just happened. What had in fact been determined was the course—and, in a few cases, the duration—of their lives. What led them here? The shuffling of forms in distant offices, the nature of their upbringing and youthful motivations, the astonishing progression of their people’s history in the century approaching its end. It didn’t matter now. Some would break and vanish in the coming months, but the rest—from now on their fates were welded to one another and to the hilltop at the center of this story. It was early in the spring of 1994. Do you have to, do you have to, do you have to let it linger . . . You remember.

Avi was another figure in a row: shorter than most, more solid than most, a combative black-eyed flash suggesting he was less obedient than most. What was he doing among the others? He disliked authority and it was mutual, the nature of their relationship traceable to an incident a decade earlier. He and his classmates were to give a little bow during a visit by the president of Israel, Avi refused, his parents were summoned, and he said, I will not bow down. Perhaps he had been paying overly close attention to a book; the incident sounds like it may have been inspired by the character of Mordechai from the book of Esther. He was six or seven at the time.

This sort of thing recurred in subsequent years. He was supposed to be studying in the months leading up to the date of his draft, but one day when he should have been in class his parents found him instead sitting outside with a cigarette in one hand and, in the other, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He became an individual early. Long before he turned eighteen and was summoned to his three years of military service, he had developed the habit of standing to one side and watching everyone, including himself. Much later some of Avi’s friends were able to see what happened to them in those years in the army from a distance, and they grasped their own place in the confusing sweep of events, but none had that ability at the time. Avi did. It didn’t make things easier for him.

I didn’t know Avi then and might not have liked him if I had. I felt fortunate to discover him now—not only because he experienced many of the incidents that will concern us here, and not only because he is a good example of the kind of person changed or ground up by war, but because I have met enough people by now to know you don’t find someone like him often.

Avi was suspicious of institutions like the military, and his experiences would confirm that these suspicions were justified. He had already decided that he scorned hierarchies and official ideology. He once announced that he was going to move to Ireland one day, and it wasn’t clear if he was joking. But he wasn’t a shirker. So he stood in a yard that day in unfamiliar clothes, surrounded by unfamiliar faces, and heard his name called.


OBSERVING AVI AND the other recruits two decades later, you can see they were on the cusp of something. They were eyeing adulthood and wondering what it would mean, just as now they do the same with middle age, those who are still here. But it wasn’t just that. They wrote letters, as we’ll see. They had no electronic communication devices. Their world seems so quiet. The army was still very much the old army with old ideas about war, but the war for which Avi was bound was different and augured others to come. The world that day at the desert base was, in other words, the past. For the men selected along with Avi, and for many others, what marks the line between the past and the present, between youth and everything that has happened since, is the hill in Lebanon that we called the Pumpkin.

From the first moment everything was pulling them away from the deserts of Israel’s south to the country’s northern edge, toward the border with Lebanon and then across. The desert plays here only the role usually allotted it in the ancient stories about this country—an in-between land, a space for preparation.


THE ARMY REPLACED the trappings of Avi’s former life—jeans, books, sandals, T-shirts with the neck cut off in the Israeli style of those years—with new objects. These included a rifle; boots of stiff red leather; fatigues distributed in unpredictable sizes by harried quartermasters; crates of sharp, glinting golden baubles that were heaped like pirate doubloons but were 5.56 mm bullets. His parents were replaced by sergeants and officers.

The commanders at the desert base had to teach these kids to obey orders, fire their rifles, walk long distances with heavy packs, and then, at the point of collapse, to run. They needed to replace opinions with instincts and demonstrate that physical limits are a matter of will. When the kids failed they needed to be punished by the imposition of a distance to sprint in an impossibly short time and then, having failed to achieve that, made to sprint again and again, not until they succeeded—they could not—but until the grins of the cockier ones slackened and the weaker ones began to sniffle. Medics needed to learn to apply a tourniquet and get an intravenous needle in someone’s arm in the dark, machine gunners to clear a jammed weapon. Radiomen needed to learn the language spoken on the Israeli military frequencies: bullets are candies, food is hot and tasty, soldiers are matches. The fresh eyes of the recruits needed to be dulled into a haggard stare. Their faces needed to lose the softness of childhood and assume, via some alchemy of sunburn, sweat, and responsibility, the definition of adults.

Avi and the others belonged to an infantry brigade with a lovely relic of a name: the Fighting Pioneer Youth. This was not an outfit with any particular reputation for valor in battle. It was famous largely for having a first-rate entertainment troupe in the 1960s, when the army was still investing in song-and-dance routines and comedy sketches. By the time Avi arrived the Fighting Pioneer Youth Entertainment Troupe was a thing of the past, but its hits were classics, and its enduring fame had the effect of making the brigade of that name seem less serious than others.

The Fighting Pioneer Youth tended to be youth who understood that combat service was necessary but were by no means pioneers or enamored with the idea of fighting. The brigade had no warlike slogans or symbols; for an infantry unit, it was unusually humane. The idea was not death before dishonor, no surrender, or anything like that but rather let’s get through this.

Avi got used to sleeping on a cot with other soldiers inches from him on either side, his rifle underneath his head, the thin green mattress keeping his cheek from the cold metal of the gun. The recruits were soon too tired to notice the discomfort, or to dream.


"A. REACHED BASIC training young, healthy, and innocent." This is Avi, writing of himself in the third person.

When the sergeant said to do things on time he did, and when the commander ordered everyone to give him 50 push-ups A. was the one who set the pace.

