From Lebanon, a sparkling, contemplative war memoir on the dimming of a generation’s hope

In his new book ‘Pumpkinflowers,’ Matti Friedman — an Israeli soldier in Lebanon, then a tourist there, and now a Jerusalem father of 3 — shows that the men who tried to kill him in the late 1990s were the pioneers of a new type of conflict, now in hideous full bloom

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Matti Friedman, pictured during his IDF service in the late 1990s (Courtesy Matti Friedman)
Matti Friedman, pictured during his IDF service in the late 1990s (Courtesy Matti Friedman)

The Pumpkin, an Israeli fort in south Lebanon, first entered Matti Friedman’s mind in the winter of 1997. It was the voice of the radio news announcer that imprinted it there, with the announcement, delivered on a wet Jerusalem day, that his friend, Mordechai, had been gravely wounded in combat with Hezbollah guerrillas.

A week later, Friedman [a close friend of mine and a former Times of Israel reporter], went to visit Mordechai along with another friend: “We went to the hospital in Haifa and were in the corridor when a nurse passed going the other way, pushing a skeletal old man hunched in a wheelchair. I paid the man no mind until he lifted his right hand from the armrest, barely, and said my name, and it was him — bloodied, crippled, twenty-one years old, with the grin of a corpse.”

In the hospital, Friedman wrote, he couldn’t quite picture what had happened to his friend or where it had happened. “Mordechai appeared to us like an explorer returned from a world unreachable from our own.”

But reach it Friedman has: first as a soldier, then as a civilian — in a move whose daring is artfully downplayed — and finally as a reporter. What emerges in “Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story” is a fascinating memoir about a war that still has no name, no ribbon, and no official monument to the fallen. Every year — from 1985, when Israel withdrew from Lebanon leaving only a slim territorial buffer known as the Security Zone in the south, until May 2000, when it withdrew further, to the internationally recognized border — some two dozen soldiers were killed annually in that hilly country to Israel’s north.

Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story
Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story

Friedman’s portrait, painted through the prism of that single fort — the Pumpkin — where he and his friends served, is more of a generational memoir than a personal one; he charts, through a cast of characters and his own recollections, how a handful of young Israeli soldiers, holding a string of forts with funny names, looked north and saw what so many other spectators missed: that the region was not tilting toward peace but rather toward a different form of war. The IED, the suicide car bomber, the videotaped strike laid over chanted Islamic verse: all were born there. And while many focused on peace with Morocco and Jordan, the few Israeli soldiers who held the line in south Lebanon — all conscripts — saw today’s reality in the early stages of its hideous bloom.

The book is beautifully spare and sparkles with well-turned phrases and a refreshing reticence. But rather than “A Goobye to All That,” in which World War I vet Robert Graves parted with his militarism along with his innocence, “Pumpkinflowers” maps the twilight of hope of a generation.

Last week, some 15 years after I first met him on the rooftop of what was my future wife’s house — just as he had begun working on an early draft of what would become “Pumpkinflowers” — we again sat on his roof, two fathers of three, and discussed that little strip of territory that has for years occupied our minds and the minds of those who came of age here between the two Palestinian intifadas, and who saw the word peace turn from a prayer to a punchline.

The Times of Israel: Let’s start from the beginning of the end: What did you feel you’d learned about the Security Zone war while serving, and immediately after serving, and how has that understanding evolved?

Matti Friedman (Sebastian Scheiner)
Matti Friedman (Sebastian Scheiner)

Matti Friedman: I think the main impression I took away from my service in Lebanon was one of confusion about what was actually going on around me. I came to Israel, as many do, with a very simple idea of the country and had these baffling experiences in Lebanon, which showed me that the story was far more complicated than I could have imagined.

So I was discharged with a sense of amazement and confusion and immediately enrolled in the Mideast Studies Department at Hebrew University to start to try and figure it out, and basically have been trying to figure out ever since.

In the book, you say that your general sense at the time, one I think we shared, was that concessions on our part would lead to some form of reconciliation.

Sure, I still believed that. I got through Lebanon still believing that. I thought that Lebanon was the end of something. I thought that the problem was on the way to being solved and I thought that reasonable and generous moves on our part would move things in a better direction. When the army pulled out of Lebanon, I was happy. I thought that the problem was resolved [laughs] by the withdrawal.

But everything that happened that year, after the withdrawal, with the collapse of the peace process and the beginning of the intifada, the attack on the border and the kidnapping of three soldiers from the old Security Zone which we had just given back, that’s when, like many other Israelis, I started to understand that things don’t work the way we want them to work, and that the Middle East does not respond to our dictates or desires.

