Costly Border Warfare

Pumpkin Flowers    by Matti Friedman

2016, x+243 pp., Algonquin books of Chapel Hill  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


        This is a war story from the Israel-Lebanon border, not a book about pumpkins or flowers. In the 1990-s, Israel decided to pull back from most land it had occupied in Lebanon and only retain control over a strip along the border, governed by an allied Christian militia. "Pumpkin" (Dla'at in Hebrew) was the code name of an outpost defending this strip, and "flowers" was code name for "casualties." The author, Matti Friedman, originally from Toronto, served on "Pumpkin," and the book describes events there, from before his arrival until after the outpost no longer existed.

        Some of it is a firsthand account, raw and unadorned, and the rest is based on meticulous interviews and reports. Parts will evoke parallels of the Vietnam war and even Korea (as described by James Brady in "The Coldest War"): a war of skirmishes, ambushes and mined roads, of trying to kill elusive hit-and-run raiders without harming the civilians among whom Hezbollah raiders were embedded.

        The confrontation was close to the homes of participants on both sides. Many of the Israeli troops came from the kibbutz movement, which used to be a source of dedicated and savvy fighters for Israel. Friedman feels they emerged from it chastened, still dedicated and resourceful, but reluctant to serve as leaders. Also in the lineup were fresh conscripts, newly emerged from high school, inexperienced as adult soldiers. Friedman wonders in one passage whether the army deliberately avoided sending reservists, who might have complained to their representativse about a fight which seemed to have lost its purpose.

        In the end, the mothers of these soldiers were the ones who protested--not insulated city women, but tough kibbutz dwellers who knew war, who convinced the wider public that the outposts were not worth holding, that long-range rockets still allowed Hezbollah to send missile across the border, while the soldiers at the outposts just became targets for mines and ambushes. The issue came to a head in a gruesome accident in which 73 soldiers died, when two helicopters collided while ferrying rotation-troops to Pumpkin and to Beaufort, a castle built by the Crusaders.

        The first part of the book describes the outpost before the accident and some time afterwards, from testimony carefully collected by Friedman. It traces the life of Avi, one of the young soldiers lost in the crash. It continues with the author's own service, and more stories from those who served with him. Meanwhile, mothers of sons lost in south Lebanon and of sons still serving, set up camp outside the house of Israel's president, handing out leaflets, arguing the case for withdrawal before the public, and in the end they prevailed. The Christian "army of southern Lebanon" was anyway crumbling by the time Israel decided to withdraw from the rest of Lebanon. By then, Pumpkin was dug in beneath concrete and rock, and soldiers mostly monitored the area through remotely operated TV cameras, hidden among camouflage netting. The army trucked in explosives, soldiers returned home and the outpost was demolished in a spectacular blow-up.

        That is not, however, the end of the book. The author, who retained a Canadian passport, re-visited the hill as a tourist some years later. He found the wreckage undisturbed, sandbags and broken concrete overrun by weeds in a peaceful countryside. In the village he visited a museum dedicated to the "martyrs" of a skirmish he had known well, but overall the land was at peace, and no one seemed interested in Pumpkin hill any more. Near the end of his book (also on the dust cover) Friedman presents his impression:

    "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 know now that I was wrong. It wasn't a conclusion. On the hill in 1995 we had been at the start of something: of a new era in which conflict surges, shifts or fades but does not end, in which the most you can hope is not peace, or the arrival of a better age, but only to remain safe as long as possible. None of us could have foreseen how the region would be seized by its own violence--the way Syria, a short drive from the outpost, would be devoured, and Iraq, and Libya, and Yemen, and much of the Islamic world around us. The outpost was the beginning. The present day might still be the beginning. The Pumpkin is gone, but nothing is over.
November 2016

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 25 November 2016