But the danger of innocence is that it gets cracked easily by stupidity and cruelty. And so not much time had passed before A. started thinking that perhaps it was not right that he was the only one who was not late, or that he was the only one who cared when the sergeant threw him a good word. His concern grew when he heard the other members of the platoon saying that the regular punishments of running back and forth were not even punishments for something they had done wrong! They were, instead, a plot by the sergeants—that is, the system—directed against them! A. began thinking about this until he could no longer sleep during the short nights allotted to them. He thought so much that he began to move slowly in the morning himself, and to run slowly when they were punished. Because all of his faculties were devoted to the problem, he did not notice anything else, and quickly became the slowest and deafest of soldiers. Because one of the commanders would speak to him on occasion and interrupt his thoughts, A. suddenly understood that what they wanted to do was prevent him from thinking. He understood that they were his real enemies! They were the enemies of thought and creativity who wanted to enslave him and turn him into a creature incapable of thought, and willing to obey them.

This thought scared him so badly that he began resisting in any way he could. He started to think and do things his own way. If they gave him a mission, like setting the tables in the dining hall, he would put the cutlery backwards! Or miss on purpose at the firing range!! Now he was a rebel!!! And thus A. fought the system, and to the best of our knowledge he might still be doing so today, somewhere in the time and space of the army . . .

Avi was a difficult recruit. He was also a writer—not a great one yet, but on his way.


A FEW MONTHS passed in the desert.

Avi and his comrades camped in a cluster of pup tents several miles from the base. By this time they had been assigned roles and gear, and Avi had a black tube attached to the bottom of his rifle that fired fist-sized grenades in shiny yellows and greens. The rifle was too long for his body, and he resented its weight. Their faces were sunburned, the skin of their knuckles cracked and chafed, their knees gashed by the vicious little stones that cover the training grounds in that part of the Negev. Their fatigues showed black smears of gun grease and white circles left behind by dried sweat. A minute’s walk away from camp took them to the toilet paper scraps and sun-dried shit of their improvised latrine.

They were now accustomed to suffering. 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. You find yourself in the company of your friends not marching proudly or even sprinting bravely, as you might have thought, but rather, in Wilfred Owen’s words, bent double, like old beggars under sacks. To be an infantryman is to experience a kind of poverty. This is one of the things that make it worthwhile, but only in retrospect.

The specialized companies of the Fighting Pioneer Youth attract an unusual crowd, one more intellectual than the average infantry draft, but this was an unusual platoon even by those standards. Take Matan, one of Avi’s new friends: Matan had found little to stimulate his mind on his kibbutz and claimed not to have read a book of his own volition since Where Is Pluto?, a picture book about a dog who goes for a walk and falls into a pond. But now he discovered that among his comrades were people who thought and read and were still doing so, somehow, under the oppressive conditions of basic training. When his tent mate, Amos, brought a book of philosophical meditations called In the Footsteps of Thoughts he and Matan actually read it and then talked about it for weeks, lying