Matti Friedman and his platoon, Lebanon 1998 (Courtesy Matti Freidman)
Matti Friedman and his platoon, Lebanon 1998 (Courtesy Matti Freidman)

Tell me about the withdrawal. You have a beautiful depiction of that day in your book, as seen from the rose farm where you worked. But emotionally did you feel it had invalidated your service? You fought there, had done two tours there, and the fact that Ehud Barak could be brought into office with the promise of a withdrawal and then a few months later, in May 2000, actually do it, how did that impact you?

I don’t think I thought about it that deeply at the time. I recently heard Barak talk about the withdrawal and he said that the question about Lebanon is not why we withdrew, but why we didn’t withdraw five or ten years earlier. Now, five years earlier, of course, means the time that I was there. So even the guy who was prime minister at the time seemed to be saying that the entire time I was in Lebanon, even if we just take the five years, a time of hundreds of fatalities in Lebanon, was a mistake.

‘You are told: this place is worth your life. You have to capture it, or you have to defend it. This hill, this trench. And a week later it’s worthless’

In 2000 I didn’t appreciate what that meant. I was happy to have done the service that was required of me. And to have gotten through it unscathed. And if the country decided that it didn’t need to be in Lebanon, I thought that was fine.

In retrospect of course that is one of the absurd things about being a soldier. Which is that – and it’s not specific to Lebanon, it’s maybe the fundamental experience of being a soldier – you are told: this place is worth your life. You have to capture it, or you have to defend it. This hill, this trench. And a week later it’s worthless.

Tell me about this slogan that we used to see on every wall in the Northern Command — “The Goal: Defense of the Northern Communities.” To what extent did you believe it, to what extent was it part of your ethos as a soldier?

I totally believed it. It was very clear to me that that was what we were doing. From the Pumpkin, if you looked south, you could actually see the northernmost houses in Israel. So there were miles of hostile territory in between, but you could see the lights of Metulla. And that made a lot of sense to me. We were at the far extremity of the Security Zone and we were preventing the bad guys from getting to those houses.

Even though you knew that the bad guys, by the time you served, in the late nineties, were primarily engaged in targeting you?

Yes. I don’t know if I actually understood that. We knew they were after us. And if you had asked us then, we would have probably acknowledged that there hadn’t been attempts to infiltrate the border in recent years, although we might have said that was because the army was in Lebanon, keeping them away from the border.

I was a soldier and like most soldiers I had a limited understanding of anything beyond the immediate demands of my daily life, which was really more than enough for me to handle at the time, so the theoretical issues were not…

But you remember those signs too, though, right?

I remember them vividly.

And what did you think about them then?

I think I remember seeing them on my first day in the army. In the induction center. Back then you had a day in the army where you could go around the induction center and then submit your preferences for service. In the paratrooper tent I remember seeing that sign behind them. And at that time it definitely impacted me. I thought, yes, that’s what I want to do. But I think I was a bit more jaded than you once we were in Lebanon. I think I felt that was not exactly what we were doing. I think I knew we were playing a deadly game of cat and mouse and I think I felt that it wasn’t really as important as it was portrayed.

That makes it harder to be a soldier.

Yes. That soldier who became famous for allegedly not getting up to charge the enemy, whom you talk about in the book, I didn’t agree, but I knew where he was coming from. Did you? Do you remember how you felt about him? [Ofer Sharon, the best soldier on his team in the Paratroop Recon Unit, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in October 1999, some eight months after his commander was killed in action along with two other officers, that in the ambush he had remained behind cover because “I knew that whoever charged at that moment would die in an idiotic war.” In truth, Sharon, whose mother was active in the Four Mothers movement, the most influential anti-war movement the country has ever known, hesitated for a few long seconds and then waded into the close-quarters battle; even the brigade commander, to whom Sharon first went first to confess, told him he was okay, but as soon as the article went to print he was crucified by public opinion.]

A Hezbollah flag flies over the remains of the Pumpkin fort in southern Lebanon, after the IDF's withdrawal in 2000 (Courtesy Matti Friedman)
A Hezbollah flag flies over the remains of the Pumpkin fort in southern Lebanon, after the IDF’s withdrawal in 2000 (Courtesy Matti Friedman)

You know, I can’t remember him at the time. I was in the army when that happened and when you’re in the army you just don’t know what’s going on. I certainly didn’t read Haaretz. So there was this debate raging in Israel, the famous incident of “the machine-gunner who didn’t get up.” That was a big deal in Israel. But I was preoccupied with being in Lebanon so I didn’t know much about it.

