Vivid portrayal about a war with no glory

by | Apr 22, 2016 | Book Reviews

Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story
Matti Friedman
Algonquin Chapel Hill,
243 pages, $25.95
ISBN 978-1-61620-458-7

The least knowledgeable military planner understands the advantage of holding “the high ground.” Using this rationale, young men (and now women) have for generations found themselves bleeding and dying in war after war to capture and hold an unheard of hill or mountain—whether it be “Old Baldy,” “Hill 881 North,” or the eponymous “Pumpkin.” Matti Friedman’s intriguing war memoir positions the Israeli military in the south of Lebanon following the invasion of 1982, believed by some to have been a vast strategic blunder and by others to have simply been a period of clumsy military stumbling.

The “Flowers” part of the title refers to wounded Israeli soldiers. The events Friedman specifically describes take place roughly between 1994 and the turn of the 21st century when Israel, ostensibly on guard to protect the northern communities, unilaterally withdrew from southern Lebanon, effectively abandoning the field to Hezbollah.

For Israelis whose military service landed them on that sparsely fortified hill, code-named “Pumpkin,” whose grim duties left them with intense personal memories, but barely any collective memory at all (as was the case with our troops in Korea), there is no glory; there is no fame. These soldiers are not the tank units of the Yom Kippur War, nor the rescuers at Entebbe.

But they suffered as did the nation. In 1997, mainly due to the mid-air collision of two helicopters in the north loaded with troops, more than 100 Israeli soldiers were killed. That number, based on relative population size, was greater than all the troops lost by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan in more than a decade of fighting. It temporarily sucked the will to fight out of the Israeli people and consequently ended any opportunity to put an end to Hezbollah as a political being.

Friedman takes us through this practically unknown Israeli war story in a terse, direct fashion that vividly portrays the Israeli combat soldiers struggling to do their duty in a malevolent little war that never quite achieves the moral high ground being sought. Pumpkinflowers ranks with the best war diaries to have come out of the ill executed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the best Israeli accounting I have read since A Psalm in Jenin by Brett Goldberg.