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  • (4/5)
    Subtitle: A Soldier's Story of a Forgotten War"Sometimes you took over one of the guard posts, checked your watch an hour later, and found that five minutes had passed."Pumpkin is the code name for a forward Israeli base in southern Lebanon at which the author served during his time in the Israeli military after he left high school in the 1990's. It is his story, and also the story of the other young soldiers with whom he served. In Part I, we follow a series of events that happened at Pumpkin before Matti's time there, through the eyes of Avi, a young soldier serving there in 1994. Part 2 focuses on the Israeli mothers who helped bring about the unraveling of the military's strategy to occupy southern Lebanon. In Part 3, we follow Matti's experiences as a soldier at Pumpkin during the outpost's last days. And in Part 4, Matti, using his dual Canadian citizenship, returns to Lebanon many years later, including to the area around Pumpkin, to try to make sense of what happened.This book is part history, part memoir. The Israeli army's strategy was to set up "security" zones in southern Lebanon to protect Israel. In reality, the security zones seemed to be killing more people than they were saving. A group of Israeli mothers believing they were sending their sons to die in Lebanon for no reason began a movement which led to the Four Mothers' Petition, ultimately leading to Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon.Matti writes, "The army gave the outposts pretty names like Basil, Crocus, Cypress and Red Pepper. This reflects a floral preoccupation in our military which in naming things generally avoids names like Hellfire or Apache...." Other euphemisms the army used in its communications were words like "flower," meaning wounded, or "oleander," meaning dead. Hence the book's title, Pumpkinflowers.
  • (3/5)
    Ostensibly this is a memoir of a Jewish man born in Canada and now living in Israel, who served in the Israeli-occupied portion of Lebanon in the last few years of the 20th century. Early in the narrative, without being blatant about it, the author displays a great deal of the ineptitude of conducting any war. Heller's Catch-22 comes to mind at times, but for real, not in some fictional satirical way. Eventually, the narrative switches from his reporting about other Israeli soldiers stationed in Southern Lebanon to his own deployments in the same area. The military absurdities become less the focus and turn more to the mindsets of the soldiers under fire, which I would compare to Sebastian Junger's War in Afghanistan. Up to this point, he had me impressed with his insights, which were definitely not all in the mainstream media (or biased political) information flow. However, he ends the book with a rather surreptitious reentry to the very same area of previously occupied Lebanon, but now as a "Canadian tourist" in a very anti-Israeli area -- the very same area in which he had served as an Israeli soldier. This does provide a few previously unanswered questions about "them" for an Israeli "us" soldier, but it is too brief, too emotion-laden (especially for the rather laid-back writer,) and too unnecessary in my view because it is too superficial. This book promised more than it ultimately delivered. And for those looking beyond, as much as this writer tries for and probably wants some real peace between Israeli Jews and the surrounding Arab Muslim populations, this book gives no hint of that ever happening. I would say that's because nobody wants to or is capable of putting the right kind of effort into having it become true, and I strongly suspect the author agrees with me.
  • (4/5)
    When I selected this book from the early review list, the title through me off and was not sure what to expect, now it all makes sense. The subject matter intrigued me as I was interested to hear about this conflict from the point of view of an actual participant. Although the history lesson was unexpected I did find it informative and it flowed well with the story. One cannot help but relate the perspective of individuals at the front and those of a nation as a whole and how they seem to resonate with those of recent armed conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
  • (3/5)
    This book was a bit unexpected. I did not know what I was going to be getting into. The main character outlines what happens at a military fort and how it changes his life and those of others but still is seemingly insignificant upon his return as a tourist. I would recommend to those interested in the military, but it was a little too confusing to me.
  • (5/5)
    Raw and at times difficult to process due to it's graphic nature. The truth Friedman brings forth, while illuminating, lays bare the reality and futility of war creating images that do not fade.
  • (4/5)
    Like many of my fellow Americans, among other Westerners, I am disproportionately fascinated by the Middle East. Like even more of the world's people living today or at any time, I am troubled by man's seemingly bottomless appetite for war. I am most struck, personally and presently, by how it reflects not only our robust capacity to be inhumane to one another but our dazzlingly stubborn stupidity as a species when it comes to rational planning and problem solving. So, this book compelled my interest for the same general reasons I expect it will interest a great many readers. In Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story, Matti Friendman tells the story of his experience as a soldier serving in Israel's military during that country's occupation of the southern part of Lebanon, the country on its northern border, in order to protect against threats from militant parties indigenous to and operating within that area (i.e. not the state of Lebanon itself or its army).I was tempted to put the book down as I read the first few pages. The book opens with a narration of the author's experience during active service of keeping watch at dawn over a fort in Lebanon (really a hilltop) his unit was occupying. The description of waiting for a possible attack was full of language signifying a total lack of empathy with the people of Southern Lebanon in general -- not just the enemy living among them. This makes sense given the inability of knowing potential attackers from innocent locals until any given person(s) took up arms or engaged an attack on the Israeli post. Still, I have/had no empathy for the lack of empathy I saw all over Friedman's prose from the very beginning. Luckily, Friedman shows the reader more of his hand, so to speak, at this early juncture. As a soldier at such times, waiting for possible attack, he sometimes imagined the hill the soldiers occupied was trying to send him a message that he could not decipher. As the narrator recollecting the experience after the passage of many years, he proposes an educated guess. He posits that the hill, baffled by the inexplicable presence of Friedman and his comrades, was suggesting he just go home. At this point, the value of the dehumanizing language used earlier by Friedman can be seen. It serves to invest this conclusion with its proper weight, striking an effective contrast between the insight of the man today and the fears of the relatively ignorant soldier in the situation at the time. This is an apt beginning to a story that shed lights on why such troops should perhaps "just go home" and how hard and fraught that long, meandering return trip can actually be -- politically, militarily, and of course, for each soldier psychologically. After reading the book, I can recommend it without hesitation as a worthwhile experience for any reader seeking to learn about the particular follies of this war or wars in general -- and how the absurdity of war has been experienced and survived emotionally/intellectually/spiritually by one brave survivor of military