Tell me about the disconnect between those few who served in Lebanon and the rest of society. You make a great point about not having reservists there and how that kept the reality of Lebanon apart from general society. To what extent did you feel that as a soldier and to what extent did you think about that while writing?

At the time, I think that, like you, all of my friends were in the army in combat units. So I’d come home and see other guys who were in similar situations and certainly the social world that I was a part of then knew where I was and respected what I was doing, and that was very helpful to me at the time.

But the war’s also been forgotten. There’s no name for that 15-year period. Your book, which is written in English, might be the first one that tries to really grapple with the army’s legacy there. How has that impacted you?

A lot more books were written about the so-called Second Lebanon War, which was a one-month operation, than the fifteen years of the Security Zone. And I write in the book that it is easier to remember something short and painful than something long and chronic. So you remember a heart attack very well and not ten years of chronic pain, even though the ten years of pain would be more important to shaping who you are.

‘That kind of war which we saw in Lebanon in the nineties turns out to have been the first war of the 21st century’

I think that those years in Lebanon are very hard to think about. They’re very diffuse, there’s no narrative arc, as there is in the Six Day War and Yom Kippur War. There’s no easy story to tell about it, and if you look at it too closely you’re likely to reach the conclusion that actually it was an error and that becomes very difficult to talk about or write about because hundreds of families are bereaved because the army was in Lebanon.

Most of the time it was one guy here, two guys there, around two dozen deaths per year, about 450 from 1985 to 2000. A peak year was 1997 with over one hundred deaths, but most of the years it stood steady at around two dozen. Which makes the toll close to that of, say, the Six Day War, but it was so spread out, it was hard to think about and to grasp.

And yet, despite no name, no ribbon, no monument, you argue that our time there is incredibly important to understanding Israel’s geopolitical situation today and that of the entire Middle East. So tell me why.

Absolutely. I think that if you look at the wars in the Middle East since the Lebanon withdrawal in 2000 — Iraq, Afghanistan — it looks kind of familiar if you were a soldier in Lebanon. Our strange little war in south Lebanon involved IEDs, although we didn’t call them that — no one used that term at the time — videotaped attacks, hit-and-run strikes, suicide car bombs, and there was a modern military fighting this long hopeless war against a smaller but ultimately more determined enemy.

That kind of war which we saw in Lebanon in the nineties turns out to have been the first war of the 21st century. And the security zone, from 2016, looks to have been a sort of laboratory for the development of warfare as it would be practiced in 21st century.

That whole war was broadcast on TV and satellite TV and information was starting to move across borders, so a lot of people in the Middle East saw what happened in south Lebanon, and it was an example of an Arab victory, which I think caught people’s imagination. So it’s not coincidence that these tactics were tried the next time foreign invaders showed up.

When I read the book I felt that your argument is so convincing that it’s ultimately very depressing. Certainly for those of us who live in this region. And my sense was that you think it’s not that depressing because our society remains resilient and healthy. But tell me, is our meeting with the face of this sort of war, with an enemy that sanctifies death and which gained victory in Lebanon and has since multiplied across the Middle East, in the shape of Sunni and Shiite extremism — is that not horribly depressing, and if not, why not?

In the nineties, we thought that if we created a vacuum it would be filled by something good. That was the peace process idea. That was the Iraq idea. You knock out Saddam Hussein, a vacuum is created, and positive forces fill that vacuum. Everything we’ve seen in the Middle East since the nineties contradicts that idea. It suggests that when we create a vacuum, it is filled by these guys with black masks with completely different ideas about what the future is going to hold. And even though I don’t think these people are a majority, they are determined enough and ruthless enough and capable enough to shape reality even though they’re a minority.

Now we understand that we are just going to lose guys on the borders in an endless attrition that is going to go on for a very long time

So yes, it forces you into a pessimistic outlook. The ideas of the nineteen-nineties are over. And we can expect stormy waters ahead. The reason I remain optimistic about our chances, here in Israel, is that we’ve been mobilized for conflict since the state was founded, so we’re not like countries in the West, which are kind of caught off guard and sleepwalking through this thing. Israel, fortunately or not, is geared for this. It understands there is a threat and is mobilized to counter it.

But the notion was that if we could steadfastly enough combat that threat, eventually the enemy ideology could be bent into something malleable, that they would be forced to make peace. And that worked in Egypt and in Jordan, but now we face a threat against which it seems almost unfathomable that it would work. Maybe people thought the same with Gamal Abdel Nasser and Jordan, I’m not sure, but it seems worse now.

