Commander's Reading List: Pumpkin Flowers by Matti Friedman

Written from the perspective of a veteran of the Israeli Defense Force, Pumpkin Flowers has become one of my favorite books about a conflict of which the historical reverberations are still felt throughout the Middle East.  The Amazon description of the book reads:

"It was just one small hilltop in a small, unnamed war in the late 1990s, but it would send out ripples that are still felt worldwide today. The hill, in Lebanon, was called the Pumpkin; flowers was the military code word for “casualties.” Award-winning writer Matti Friedman re-creates the harrowing experience of a band of young Israeli soldiers charged with holding this remote outpost, a task that would change them forever, wound the country in ways large and small, and foreshadow the unwinnable conflicts the United States would soon confront in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere."

Background

I first received the book as a gift prior to my second combat deployment in 2016. Initially deployed to Iraq to train and prepare their military forces for the siege of Mosul, my team found itself re-deployed to Syria to assist in the operations against the Islamic State. Though we were a relatively small and specialized team, we found ourselves conducting combat missions sometimes 6 days a week for a period of 6 months as the offensive against ISIS kicked off. As such, most of our free time was dedicated to preparing for the next early morning mission. Luckily, however, living in a tent in an austere environment allowed us to catch up on reading that we typically pushed aside for access to a smartphone or movie. It's during this time that I was able to truly appreciate Pumpkin Flowers.

A beautiful view of the countryside. The "capital" of ISIS sat 6KM down this road.

The Book

The book focuses on events that took place in the 1990s, between the first and second Lebanon wars in 1982 and 2006. At the time, the Israeli military was attempting the rising capability of Hezbollah in the region. "Pumpkin" refers to the name assigned to a hilltop in Lebanon where these particular troops were posted, while "Flower" is radio jargon for casualties. This is where the book receives it's title.

The "Pumpkin" was subjected to numerous instances of tragedy and stress throughout the time it was occupied. Hezbolla forces regularly filmed and broadcasted videos of its attacks, one of the first instances of these events being filmed and distributed (something which the world again would become uncomfortably familiar in the post-9/11 years). The outpost was lined with booby traps and the precursor to the modern I.E.D. A helicopter accident involving troops leaving the outpost brought newspaper headlines in Jerusalem listing the names of 73 Soldiers who had been killed.

Like most war memoirs, this book is taken from the viewpoint of those that actually experienced it. Young Soldiers in conflict have a gift for putting real emotion and weight into their stories, thankfully leaving out the political or "official" lines put out by governments, resulting in straightforward and easy to understand account of their experiences. The book also deals with situations that troops who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan sympathize with - are those civilians walking through the hills at night carrying weapons out protecting their flocks, or hunting?  Or are they militia or terrorist forces moving under the cover of darkness to emplace booby traps along known routes of friendly forces?

 

A view from an Israeli outpost in Lebanon (specific location unconfirmed)

In Summary

Needless to say, I greatly enjoyed this book and the stories that it told. It's always fascinating to learn of a different conflict which may not be as "well known" as the larger conflicts in history, but the massive importance of what happened during this time had implications that are of direct relevance to what's happening now in the region. At only 270 pages or so, it is not a massive read and can be approached casually.

You can find the book here on Amazon.


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