service in such a conflict. I think it would well serve any American reader not already well-informed about combat experiences in modern conflicts staged in Middle Eastern territories. It is also valuable as an account of Israel's foreign policy gone horribly wrong told from a sympathetic and directly knowledgeable (insider) point of view; the country's extremely controversial occupations and bombings of the country of Lebanon are too little noted in any discourse on the history of Israel's employment of its military defenses in the region, IMHO -- at least in US sources.Commendably, this thoughtful book raises critical questions that are too complex and difficult to be answered within its pages. I credit the author's wisdom and bravery in acknowledging the limitations of his own knowledge and experience; it is an approach well worthy of emulation in writing about such issues, and it bears very rich literary fruit in this case.Note: I marked the book down a tiny bit in my star rating because the author derived his insight from his experience as a soldier -- who, moreover, undertook his (at least potentially violent) duty in relative ignorance of its scope and outcome. There is and can be just as much wisdom in writing by non-combatants on the subject of war, but I grant that they would not and could not be the same ideas. We need to learn directly from former soldiers in learning about conflict generally.Please be advised I received a free copy of this book in exchange for publishing an honest review online upon completion via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Thanks for reading my thoughts; I hope they can be of some use in evaluating this prospective read.
  • (5/5)
    THE SUBJECT:"Readiness with Dawn." "Let's Get Through This." These are but some of the quotes that frame Friedman's four-part account of the Israeli-Lebanese Conflict. Act One relates the story of Avi, a soldier serving at a remote Israeli outpost christened the Pumpkin. The second act narrates the efforts of the mothers of war and their fight to bring the bloody conflict to an end, with Acts Three and Four culminating in the personal memories of the author and his friends during and after their time at the Pumpkin.THE SCRIBE:Author of the award-winning The Aleppo Codex, Matti Friedman is a correspondent for the Associated press, whose writings have appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. In his former life Friedman served in the Israeli Army, and this is his story--the story of the modern soldier.THE STYLE:Friedman infuses his story with the learned and earned truths he found at the Pumpkin and marries this knowledge to the truths soldiers everywhere have learned from war: "During the last weeks of training the members of Avi's platoon discovered a common language and each found his own place in their tiny social world. This sometimes happens in a small unit, if you're lucky. Friendship in a platoon is created under great pressure and is difficult to explain to those who have not experienced it themselves; armies plan it this way, knowing the strength of this bond is what will keep men together and functioning in the lawless netherworld of war and, when the time comes, cause them to commit the unreasonable act of following each other not away from enemy fire but into it.THE SUBSTANCE:Pumpkinflowers is showered with an abundance of vignettes that personalize this story better than most memoirs: "If something happened on the hill, he would use the single phone line at the outpost to call home. He would say only, 'Everything's okay.' That would mean that everything is not okay but [he] was, and the family would know he was alive by the time anything was reported on the radio a few hours later. In those years the radio announcers in Israel would report 'heavy exchanges of fire' in Lebanon, and that was a code--it meant soldiers were dead but this couldn't be reported yet because their families hadn't been informed. Everyone understood, and if you had a son in Lebanon you had a few difficult hours before things became clear, after which either things went back to normal or life as you knew it ended."THE SPECIFICS:"When I went back to the Pumpkin in the fall of 2002 I thought it was a conclusion--an end to that war, and to the disquiet it left me and the others it touched. But I sensed then, and know now, that I was wrong. It wasn't a conclusion. On the hill we had been at the start of something: of a new era in which conflict surges, shifts, or fades but doesn't end, in which the most you can hope for is not peace, or the arrival of a better age, but only to remain safe as long as possible."THE SCOOP:This first-hand account relates the stories and memories of soldiers and society in a modern military conflict by an expert hand. Friedman, with pithy statements and poignant strokes, elegantly captures the changing yet changeless experiences of war.
  • (5/5)
    Matti Friedman's PUMPKINFLOWERS is perhaps the best war memoir I've read this year, about his role in a "little war" I'd never even heard of. Friedman, Toronto-born, emigrated back to his parents' native Israel after high school, where, like all Israeli youths of a certain age, he was drafted into the IDF in 1996. And like many of his male peers, he was sent "up the line" to serve in a small border post along the border with Lebanon, where the two countries had been engaged in a sporadic shooting and shelling war since the early 80s. The outpost was code-named Pumpkin. Wounded soldiers were 'flowers.' Dead soldiers were 'oleanders.' Hence the title.Although most of us here in the west were largely oblivious to that conflict between the IDF and Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, Friedman shows us, one brief, terse chapter at a time, how 'his' war was actually the beginning of the hit-and-run terrorist wars of today, waged by Al Qaeda, ISIS, or whatever you wish to call that shadowy enemy that continues to spread terror with sneak attacks not only in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey, but also in Europe and even in the U.S. Because Hezbollah was already using IED's and roadside bombs, and, by the end of the 90s, even suicide bombers began showing up in the marketplaces of larger Israeli cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Through extensive research and interviews, Friedman traces the history of the Pumpkin and the young men who served at the remote post over a period of more than fifteen years, many of them maimed, mutilated and killed. He begins with the story of a young would-be writer named Avi, a dreamer and an idealist who recognized early that the army has "no room for innocence ... For him the army was, more than anything else, an intensive course on human nature.""The habit of living - that is, adulthood - this is what Avi was figuring out during those nights at the edge of the world."Indeed. Because, as Friedman tells the various human stories that the Pumpkin witnessed over those years, you learn that most of the soldiers who served there were very young, in their teens and early twenties. And some of them never got any older. As Friedman explains - "What happens is that you're a high-school student and the child of your parents, and then you're a member of a unit in the army, and these aren't identities you choose."Which is certainly true in Israel, where a universal draft of all young people is a fact of life, unlike here in the U.S. But the intensity of friendships forged in the army are like no other you will ever have, as Friedman explains -"Sometimes, after spending weeks together in the forced intimacy of the outpost during that first tour, we went home on leave, and only a day or two later arranged to meet of our own volition on the beach at Tel Aviv. No one understood but us, so we needed to be together. In this country if you identify someone as a friend from the army, it is recognized as something different