I think that if you read stuff that was written at the time, in the fifties, in the sixties, in the seventies, most Israelis thought peace would come. There’d be this war and then, you know, then the Arabs would understand. Even in 1948. I’ve been reading a lot of material from ’48-’49. They thought there would be a peace agreement after that war and then everyone would get on with their life.

It’s astonishing in retrospect, the way we underestimated the enmity, and the capacity of our enemies to maintain their hatred over generations.

Has that made you shift ideology? Has the notion, post-Lebanon, of unattainable peace or very distant peace changed your ideology?

Well, I think that something very deep in the country has changed, and it hasn’t really been addressed – I don’t think very many people have put their finger on it. We’ve gone over the past decade and a half, many of us, from thinking that this could end to understanding that it is not going to end. And that has deep psychological ramifications for the country that are going to take years to play out, because people used to say half-jokingly, but hoping it was true, that by the time their kids get to army age they won’t go into the army, there won’t be an army. People used to say that. Now if it is said, it is said in the most sarcastic way possible.

So we understand there won’t be peace and there won’t be a military victory that is going to revolutionize the situation, so we can’t say, look, you are going to fight the Six Day War and you are going to lose hundreds of guys but our situation is going to be dramatically changed so the price is worth it. Now we understand that we are just going to lose guys on the borders in an endless attrition that is going to go on for a very long time.

Can Israel address that attrition without changing its character fundamentally?

Certainly one of our challenges for the future is going to be keeping the region at bay, and paying the price that that is going to demand of us, while saving our soul. I think that’s going to be one of our biggest challenges. Because as you say, it’s not easy. With no peace on the horizon we have to find a way to come up having the kind of country we want to have, which is progressive and liberal and good, a country that is not driven by hatred, while being tough enough to defend ourselves.

In the book, you emerge from Lebanon into the Second Intifada and you talk about how that influenced your understanding of what had happened in Lebanon, and I wonder if, over the years, as you’ve worked on the book, if what’s happened subsequently in Lebanon — the rise of Hezbollah, the Second Lebanon War, etc. — has influenced your thinking on the Palestinian issue.

Well, I now see things in a regional context, which I didn’t then. I thought we had a dispute that we need to solve with the Palestinians and that this could be done along the lines of territorial compromise, but when you understand Lebanon and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS and the Taliban and Jabhat al-Nusra, and you look at the region, you understand that this is a regional phenomenon.

Understanding this conflict as an Israeli-Palestinian conflict is like trying to understand the Belgian-Austro-Hungarian conflict of 1915. There was no Belgian-Austro-Hungarian conflict. There was the First World War. And you can’t understand anything if you don’t understand that there was a regional conflict going on, not an isolated conflict between two countries, so you can’t understand the Israel-Palestinian thing without understanding the great Middle Eastern war going on around us, in which there are dozens of moving parts. In that way my understanding has changed. This is a much more complicated problem than I realized in the nineties.

Let’s go back to Lebanon. When you think of it, what do you remember? What’s the dominant memory?

How beautiful it was. That’s really what’s stayed with me. The spooky beauty of the place, which we saw in a way that you don’t really get to see: we would just stand there and look at it for months in the guard posts, just look at the landscape. That’s what I think of. The greenness in the winter.

Matti Friedman, the soldier, in southern Lebanon (Courtesy Matti Friedman)
Matti Friedman, the soldier, in southern Lebanon (Courtesy Matti Friedman)

By the way, when you were standing along the trench there for endless, mindless, boring, nerve-wracking hours did you really think you were going to go back [to visit afterwards], for real, or was that just soldier talk? When did you actually decide to do this crazy thing and go back to Lebanon as an undercover Israeli civilian?

We always joked about it. Everyone joked about it. About sitting down at that restaurant. [The soldiers in the book see a roadside joint inside Lebanon at which they dream they may one day sit.] It’s possible that I understood that because I was Canadian that wasn’t completely impossible for me. But if I understood it, it was just the germ of an idea.

It really solidified a year or two after I got out of the army when a friend of mine from Canada arrived in Israel as a backpacker and had come through Lebanon, and it kind of blew my mind, because I don’t think I really understood beforehand that Lebanon was just a place that you could go to. That there’s a Lonely Planet guide to Lebanon. And the second I realized that it was possible the idea did not lose its grip on me until I had gone.

And you thought you’d find, what? Balance? Serenity? An understanding that would allow you to say all would be okay?

I think so. I was definitely looking for the humanity of the other side, which I found. It just turns out that humanity, as we know, well — not loving each other is very human. So my encounter with the other side was complicated and it didn’t provide closure if that’s what I was looking for. And I didn’t come home optimistic.

