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“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.
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.
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, d0 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 sore on the ground after days of exertion, breathing the smell of their own unwashed bodies, of earth, and of dusty canvas. It was an assertion of the freedom of their minds. Matan thought at first that they would be mocked. But though the others sometimes yelled at them to shut up and go to sleep, no one laughed. Today Matan is a physicist. Amos is a psychiatrist and lives in Paris.
Avi made a point of saying exactly what he thought, and a few of the soldiers suffered from the acidity of his commentary, typically delivered without regard for the feelings of others. One of them, Ilya, remembers that Avi made it clear from the beginning that he considered Ilya to be dim-witted, revising his opinion only when he learned that Ilya had read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Avi was never considered a leader in the platoon. But his presence was very much felt, and not always welcome, certainly not at first. Photographs of this time show Avi with the expression of a kid emerging into a world he was not sure he would like, or would like him.
Basic training is like marriage: inside its unforgiving intimacy you can't hide who you are for long. Soon Avi softened. It turned out that he always had books in his knapsack, and when he saw he wasn't alone he began passing them around.
One picture of Avi as a child shows him asleep on his bed surrounded by books and newspapers, and another, taken a few years later, shows him sitting on one side of a room reading at his own birthday party. In high school the librarian, making her rounds at the end of the day, used to find him sitting on a footstool by one of the windows, immobilized by a volume plucked from the shelf: Brideshead Revisited, Murder on the Orient Express, Nevil Shute's Pied Piper. He grew up rooted in the small country where he was born, to lullabies like the famous one Emmanuel the Russian wrote in the 1920s:
Here you will sprout, here you will grow
In the land of Israel
To happiness, to labor
Like your father, you will be a worker.
Then you will sow in tears
And reap with joy
But now listen to Ima
By high school, as his reading list shows, he was looking for glimpses of other places. When the army called him, his favorite literary guide to the world was Romain Gary, immigrant outsider turned hero of the Free French Air Force; France's consul-general to Hollywood; husband of the actress Jean Seberg and lover of countless others, beginning, if his own account is to be believed, with the maid at age thirteen; Mallorca hedonist; two-time winner of the Prix Goncourt (a feat not technically possible and never repeated), each time under a different name, neither of them his own; child of the same inflamed European Jewish world that yielded Isaac Bashevis Singer, Vasily Grossman, Leonard Cohen, Avi's grandparents, and the state of Israel itself.
Avi conducted a survey. Who had read Gary's masterpiece The Kites, an account of a love affair in Normandy under Nazi rule between the daughter of a Polish count and the peasant nephew of an eccentric kite maker? No one? Avi circulated his paperback copy, which was shoved into webbing pouches and nestled in packs among filthy socks. It is possible to imagine that Gary, the shape-shifter of Vilna and Nice, was thus present among them somehow, that in one of their two-man pup tents there was an invisible third occupant with a Gauloise and an empathetic smile.
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.
It began to seem as if someone had chosen most members of this particular platoon not for their physical abilities or soldierly potential but for their intelligence and disposition, and specifically a cynicism about the military itself. This seems unlikely but isn't impossible. They had all been interviewed before the lists were drawn up at the training base, and whoever was in charge of selecting the soldiers for the brigade's engineering company might simply have chosen the ones he liked. That officer was perhaps the person with the greatest impact on the lives of the members of Avi's platoon, his invisible stamp on everything that has happened to them since, but when I sat with them recently in Avi's parents' living room—they are nearly forty now and still have an easy way with each other all these years later—no one remembered a thing about him.
An unspoken agreement formed in the platoon: they were in this for each other, not for the army. Sergeants, officers, and clerks were to be despised and resisted. One of the countless rules governing the recruits' lives banned eating when posted to guard the gate of the base. But early in basic training Avi looked around, confirmed that he was unobserved, and pulled out a bag of chocolate pastries, ammunition in his fight against the system. What united the members of the platoon was "an ironic half step of distance from what was happening to us"—this is how Amos, the psychiatrist, remembers it. There is a rhetorical question in common usage in our military for motivational purposes: "If things get a little hard, you give up?" This is supposed to shame you into pushing forward when you can no longer move your legs. Avi's platoon celebrated this as their philosophy after making a small change to the punctuation: If things get a little hard, you give up.