than saying friend. It's a different category." Amen, brother. And, looking back, over a period of nearly twenty years, Friedman ruefully remembers too how innocent and ignorant he was of so many things -"It's hard to recall how little you once knew, and harder to admit it." Friedman makes it clear that much of Israeli society paid little heed to this continuing little war along its northern border, much like Americans today go on shopping and having fun while our own military redeploys repeatedly to faraway hot spots. It was a war that went on and on, with no named operations, no medals or ribbons. It took a small group of bereaved mothers protesting the war to cause the IDF to finally withdraw from those northern outposts and shut them down. Unfortunately, Hezbollah and their successor groups took this as a victory, and now we have... Well, look at today's world and its ongoing "war on terror." That's what we have.There's an interesting point, however, that Friedman makes about how the Israeli people choose to deal with the continued attacks and bombings -"People in Israel didn't despair, as our enemies hoped. Instead they stopped paying attention. What would we gain from looking to our neighbors? Only heartbreak and a slow descent after them into the pit. No, we would turn our back on them and look elsewhere, to the film festivals of Berlin and the Copenhagen or the tech parks of California. Our happiness would no longer depend on the moods of people who wish us ill."Matti Friedman's story has a bittersweet quality to it, a coming-of-age tale leavened equally with sorrow and humor. PUMPKINFLOWERS is a book that will often cause you to pause and reflect. The last veteran's memoir that moved me this deeply was Benjamin Busch's DUST TO DUST. Both books reflect on childhood, youth and pivotal, sometimes horrific, events that forever change how you view the world. Matti Friedman's all-but-forgotten little war mattered. Veterans will get that. I hope some others will too. My highest recommendation. - Tim Bazzett, author of the Cold War memoir, SOLDIER BOY: AT PLAY IN THE ASA
  • (5/5)
    This is a truly eye opening piece of work. Much of the information is presented as a story, but there is very real historical value here as well. It was very surprising to read about the similarities and differences that can be found in the military structure as well as in how government interacts with the military. The writing style can be somewhat difficult as the author follows numerous people while also chronicling a first person view. Overall it was a good, informative read that would be recommended to military historians, social sciences, historians, and those interested in learning more about our cousins overseas.Thank you LT for another great read!
  • (3/5)
    Pumpkin Flowers is a unique soldiers story featuring an Israeli army unit tasked to occupy hill in southern Lebanon as part of a line of encampments meant to defend Israel against Hezbollah attacks. The author served in this unit as part of his mandatory military service. Its a story of his conscription, right after his high school graduation, training, and his army experiences. The latter part of the book details his journey back to Lebanon under his Canadian passport, describing his journey and perspectives from the Lebanese point of view. This book is a honest tale of the futility of war, intermingled with politics, religion, and the brotherhood discovered in a combat unit.
  • (4/5)
    Part memoir and part history lesson, Pumpkinflowers tells the story of a hill in southern Lebanon and the soldiers who were stationed there. After reading Part One, I had to put the book down for a while. I was overcome with grief. The book goes on to chronicle the author's time at Pumpkin Hill and his subsequent journey to make sense of war and the way it has changed. I learned a lot about the conflict between Israel and Lebanon in the 1990s . During that decade I was raising my family in the US. The events in Lebanon would make the evening news, but I had no idea of what was really going on or why. Thank you Matti Friedman for sharing your story and shedding some light in a way that I could understand.
  • (5/5)
    I'm thrilled that I won this as an Early Review Copy through LibraryThings. I loved the narrative of this so much. It was really well written. I liked reading about what his life was like in the service, and then when he returned to Lebanon. The title of this book was also interesting. You'll find out what I'm talking when you read it yourself. Overall, I thought this was a great read, and I actually recommended it to several people.
  • (4/5)
    I finished reading Pumpkin Flowers about warfare between Isreal and Palestine in the 80s and 90s. The first section follows a soldier before the author's time, sort of a troop biography. Then it switches to history, the Four Mothers Movement that lead to... not peace... but a ceasing of activity in the de-militarized zone. Then it turns to a memoir about the author's time in the action - hard to call it a war but it certainly wasn't peace. Not a cold war, but a room temperature war? Then he sneaks into Palestine to see warfare from the other perspective, using his Canadian birth as a alter identity. This section is what makes this book stand out among war memoirs. Ultimately, the book leaves you with a muddled, hopeless and incredibly sad feeling.
  • (5/5)
    This was a challenge for me, what with the graphic descriptions of the toll that war and conflict take on people and communities. It is indeed an "unflinching look at" war. But, this history and memoir is a beautifully written account by an Israeli soldier stationed in Lebanon a few miles from the border of Israel during a conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in the late 1990s. The reader is taken into the outpost and experiences sheer terror, compassion, loyalty to country and cause along with the young soldiers. The writer takes us through the questioning of the purpose of this conflict and describes a movement of mothers of soldiers protesting and demanding an end to the conflict, a scenario that is played over and again across time. The writer's look-back in the form of a visit to the site years later offers insight and commentary with a journalist's eye. I will read more by the journalist and author.
  • (5/5)
    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.
  • (4/5)
    This memoir was at first told simply as one man's story of his time in the Israeli army as a defender of a small hill in Lebanon called the "pumpkin". Slowly the narrator reveals the true significance of this small piece of land behind enemy lines to himself and his comrades who were under continuous fire, but also to Israel and finally as the beginning of a new kind of war in the Middle East. This is a war where there are no winners or losers but only continuing local skirmishes (IED's, etc) with each side firmly entrenched in their hatred of the "others" and each separate attack leading to more hatred and more revenge. It brought to mind the American"Hatfield and McCoy" feud but in the amplified arena of the Middle East. The writer skillfully weaves the different story lines into a compelling story of hatred and suffering but also of goodness and compassion which occurs on both sides of the conflict.
  • (4/5)
    Despite its constant presence in the news media, much of the conflict in the Middle East remains confusing and misunderstood by many Americans. Matti Friedman's Pumpkinflowers sheds light on one of those stories, that of the conflict between Lebanese Hezbollah forces and Israel. Centering around an Israeli outpost built on a hill called "The Pumpkin," Friedman's book chronicles not only his own experiences, but those of another soldier, Avi, who's diary recounts his own time on the hill. As with the best military memoirs, Friedman strikes a good balance between memoir and analysis, between conflict and the efforts to end that conflict. A good read for anyone interested in current Middle Eastern politics or combat stories.
