The Israeli military spent 18 years in the security zone of southern Lebanon, yet this period doesn’t have a military ribbon, a monument, or even a name. “Everyone knew Lebanon wasn’t a real war, but those were real war losses,” writes Matti Friedman in his new book, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story. Part memoir and part journalistic narrative, the book portrays the young soldiers, including Friedman himself, who served atop a remote hill in southern Lebanon called The Pumpkin. World Policy Journal spoke with Friedman, a Canadian-Israeli award-winning author and journalist, about the process of writing the book and how Israel’s time in the security zone affected Israel’s geopolitical situation and foreshadowed conflicts of today.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Where does the name of your book, Pumpkinflowers, come from?
MATTI FRIEDMAN: The Israeli military speaks this very floral language and the radio code jargon that the soldiers speak is very bucolic, which you wouldn’t expect. A night vision system for tank gunners is called Artichoke, and a radar system that warns against incoming mortar shells is called Buttercup. There aren’t a lot of things in the American military that are called Buttercup. In the American military, the language tends to be more aggressive, things like Hellfire, Predator, Apache. Dead soldiers are called KIA, which is a very bureaucratic acronym. In the Israeli military radio you’d say Oleander. Wounded soldiers are called Flowers. So the name of the book is to get at that strange language that we spoke in South Lebanon in the 1990s, which is the period that the book is set in. Our outposts were named after plants. So you didn’t have Outpost Apache, you had Outpost Cyprus, Citrus, Red Pepper, or Basil. Our outpost was called Pumpkin. So the name of the book comes from the floral name of the outpost and the floral name for wounded soldiers on the radio.
WPJ: You refer to Israel’s time in southern Lebanon as the Unnamed War. Why?
MF: Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and that has a name in Israel, the Lebanon War, which ended officially in the fall of 1982. And for 18 years, the war actually continued inside Lebanon, but it wasn’t given a name. So when Israelis talked about what was going on, they would just say “in Lebanon.” “Soldiers were killed in Lebanon.” “There was fighting in Lebanon.” But it wasn’t referred to as being part of a war or operation. So this period inside Lebanon didn’t officially exist. You can find out how many fatalities there were in the Yom Kippur War because that’s an event with a name. But it’s very difficult to find out how many soldiers were killed in the security zone because the army doesn’t recognize that as something that happened. It doesn’t have a military ribbon, it doesn’t have a monument, and it doesn’t have a name. That’s a good indication that people don’t think it’s very important. A name also indicates a decision was made, and it’s unclear exactly who decided that the security zone would exist or would continue to exist for so many years.
WPJ: Israel seems to name its wars retroactively. When soldiers were fighting the Second Lebanon War, they were really fighting in Operation Just Reward. And after the fact, they learned they fought in a war. In the 2009 fighting in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, it was the opposite. Do you think it makes a difference to soldiers while they’re fighting?
MF: It does help soldiers to know that what they’re doing is very important. If something is clearly a war, like the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, even though the names were attached retroactively, it was clear to the soldiers that they were fighting a war and that it was very important. That helps soldiers when they’re called upon to do and experience terrible things. In Lebanon, we were never told we were fighting a war, and we didn’t think we were fighting a war, even though in retrospect that’s what it was—a different kind of war. It does make a difference in terms of the mindset of the army because if it’s a war, then you’re in it to win. And if it’s just this static holding pattern that lasts years and years, you’re not really trying or expecting to win, you’re scoring very small tactical victories and you’re trying to protect yourself but no one really expects a decision. No one expected the security zone in Lebanon to end with a victory, and it probably would have been a good idea for the decision makers to sit down and think, “Okay, if this isn’t going to end in victory, then what are we doing here?” That didn’t really happen.
WPJ: Do you see similarities between that and the situation today in Gaza?
MF: We have a problem, and it’s not just Israel’s problem, it’s a problem the Western world has with these long prolonged wars we’re fighting now: There’s no victory anymore. These wars don’t behave like wars we know. So Iraq doesn’t behave like the Second World War, and the security zone in Lebanon didn’t look like the Six Day War. Wars don’t work like they used to, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a war or that we don’t need to think of it as one.
WPJ: The book is separated into four parts. You start the book by describing Avi, a soldier at the outpost and his experience there, then your experience there, then Israel leaving Lebanon, and in the end you go back to Lebanon years later using your Canadian passport. Why did you choose to begin the book with Avi’s experience, or include it at all? After all, you were there, and many writers might have just stuck to their own experience.
MF: I didn’t set out to write a memoir; it wasn’t supposed to be about me. I wanted to tell the story of this outpost, which I think is very important. Because I have personal experience there, I can offer some insight. So I wanted to use my experiences, and the experiences of my friends and people I know, to bring this place to life and make it important to readers who are distanced from the subject matter. I knew the story needed to start before I got there because the series of events that took place on this hill really begin in 1994 with an incident I describe in which Hezbollah fighters charge up a hilltop and toward the Pumpkin, stick a flag in the embankments of the outpost, film it, and run away. It’s one of the first really effective perception attacks, long before anyone had a smart phone or YouTube. So I needed a character who could tell the story beginning around that time. I was lucky to find a soldier named Avi Ofner who had been at the outpost and had written about it. He sent letters, he wrote stories, he was anti-militaristic, anti-hierarchy, a difficult soldier, and he had a very interesting point of view. I also fell in love with his character, an unlikely person who finds himself in the military in a very challenging set of circumstances.
WPJ: Describe the moment you knew you were going to go back to visit Lebanon on your Canadian passport. How did that come about?