Beneath this outward language of rebellion was the fact, usually unspoken, that they didn't have to be here. If you didn't want to be a combat soldier you could get out of it, and no one had to volunteer for the more rigorous training and dangerous service of the engineers. Their presence meant that however they regarded this callous organization, the army, they understood that the threats facing their country were real and that this demand of them was legitimate. Your turn comes. They wouldn't have said it themselves because of a social code mandating self-deprecation and sarcasm and forbidding any credulous expression of ideals, so it needs to be said on their behalf: they believed they were doing the right thing.
They listened to Springsteen, especially "The River," and to the Cranberries. They gave each other nicknames. Gal, a quiet boy who became one of Avi's closest friends, was "the Angel," because he always found time to help others. Avi was known as "the Skunk." While it is unclear now precisely what led to this choice, if you've been an eighteen-year-old male among eighteen-year-old males it is possible to guess. The Angel and the Skunk were an odd pair—one tall and gentle, the other small and easily bruised or provoked.
The sergeants sent Avi and his fellow philosophers and dissidents running up hills to shoot at cardboard cutouts of enemy soldiers and then made them do it again. They oversaw drills on the firing range: five bullets standing, five kneeling, five prone. The recruits became accustomed to the rifle's kick and the sharp smell of cordite. Avi ran the obstacle course, which meant climbing a rope in full gear, crawling on his stomach, and getting over a shoulder-high concrete wall; the latter was the nemesis of many recruits, its malevolent blank grayness a feature of nightmares. The sergeants had them eighteen hours on their feet, six hours in their sleeping bags, then up again in the dark and off into the hills.
It shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with military thinking that Avi's platoon spent a great deal of time training not for the guerrilla war that actually awaited them but instead to open a minefield for the passage of immense formations of infantry and tanks and to conquer desert hills—to fight what the army saw as the "real war," one that fit its pretensions more than inconclusive skirmishing in Lebanese bushes. It was 1994, but the army's clock was still set at 1973. This certainly wouldn't have surprised Avi's beloved Romain Gary, who found himself as an air force cadet communicating with hand signals from the open cockpit of a Potez 25 biplane going seventy miles per hour, being "actively trained, like the French Army, for the war of 1914" in 1938.
“In Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story Mr. Friedman has written a top-notch account of this under-analyzed war, persuasively arguing that it heralded a new style of combat in the Middle East, though no one knew it at the time.” —Jennifer Senior, The New York Times
“This superb book is partly a history of the war, partly a personal memoir, and partly a work of political analysis. But mainly it is an effort to tell the story of the young men who fought to defend something “the size of a basketball court”—not all of whom survived. Pumpkinflowers is rich enough to allow different readers to draw their own political conclusions, if they choose to draw them at all. Above all, it is 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.” —Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal
“Sober and striking…on par with Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” – its Israeli analog.” —The New York Times Book Review
“…phenomenal…extremely moving…” —Bari Weiss, The Wall Street Journal
“Matti Friedman’s powerful memoir of his IDF service in Lebanon in the late-’90s foreshadows the complexities of 21st-century warfare.” —The New York Jewish Week
“Friedman, a journalist and author of “The Aleppo Codex,” writes with great feeling and insight…. The author’s account of military life transcends the particulars of this tale.” —Christian Science Monitor
“Powerful account of youthful Israelis maturing, fighting, and dying at a forgotten Lebanon outpost. In this limber, deceptively sparse take on the Middle East's tightening spiral of violence, Friedman combines military history and personal experience on and off the line in deft, observant prose. The narrative is reminiscent of novels by Denis Johnson and Robert Stone, linking combat's violent absurdity to the traumatized perspectives of individual participants. A haunting yet wry tale of young people at war, cursed by political forces beyond their control, that can stand alongside the best narrative nonfiction coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Remarkably educational and heartfelt: Friedman’s experiences provide a critical historical perspective on the changing climate of war in the Middle East, shifting from short official conflicts into longer unwinnable wars full of guerilla tactics and the deliberate creation of media narratives and images. His lyrical writing, attention to detail, and personal honesty draw the reader into empathy along with understanding. Friedman’s memoir deserves wide readership." —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“fast and engaging… A compelling war memoir containing elements of terror, observation, boredom, and grim (at times absurd) humor. This is an excellent read…” —Library Journal, starred review
“A compelling narrative, freighted with explosive geopolitical implications.” —Booklist, starred review
- On Sale
- Apr 18, 2017
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Algonquin Books