  • (2/5)
    For a war memoir, this was excellent. One felt for the young man. However, I don't like reading about war, so I didn't find it engrossing.(I received this book from the publisher as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer.
  • (4/5)
    Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Storyby Matti FriedmanAlgonquin Books of Chapel Hill (2016)$25.95 paperback; 243 pagesISBN 978-1616204587This is a book in three parts. First, we have the account of an ordinary soldier who doesn't really want to be there."A. reached basic training young, healthy, and innocent". This is Avi, writing of himself in the third person.When the sergeant said to do things on time he did, and when the commander ordered everyone to give him 50 pushups A. was the one who set the pace.But the danger of innocence is that it gets cracked easily by stupidity and cruelty. And so not much time had passed before A. started thinking that perhaps it was not right that he was the only one who was not late, or that he was the only one who cared when the sergeant threw him a good word. His concern grew when he heard the other members of the platoon saying that the regular punishments of running back and forth were not even punishments for something they had done wrong! They were, instead, a plot by the sergeants—that is, the system—directed against them! A. began thinking about this until he could no longer sleep during the short nights allotted to them. He thought so much that he began to move slowly in the morning himself, and to run slowly when they were punished. Because all of his faculties were devoted to the problem, he did not notice anything else, and quickly became the slowest and deafest of soldiers. Because one of the commanders would speak to him on occasion and interrupt his thoughts, A. suddenly understood that what they wanted to do was prevent him from thinking. He understood that they were his real enemies! They were the enemies of thought and creativity who wanted to enslave him and turn him into a creature incapable of thought, and willing to obey them.This thought scared him so badly that he began resisting in any way he could. He started to think and do things his own way. If they gave him a mission, like setting the tables in the dining hall, he would put the cutlery backwards! Or miss on purpose at the firing range!! Now he was a rebel!!! And thus A. fought the system, and to the best of our knowledge he might still be doing so today, somewhere in the time and space of the army..."Avi Ofner was definitely a square peg in a round hole in the Israeli infantry. Since Israel has compulsory military service, personnel officers still need to find somewhere to put men like Avi. It seems that someone had an idea of what his personality was, because his platoon seemed to be made up of similarly bookish young men:"When his tent mate, Amos, brought a book of philosophical meditations called In the Footsteps of Thoughts he and Matan actually read it and then talked about it for weeks, lying sore on the ground after days of exhaustion, breathing in the smell of their own unwashed bodies, of earth, and of dusty canvas....Today, Matan is a physicist. Amos is a psychiatrist and lives in Paris."For all of his adolescent rebellion, Avi also refused to take a desk job when a physical turned up a spinal cord defect a couple of years into his enlistment. He preferred serving at the Pumpkin, a hilltop fort in southern Lebanon near Beaufort Castle. Avi and his mates in the Pioneer Fighting Youth were stationed in a series of such forts in the South Lebanon Security Zone.That stubborn devotion got Avi killed in an unfortunate helicopter accident in 1997, when he was being flown back to his post in Lebanon in a desperate attempt to avoid bombs on the roads. After that, the soldiers went back to the roads, in a desperate attempt to avoid more helicopter crashes. I think Friedman is right that this crash was the beginning of the end for Israel's long-running low-grade war in Southern Lebanon, which had been going on for almost twenty years at this point.My second part is Friedman's firsthand recollections of his time at the Pumpkin. Friedman's parents had emigrated from Canada, and now Friedman's compulsory service was due shortly after the crash that killed Avi. This would make Friedman a couple of years older than me, if he was 19 in 1997. Were I Jewish, and had my family immigrated to Israel, I easily could have found myself in the exact same place that he did.That place turned out to be the Pumpkin, with that unusual combination of boredom and terror that garrison duty provides. Friedman's prose changes in this section, becoming simpler and more direct. The first part of the book was based on Avi's writing and interviews with people who knew him, whereas the second part is largely Friedman's direct recollection.Interleaved with Friedman's account is a short history of the Four Mothers movement, which arose in response to the helicopter crash that killed Avi. The crash killed 73 soldiers, which to put into perspective for me, would be the equivalent of 3400 dead Americans, based on the relative population sizes of our two countries at the time. That is almost as many American soldiers who died in the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq. Except all at once.Thus it isn't surprising that the Four Mothers movement successfully campaigned to get Israel to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000. From Avi's and Friedman's accounts, the whole hilltop fortress thing never seemed to have been terribly well thought out. Rather, it was blundered into, and since militaries tend to be extremely conservative, the Israeli army just kept on doing what they had been doing, until something shocking happened and allowed everyone to reassess.The final part of the book is Friedman's post-Pumpkin civilian life, and his bold quest to go see the Pumpkin again. I was struck by the way in which Friedman described the process by which shared suffering can forge lasting bonds among soldiers, and by extension the rest of your nation. Given how small Israel really is, this process is much more intense than it possibly could be in a larger nation like the United States.Using his Canadian passport, Friedman traveled into Lebanon. He saw the country, posing as a tourist to deflect suspicion that he might have once served as an Israeli soldier. Since it hadn't really been that long, Friedman couldn't meet his former enemies openly, the way Hal Moore met Nguyen Huu An.Nonetheless, Friedman still manages to humanize his former [or maybe current] enemies. Which is not to say that he uncritically accepts what they might say about him or his adopted country, but rather he just presents them as they are, which is what he tried to do for himself and Israel. I think he does a reasonably good job.I would have liked more maps though.
  • (5/5)
