Books: Beauty and boredom of war

Matti Friedman looks back to pen a war memoir from his IDF service.

IDF soldiers on base along the Lebanese border play hoops in April 1996 as they try to toss metal rings from artillery shells onto shells stacked up and ready to be fired into Lebanon (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF soldiers on base along the Lebanese border play hoops in April 1996 as they try to toss metal rings from artillery shells onto shells stacked up and ready to be fired into Lebanon
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The first time Matti Friedman stepped into the trenchline at a small hilltop outpost in Lebanon, it was like entering an alien geography.
“The sandbags stacked four or five high, and beyond them the Forest, and the hostile town below to the west,” he wrote.
The geography of war for low-level soldiers is like that. It’s like a portion of a map from Lord of the Rings. “The Forest.”
The “Red Pepper.” The road. The bend in the road. The monastery.
In Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story, Friedman, a former correspondent for the Associated Press who served in Lebanon in the late 1990s with the IDF, looks back on Israel’s war in southern Lebanon. It is a conflict that now seems to have occurred far away. The forts Israel built and then demolished lie beyond the frontier; history has moved on.
Friedman argues that the war in Lebanon in those years presaged what happened to the Middle East. Improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers, chaotic states, terrorist groups that act as armies. Democracies dragged into endless conflict.
Although this thesis hangs in the background, the book is a war memoir in the tradition of All Quiet on the Western Front or Jarhead. It’s a memoir of an infantryman.
“We specialized in waiting,” Friedman recalls. This could have been a book of thousands of pages of “daydreams and disjointed thoughts born of exhaustion and boredom” punctuated by moments of extreme action.
As a war memoir, the excellent, concise prose speaks to the reader. It describes how the men sent to Lebanon in the early 1990s, such as a central character named Avi, whom Friedman profiles, were illtrained.
They were told how to fight large formations of infantry, when in reality they would face roadside bombs, mortar fire and an enemy they rarely saw. It feels a bit like Vietnam.
Friedman, like those boys who went to Vietnam or the First World War, knew little of the conflict.
“I understood that we were Israeli soldiers, that our enemies were Arab fighters who we called terrorists,” he wrote.
For a Canadian-born Israeli who would go on to study the Arab world and become a correspondent, this youthful ignorance is surprising.
There are several comical vignettes in the story. In one, Friedman runs from an army truck into the base while under threat of mortar fire.
“I dropped my radio but kept my helmet on and tried to appear unruffled, as if I came to places like this all the time,” he wrote.
Later, a unit commander at Beaufort Castle, site of another fort, tried to convince local Arabs he was insane in order to scare them from harboring Hezbollah.
A Druse IDF soldier translated to the locals in what seemed like a much larger explanation than merely “he is crazy.”
It turns out the “translation” had consisted of warning them that the commander would rape the villager’s daughters and burn their fields. Queried on why he had said so much, he said, “I told them what you told me to... but in their language.”
The book Friedman has put together is actually two or three acts. One involves a man named “Avi,” who has no last name but was killed in a terrible helicopter crash in 1997. Friedman calls this the hijrah, from which the point of departure from the Lebanese morass began. Then there is the story of the “Four Mothers” protest movement. Tertiary, is the excellent bit about Friedman himself. In the last act, Friedman goes to Lebanon after the Israeli withdrawal and returns to the field of battle.
It is difficult and problematic to have part of the book in the first person and the rest about a man who has no last name. In general, this monograph has no last names – part of an overall simplification in the text. How can a whole war be boiled down to: “In June 1982 convoys of Israeli troops pushed into Lebanon, embarked on a misguided intervention with one of Lebanon’s Christian factions.”
What faction? Why did Israel invade? Sabra and Shatilla become an unnamed “massacre.” There is a feeling that Friedman seeks to dumb-down anything that smacks of actual historical information, as if somehow it might distance the reader, take away from the poetry of the book. It makes it timeless, not rooted. We are supposed to see things as Friedman might have when he was 19 years old and experiencing this, but there are incidents in this text that require information. One story concerns a “rightist politician, a former general.” Who? At once detailed and beautiful, chronicling this important episode in Israel’s history, this book refuses to be part of that history. Palestinians are always “guerillas,” as are Hezbollah. Language plays an important part in this book.
Whereas the author is careful to document military jargon, from which the “flowers” part of the title comes, denoting wounded soldiers, the text misses essential Hebrew language terms.
The IDF unit he calls the “Fighting Pioneer Youth,” which everyone knows as Nahal. Why can we have hijrah but not Nahal? Why is there “morning alert” but not konenut shachar? This is an Israeli army, people speak Hebrew. While this is a concise war memoir, one is left feeling there is a second volume that should accompany it to provide context, history and full names.