Pump­kin­flow­ers: A Sol­dier’s Story

By – December 9, 2015

For such an impor­tant and all too fre­quent expe­ri­ence in the his­to­ry of our species, war is a remark­ably dif­fi­cult thing to write about. War­fare is often under­tak­en at a stac­ca­to pace, with brief inter­vals of com­bat leav­ened by long peri­ods of wait­ing and inac­tiv­i­ty; the broad­er lin­ea­ments of com­bat are often obscure to the par­tic­i­pants on the front, whose close-range view is both too clear and too close. Mat­ti Friedman’s Pump­kin­flow­ers: A Soldier’s Sto­ry inge­nious­ly over­comes these chal­lenges on its way to becom­ing not just one of the best books of the year, but also one of the wisest.

Pump­kin­flow­ers is a tremen­dous account of Israel’s mil­i­tary pres­ence in the South of Lebanon dur­ing the 1990s. Unlike oth­er, more icon­ic Israeli engage­ments like the Inde­pen­dence War and the Six-Day War, Friedman’s sub­ject has nei­ther name nor chron­i­cle, and Fried­man is the Pumpkin’s first his­to­ri­an in any lan­guage, and almost cer­tain­ly its last.”

The Pump­kin’ is a snatch of IDF jar­gon, a hor­ti­cul­tur­al euphemism used to refer to an out­post in the secu­ri­ty zone main­tained by Israel in south­ern Lebanon after the with­draw­al from the ter­ri­to­ry in the late 1980s. This line of out­posts include names such as Red Pep­per’ and Basil,’ meant to pro­tect the com­mu­ni­ties of north­ern Israel from the grow­ing Hezbol­lah pres­ence in the area, which suc­ceed­ed the PLO after that group was dis­lodged by pre­vi­ous IDF actions. The Pump­kin was dis­man­tled in 2000, as Israeli soci­ety turned against the military’s con­tin­u­ing pres­ence in south­ern Lebanon.

The book’s struc­ture is one of its great achieve­ments, deliv­er­ing a per­spec­tive both ele­gant­ly oblique and vis­cer­al­ly sear­ing. The first sec­tion is com­prised of tremen­dous reportage, as Fried­man tells the sto­ry of the Pump­kin through a focus on Avi Ofn­er, a sol­dier of con­sid­er­able lit­er­ary gifts who served there. Fried­man has read through all the archives, but in his prose one feels the inti­ma­cy of Israel’s small­ness; every­one knows some­one who knows some­one who might have known Avi. Through Friedman’s deft touch and Ofner’s own let­ters, Avi becomes dear to us as well.

The book’s sec­ond sec­tion is an account of Friedman’s own time serv­ing at the Pump­kin. Here we get some sense of mil­i­tary life at a gran­u­lar lev­el, we see rou­tine and stac­ca­to inter­rup­tion. Friedman’s nar­ra­tive voice is remark­able, main­tain­ing a steady calm while occa­sion­al­ly bloom­ing into prose of excep­tion­al beau­ty, exem­pli­fied in his descrip­tion of the stuff and sub­stance that makes and unmakes Israel, a lan­guage not flo­ral but geological:

The stone is the com­mon local lime­stone, which itself is made of bod­ies — micro­scop­ic crea­tures who died in the light zone at the sur­face of a pre­his­toric ocean and float­ed down through the dark­ness to the sea floor which is now our coun­try, becom­ing the mate­r­i­al that peo­ple here have always used to build their tem­ples and their homes.

Fried­man wields the micro­scope and the tele­scope with equal adept­ness, a skill set that won­der­ful­ly fits the per­spec­ti­val para­dox­es of his sub­ject, which is has all the ugli­ness of a gar­ri­son, yet it is perched in a rolling land­scape of uncom­mon beau­ty. A place of monas­tic seclu­sion, the sol­diers sta­tioned at the Pump­kin are put into an obses­sive rela­tion­ship to the neigh­bor­ing town of Nabatieh, whose hos­tile ter­rain they know bet­ter than the creas­es of their own hands.

The final sec­tion of Pump­kin­flow­ers traces the after­life of the Pump­kin, stri­at­ed with tren­chant reflec­tions on how Israel has changed and been changed by its time in Lebanon. Here Fried­man proves him­self to be both an acute ana­lyst of his coun­try and its shift­ing sen­si­bil­i­ties as well as an accom­plished trav­el writer. He recounts return­ing to Lebanon as a civil­ian, Cana­di­an pass­port clutched in hand. Like every­thing else in the book, this sec­tion is com­pressed yet dense with insight; it is a superb account of the per­ils and pos­si­bil­i­ties of con­tem­po­rary Lebanon. The final pages take Fried­man back to the Pump­kin, now fall­en back into forest­ed land­scape that echoes with some­thing like the rue­ful reflec­tions of Wordsworth’s Lines Writ­ten A Few Miles Above Tin­tern Abbey,” with the bur­then of the mys­tery” still felt, and shouldered.

The Pump­kin was an out­post that turned out to be a sign­post for the wars of the future, which is now our present. Reflect­ing upon how the det­o­na­tion of the Pump­kin freed a wrath­ful mil­len­ni­al spir­it trapped inside the hill and released it into the world,” Friedman’s book can­not exor­cise this ghost, but it does offer the seared wis­dom of one who bore wit­ness to its grim peregrinations.

Ari R. Hoff­man is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. He is cur­rent­ly a Dex­ter Dis­ser­ta­tion Com­ple­tion Fellow.