    Matti Friedman’s book, “Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story”, deserves to join the ranks of the best war memoirs. But though it deserves to join those ranks, I think it will still stand apart, for several reasons.First, and foremost, Mr. Friedman’s book will stand apart because it deals with Israel’s Lebanon War. No, that’s not quite right. The first Lebanon War was in 1982; the second was in 2006. Mr. Friedman’s book deals with the period between those wars when the Israel Defense Forces and Lebanese Christian militias fought Hezbollah and other Lebanese Muslim guerrillas within a security zone established by Israel in South Lebanon. Though that period, which lacks a name and wasn’t technically a war, spanned 15 years, Mr. Friedman’s book covers two periods in the 1990s, one concerning the experiences of a soldier named Avi, and one concerning Mr. Friedman’s own, later, experiences in the same conflict.This period of the conflict was odd in many senses, not the least of which is the fact that there weren’t many real battles as our world thinks of them. The conflict seems to have consisted solely of small skirmishes, with soldiers in sight of their bases, and regular missile attacks on them while at their bases. Which doesn’t mean that the people involved didn’t risk their lives, show bravery, and die for their country; they did, on both sides. A fair number of them, in fact. But it means it was a quieter war than what is considered “normal” for wars. With far fewer deaths, but also with far less certainty as to the purpose and meaning behind those deaths. It was, in many ways, a precursor to the wars that have happened ever since in the Middle East, training for both the good guys and the bad guys in a new modern style of war to which we have all become too quickly accustomed.Mr. Friedman’s book will also stand apart because of his voice. He has a calm and restrained voice, not dispassionate and not uncaring, but unusually thoughtful, even-tempered, and fair. Though he and his friends suffered through the war while in their late teens, he doesn’t seem to hate his war’s enemy. And he realizes that the decision as to who lived and who died on his side often depended as much on what task or which base to which someone was assigned, which truck or helicopter they chose to board, or how they moved, as it did on the actions of the enemy. And he realized that who died on the other side could very easily be a matter of mistaken identity.Mr. Friedman periodically references and quotes the poets of the First World War, and his voice is similar in many ways. If I had to pick one word to summarize Mr. Friedman’s book, I think I’d be hard pressed to decide between “insightful” and “poignant.” It is overall a quiet book, with insightful reflection, and only moments of terror and action. But that seems to be how war is, most of the time: a great deal of time to think, punctuated by terror. It didn’t take me long to read Mr. Friedman’s book, but I suspect it will stay with me a long time.
  • (5/5)
    During the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon in the late 1980s and 1990s, the army gave its outposts botanical names, which led to an otherwise undistinguished hill’s being called “Pumpkin.” In military radio traffic, a dead soldier was an “oleander” and an injured soldier merely a “flower,” species undefined. Pumpkinflowers, then, refers not to a bucolic late-summer farm field, but rather to the soldiers physically and sometimes mentally wounded by service in a hostile land, where their presence became increasingly indefensible. Matti Friedman tells the stories of these young men and their challenges feelingly and at close hand, as he was one of them.Friedman is a journalist born in Canada, who lamented the lack of writing about that occupation and its impact on the young Israeli men who served there, most of them fresh out of high school. So he set about telling their story himself, believing today’s Middle East situation had some of its seeds in this unnamed and largely ignored security zone conflict.Initially, as so often happens in military history, the generals were fighting the last war. They thought the enemy comprised somewhat ragtag Palestinian guerrillas, but before long, the occupiers faced local Shiites, who called themselves the Party of God, Hezbollah. This group was generously funded by Iran and Syria and able to call on a seemingly endless supply of would-be suicide bombers. Hezbollah also soon seized the lead in the propaganda war. That the TV images were the real weapons, that the Hezbollah fighters and Israeli soldiers had been turned into actors in an attack staged for the camera—these weren’t things anyone understood yet. . . . Within a few years elements of the security zone war would, in turn, appear elsewhere and become familiar . . . : Muslim guerrillas operating in a failed and chaotic state; small clashes in which the key actor is not the general but the lieutenant or private; the use of a democracy’s sensitivities, public opinion, and free press as weapons against it. Hezbollah was not interested in a negotiated withdrawal of Israeli troops or achievement of some limited goal: “It is a vision and an approach, not only a military reaction,” one of its leaders has written. Subsequent actions continue to demonstrate this larger view, which suggests limits on a strictly military response. Through discussion of the Four Mothers movement, which supported withdrawal from Lebanon, Friedman explores the political conflict between the leftists of the dwindling kibbutz movement who in the 1990s believed in compromise and thought peace was possible and the rightists who believed peace was a dangerous illusion and who currently dominate Israeli politics. The last section of the book describes Friedman’s return to Lebanon (using his Canadian passport) and his rediscovery of the remains of the Pumpkin, a place as tangible to him today, in its continued importance, as it ever was when he served there.Not a long book at 225 pages, it’s insightful and well written, condensing both human interest and political analysis into the story of a single lost outpost. Author Lucette Lagnado says Friedman’s prose “manages to be lyrical, graceful, and deeply evocative even when tackling the harshest subjects imaginable,” and I certainly found it so.
  • (5/5)
    Pumpkinflowers is a compelling read about the power of ideas, the price of all military actions—justified or not—and how a relentless barrage of small things can lead to the remaking of an entire region. Centered around the defense of one hilltop in Lebanon by Israeli troops in the late 1990s, it is part military history, part memoir. Beautifully written, it is a compassionate and insightful book that is much more than the sum of its parts.
  • (5/5)
    Today, war is not limited to the battlefield. Non-combatants are fair game. There are no clear winners or losers. Conflicts have unclear origins and seem unending. Public opinion plays a major role while military superiority offers few tactical advantages. How did all of this evolve? Obviously the answer to this question is complex. Using a small hilltop bunker in southern Lebanon during a “forgotten” period between two more conventional conflicts, Matti Friedman gives us a glimpse of how the new warfare first appeared in Israel and foreshadowed what has become more commonplace worldwide.Israel’s tactic of establishing security zones in Lebanon designed to protect the homeland from attacks lead instead to less security and a loss of public confidence. Friedman gives voice to this common skepticism. “When they [Hezbollah] wanted to strike Israel they simply fired rockets from deeper in Lebanon, outside the [security] zone…. Were we just protecting ourselves?” Young men were dying, no end was in sight and Hezbollah was becoming more effective with guerilla tactics. At home, most Israelis were becoming “allergic to ideology, thinkers of small practical thoughts, livers of life between bombardments.” The Pumpkin was just one hilltop six miles inside Lebanon manned by young men who were becoming deeply skeptical of their mission. Yet, because they were patriots, they served with courage, often becoming casualties or “flowers” to use the military’s euphemistic code word. Freidman captures the soldier’s experience in his remarkable four-part memoir. He begins before his time on the Pumpkin in the latter part of the 90’s. He uses the diary of Avi Ofner, a young recruit who dies in a tragic helicopter accident to capture the feeling. Avi was intelligent and rebellious, a combination that the military considered to be dangerous to the mission—think Yosarian in Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” or the doctors in the MASH film and TV series. The second part follows the civilian backlash against the security zones that followed the deadly helicopter crash. In part three, Freidman tells of his own experiences on the Pumpkin in 1998. This is the most effective section of the book because it is a first-hand account of the conditions, which were not unlike those that existed in the trenches during WWI. The final section is rare in military memoirs because Freidman recounts his journey to southern Lebanon as a Canadian tourist following the abandonment of the hilltop bunkers by the Israeli army. He learns to appreciate the humanity of his former enemies, but becomes pessimistic about the prospects for peace because of their admiration for Hezbollah and virulent anti-Semitism. One should not be surprised, however, that the abandoned and destroyed Pumpkin had lost its significance. “Atop the western embankment a Hezbollah flag flew at last, but it was just a ragged scrap of fabric that had once been yellow. For a time this hill was worth our lives, but even the enemy seemed to know that now it was worth nothing at all.”