Matti Friedman, the tourist, in front of Hezbollah slogans in southern Lebanon (Courtesy Matti Friedman)
Matti Friedman, the tourist, in front of Hezbollah slogans in southern Lebanon (Courtesy Matti Friedman)

I remember talking to you after you got back from Lebanon, in 2002, and I don’t remember you mentioning anti-Semitism, but while reading the book that came across in a really strong and eerie way. How surprised were you by that and what sort of significance did you attach to it back then?

‘The world’s Jewish problem is much deeper than it seemed’

I’d been in Egypt a year or two before and had had similar conversations, again with people who didn’t know that I was Jewish, who didn’t know where I was from, and it kept coming up. In Lebanon it kept happening. In my conversations with people whom I met there, people who by the way were incredibly welcoming and charming and lovely people, there were two recurring themes: they wanted to know if I agreed with them that Lebanon is beautiful, which I did, and they also wanted to make sure that I wasn’t on the wrong side. That I understood that Israel was very bad and that the Jews were very bad.

That Israel is bad in their eyes is totally understandable to me. They’ve had their country invaded twice, their capital occupied, their skies dominated by Israeli aircraft. That I understand. But the harping on the evilness of the Jew?

Let’s just say that if it had happened once I would have dismissed it as an anomaly but it was constant. And not just in Lebanon, but throughout my travels in the Middle East.

I know that anti-Semitism is something you once dismissed as irrelevant to your life, something your grandparents and parents were forced to deal with, but that in recent years you’ve realized that that isn’t true. Was that realization triggered in Lebanon?

No, I think that came later, really only in the last few years. Like many people who grew up in nice parts of the West, I didn’t think this problem really existed anymore in advanced societies. But when you see the hysterical emotions elicited by Israel, a reaction that is completely unique and increasingly creepy, and when you see the eagerness on the part of educated people in the 21st century to use Jews as an illustration of the world’s moral failings, it forces you to come to grips with the fact that the world’s Jewish problem is much deeper than it seemed.

I want to ask you about the war memoir. It seems to me that a lot of the American war memoirs and novels in the post-“The Things They Carried”-era — say, from “Jarhead” on down — feature stories told by deeply scarred narrators. Your tone is very different. It’s calm, contemplative, at peace. If you’re disillusioned then it’s from the notion of imminent peace, not the inanity of war. How’d you do that?

I think I was basically lucky. Things almost happened to me but didn’t actually happen, so I got through the period unscathed and was able to look at it in a more dispassionate way than I would have if I had lost a friend, or a limb, or a child.

I also learned something from the Great War writers, which was that if you’re writing about a subject like this it’s best to be cool, and to present the worst things in a way that’s measured or even oblique. That doesn’t blunt the impact for the reader, as you might think, but sharpens it.

Let’s talk about the evolution of the book. I read the manuscript initially back in 2002 and loved it already then but you say this book got a lot better since then. So tell me why.

If you look at the lasting literature that came out of the First World War you see that a lot of it started to appear about ten years after the war. And some of those writers, like Edmund Blunden, have written that they came back from the war and tried to write about it and did it poorly. There’s something about the intensity of those experiences that doesn’t lend itself to rapid analysis. It needs to sit so that you can be a bit cooler about it and also so that the significance of the events can become a bit clearer.

Yoram Kaniuk, 1948
Yoram Kaniuk, 1948

I mean, we both love “1948” by Yoram Kaniuk. He joined the Palmach as a 17-year-old and had experiences that were exponentially worse than anything I saw, so it took him much longer. It took him sixty years to distill it into a brilliant book. That makes perfect sense to me now. It’s countercultural in the age of the tweet, but some stuff takes time.

Last thing: Kaniuk was intensely focused on Kaniuk, and not just in this book, but Matti Friedman is not. We finish the book without knowing your parents’ names or your wife’s name. Did you set out on your more recent attempt knowing you didn’t want to put emphasis on yourself?

Yes. I recognized that my own experiences were representative but not important enough. And I’m not particularly important. I just happened to see something interesting. So the way to write the book was to be in the book as a way of explaining what happened but to write about other people who saw it, too.

The WWI writers – and I include Orwell even though he was too young for that war but wrote not long afterward— they had this ability to write in the first person in a way that was not egotistical. So they were writing about their generation, about the events in which they took part, and they used the word “I,” but it wasn’t about them. I thought that was great and I tried to follow in their footsteps.

This text was edited for clarity and slightly condensed.

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