In the thick of the fight

Ahron Bregman feels the force of a military memoir


PumpkinflowersBy Matti Friedman
Biteback Publishing, £12.99
Reviewed by Ahron Bregman

My generation of Israeli soldiers prepared the ground for a book like Pumpkinflowers. We were the young soldiers who, in 1982, invaded Lebanon, in what came to be known as "The Lebanon War", and reached the gates of Beirut, the Lebanese capital. Three years later - by then, I was no longer a soldier - my fellow Israelis withdrew from the Beirut area to set up the "security zone" in southern Lebanon. There, they manned outposts and patrolled the area to keep Hizbollah - the guerrilla organisation set up by Iran in Lebanon - away from northern Israel. But this security zone was to become Israel's Vietnam.

A fierce war was fought there between Israeli troops and Hizbollah fighters in which scores of Israelis were killed in ambushes - and in accidents: on February 4, 1997, two helicopters collided, killing all 77 soldiers on board. It was a bloody, yet forgotten, war fought mainly by young Israeli troops who rarely complained.

Matti Friedman, who was born in Toronto and later became a correspondent for the Associated Press, served in the Israeli army in Lebanon and his book, which is part memoir, part reportage, tells the story of Israelis who finished high school and then found themselves in "a forgotten little corner of a forgotten little war".

There are four parts to this book. In the first, Friedman describes a series of incidents, beginning in 1994, at the Israeli hill-outpost called the Pumpkin, as seen through the eyes of a soldier named Avi, who served in Pumpkin before Matti Friedman arrived there.

In the second, he introduces us to mothers of soldiers serving in Lebanon, women who strenuously campaigned to bring the "boys" home. In the late 1990s, such women fought hard to convince Israeli public opinion of the folly of the military's presence there.

In part three, we learn of the author's own experiences on the hill and, in the final part, Friedman recounts his return to Lebanon after these events had ended, in an attempt to understand them better.

Under the premiership of Ehud Barak, the Israelis withdrew from the "security zone" in 2000. But those who survived Lebanon were scarred by the experience for the rest of their lives.

Pumpkinflowers is a beautifully written insight into the day-to-day realities of what it's like being a soldier and the often boring reality of war. No former soldier who has spent hours manning guard-posts during his military service could remain indifferent to such lines as "sometimes you took over one of the guard-posts, checked your watch an hour later, and found that five minutes had passed". While not quite Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Friedman's book is nonetheless a powerful portrait of men in war.

Ahron Bregman, who served as a captain in the Israeli army in Lebanon in 1982, is a Professor of War Studies at King's College, London

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