MF: When we were soldiers at the outpost, we used to joke that one day we would come back as tourists. It wasn’t a serious plan, just a joke about how absurd it was to be in a war state of mind in this beautiful place with green hills and rivers, and so we used to joke that we’d come back one day but we didn’t take it seriously. Except I knew after I got out of the army that because I was Canadian, I could go use my Canadian identity and go back there as a tourist. I convinced myself over a year or two after the withdrawal from Lebanon in the spring of 2000 that it was doable. I spoke to a few people who visited Lebanon. In the fall of 2002 I flew from Israel to Canada, and then back to Lebanon, which is a very roundabout way to get to Lebanon from Israel, which are neighboring countries. So I landed in Lebanon in the fall of 2002. The idea was to make it back to this outpost in the south, and I did just that. I’m glad I did it back then; it’s something that was possible in 2002 before the age of Google, Facebook, and the digital age. That trip wouldn’t be possible in 2016.
WPJ: What were you expecting to gain from that trip?
MF: I was expecting to feel more optimistic. I thought that if I met the people on the other side of the border, who I’d only seen through cameras and gun sights, if I just could talk to them and walk on their sidewalks, and hang out in their restaurants with them, that I would come away with a sense of hope that war between Israel and our Arab neighbors might be just a misunderstanding that could be surmounted by human contact. That’s very naive. I didn’t find that. I came away with the feeling of disquiet. I met lovely people who were incredibly hospitable and who were deeply, deeply hostile to Israel and Jews. I stood on the roads of the outpost and didn’t feel like the war was over. I could get the feeling even then that maybe one part of the war was over, but in retrospect, the war at the Pumpkin was just the beginning of this broader Middle Eastern war that we’re seeing now in 2016 in places like Syria and Iraq. So I didn’t come away with closure or an optimistic feeling that anything was over.
WPJ: You talk about how back then people started referring to soldiers as “children” and “everybody’s children,” and that it has never really gone away. What do you think the effect of that has been, even until today?
MF: I think the effects have not been positive. There’s an inversion here of who’s supposed to be protecting who. The role of soldiers is to die instead of civilians. Let’s face it, that’s what combat soldiers are supposed to do. And in a strange way, society here mourns soldiers more than it mourns civilians because there’s a feeling that we’re all responsible for putting these young guys in uniform and sending them to do what we’re asking them to do. That started really in the 90s and it was given expression by the Four Mothers protest group, which called for withdrawal from Lebanon. But they didn’t say, “Bring the army back home from Lebanon.” They said, “Bring the boys home from Lebanon,” or “children,” or “sons.” So soldiers became seen as the joint custody of all Israeli adults and are often referred to as children. The guys on the other side, who are of the same age, are usually called terrorists, but our soldiers are children. It’s a bit infantile. Soldiers are soldiers and if a 19-year-old enemy is a combatant, then our 19-year-olds are combatants too. I’m not saying I’m happy, but that’s reality.
WPJ: You mentioned earlier the incident that begins your book when Hezbollah film themselves planting a flag, even though they didn’t really take the fort. You call this the beginning of the “Media War,” which you define as a war not for territory, but for consciousness. Is that war still being fought today in Israel?
MF: It’s being fought not just in Israel—it’s being fought everywhere. Anyone who’s seen an Islamic State video is playing a small role in the perception war. Anyone who watched cell phone footage of stabbings in Israel last fall is being affected by the perception war. For instance, there’s the famous picture of Marines raising the American flag in Iwo Jima. When that picture was taken, the Americans had actually conquered Iwo Jima. It wouldn’t have occurred to the Marine Corpse to stage the photograph and tell the world they conquered Iwo Jima to psych out the enemy. If that picture had been taken in 2016, then that is what would have been done. You don’t need to take the island, instead you take a photograph or make a video and you use it as a psychological tool against your enemy. So what these incredibly strong, powerful images do is throw the whole conflict off balance. They make people who are on the stronger side feel like they’re not strong. So Israelis watched this video of a flag being planted at Outpost Pumpkin and it didn’t matter how many times the army said the outpost wasn’t captured, because the image was so strong that it was seen as a major military defeat in Israel. When an American audience sees an American journalist or soldier on their knees being beheaded by terrorists, it doesn’t matter for a moment that you’re the United States of America and these other guys are nobodies. You don’t feel strong. You feel weak, threatened, and angry that you made bad decisions. So that’s why these psychological tools are such an effective weapon in the hands of players who are weaker on paper but often a lot more savvy than the stronger side. That was certainly the case in Lebanon and it helped convince Israelis—who weren’t really losing in Lebanon, it was never really a military conflict—that they were losing. And by the end of the 90s, most Israelis had given up on the war in Lebanon and in 2000 it ended. So one of the earliest instances of the way this could be done well was in 1994 at Outpost Pumpkin, and we see new examples of this every day.
WPJ: Why did you feel this was the time to write this story?
MF: These events always mattered very much to me, and I made an attempt to write about them after I got out of the army and after I got back to Lebanon in 2002. It didn’t really work because I think I hadn’t understood the significance, because no one had. So I put that project aside and in the years after my discharge in 2000, I watched 9/11 happen and I saw the Americans go into Afghanistan and Iraq and it was a similar kind of war with IEDs and suicide truck bombs, and there were radical Islamist forces working in chaotic and failed states, and there was a strong army that should have been much stronger than the enemy but didn’t seem to be winning. It was all very familiar to me seeing these wars unfold through the windows of my experience in the security zone in the 90s. After a while I realized that what we had seen in the security zone wasn’t negligible and wasn’t unimportant. It was the first war of the 21st century. We were present in a laboratory where these techniques of 21st century warfare were developed. That helped me realize what the broader resonance of that experience had been. And that’s why I decided now would be a good time to have another shot at getting this all down on paper.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Photo Courtesy of Matti Friedman]