  • (4/5)
    Matti Friedman went from Canada to Israel and his journey in life took him into the military of Israel. Later his path took him and other young men to a hilltop in a very small, unnamed war in the late 1990s. Israel as well as the United States Militaries had lost their ways in defeating their enemies. The hill, in Lebanon, was called the Pumpkin; flowers was the military code word for “casualties.” Author Matti Friedman vividly brings to the reader the frustrating and nerve racking experience of a band of young soldiersas well as our authorwho were charged with holding this remote outpost. This task that changed these and other young men forever and showed the world the conflicts the United States would soon confront in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other hot spots in our world.This powerful story brings to the reader today’s chaotic Middle East and the rise of a newer type of war in which there is never a clear victor especially with older static types of fighting them. Up in your face and mind and wonderfully written Pumpkinflowers will take its place among classic war stories. It is an straightf and in your face look at the way we conduct war today.
  • (4/5)
    This one is a nice, really nice, welcome change of pace from all the Iraq and Afghanistan books that have come out in the last 10/15 years in regards to ... well, to pretty much everything. It is also very different from the big picture stuff that studies the 6 days and Yom Kippur wars.So what is that you can find in this book and not in the aforementioned ones. Well, for starters this is a book narrating events from the 90s, and the author excels at giving plenty of pop culture references to that decade, be ready to revisit, or discover, some Backstreet Boys and The Cranberries songs. The book also explores and reflects on the dynamics of a conscripted army, which to boot has a really young officer corps. So there's plenty of what are the motivations of a conscript, a conscript of a "besieged" country, a conscript that may have been born in Israel or far away, a conscript that may or may not be a Jew.Also this is not memoir, it would be more apt to describe this book as "the tale of a COP" or stretching it as "the tale of the last days of the security zone" (that being the security zone inside Lebanon that the Israeli armed forces used to police). And to tell that tale the author includes his own experiences in the zone as a chapter, but also he has interviewed plenty of other veterans and civilians involved in the story which made up the other chapters.The book scores extra points for being written in a way in which each death comes as, not a surprise but, a shock. There's plenty of war books out there that when recounting the events make pretty clear what is coming and who is going to die, not this one, in this one even when you know that someone is going to die the final moment comes a shock.If you were born in the late 70s or early 80s the constant reflections of the author about how much time has passed since the events narrated will probably resonate with you. Finally, my only complaint is with the English used by the writer as it shows that he is more used to express himself in Hebrew ... but it more than makes up for it with his sense of humor ... "After rotating out of the line and boarding a civilian bus home a girl soldier would sometimes slip in next to me—a clerk or instructor coming from one of the safe bases inside Israel where such olive-drab unicorns roamed free,..."
  • (4/5)
    This book has made the 2016 RBC Taylor Prize shortlist. The Charles Taylor prize honours Canadian literary non-fiction authors. The full title of this book is called "Pumpkinflowers: a Soldier's Story of a Forgotten War". Matti Friedman writes of his personal experience of the often forgotten Israeli-Lebanese War. From the late 70’s until the end of the 20 century, Israel occupied Lebanon. This book tells about Matti Friedman’s first-hand experience of this occupation and his part in defending a small hill in Lebanon called The Pumpkin. Matti Friedman is an Israeli-Canadian journalist who was born in Canada, and then made aliyah (the immigration of Jews from other countries to the Land of Israel). As part of this pilgrimage he was conscripted to serve in the Israeli army when he was a young man of 20. This book is about Matti’s experiences in this war on this hill. Matti delves into the history of the defence of this hill in his story as well. In a way it is a coming-of-age story about a young man who was forced to grow up on this hill in Lebanon called The Pumpkin. You may ask, “Where does the title come from if it is about a war in Lebanon?” Well, on The Pumpkin, casualties were referred to as “flowers” . This is a story of war and its everlasting effects on the people who fight in them. And is a story of the birth of a new era in the Middle East. The world has seen a totally different war in the 21 century. It is a war that is not confined to a field, or a hill or on the sea. It is a war that is fought on the streets and in the schools, churches and government buildings of countries all over the world. In this book we see the rise of the Hezbollah and what that group and others like it have done to change the Middle East. Friedman’s prose is stark and unrelenting. His story about himself and his fellow soldiers on The Pumpkin is one that will not be forgotten by anyone who reads his book.
  • (5/5)
    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.)
  • (5/5)
    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.
  • (4/5)
    It’s difficult to read about war; hard to imagine the fear and uncertainty. Matti Friedman’s account of the late 1990s conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story is heartbreaking as well as compelling. The author is thoughtful, brave, and insightful, and raises complex and poignant questions that the reader will want to ponder for quite some time. I recommend this book for anyone interested in Middle East geopolitics or an unflinching look at the nature and reality of war.
  • (5/5)
    Reading how these young men faced their fears while dealing with often deadly calm interludes was breathtaking. Friedman jots out short chapters that could be letters to home. It’s unimaginable to consider what tedium and terror they encountered, but hearing it from someone that was there makes it all the more heartbreaking. His tranquil demeanor belies the severity of a man who “believed peace was the default and conflict the anomaly.” He takes you step-by-fearful step into this forgotten moment in time with absolutely no self-pity, anger or ptsd. If he can do that, how many others are living and never getting beyond the reach of absolute dread and joy of survival? What a talent!An advanced copy of this book was provided for an honest review.