Sunday, March 5, 2017

Matti Friedman's Pumpkin Flowers

Matti Friedman's haunting description of his time in Southern Lebanon, and ours, begins with the daily transformation of night to day, the hour before the world wakes. Armies know this to be a time of grogginess, so they purposefully enact procedures to ensure alertness; in Friedman's day it was called konenut im shachar, which he translates as Readiness with Dawn. Correctly, he opens his memoir by describing how the days began - and how his days, almost 20 years later, are still formed by them:
Sometime first light would reveal that the river valley had filled with clouds, and then the Pumpkin would feel like an island fortress in a sea of mist - like the only place in the world, or like a place not of this world at all. There was a mood of purposefulness at that hour, an intensity of connection among us, a kind of inaudible hum that I now understand was the possibility of death; it was exciting, and part of my brain misses it although other parts know better....
Readiness with dawn ended up being a time for contemplation. Look around: Where are you, and why? Who else is here? Are you ready? Ready for what? So important was this ritual at such an important time in my life that this mode of consciousness became an instinct, the way an infant knows to hold its breath underwater. I still slip into it often. I'm there now.
So the first compelling thing about this book is the report about a strange and almost forgotten time in our history and how it's still present for the men who were there. I read somewhere that war novels or memoirs have a standard format. Innocent young men go to war, kill and watch friends be killed, conquer demons and collect scars that will remain with them forever, and return home wiser. Not long ago I read Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn, about Vietnam, which is a fine specimen of the genre. Then I read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, which fits the template less and was noted by many reviewers for its departure from it. One reviewer of Pumkin Flowers describes it as the Israeli version of Things They Carried. Yes, perhaps.

The second thing about the book is its claim that the odd little war between Israel and Hezbullah in the 1990s, repressed as it was at the time, mostly forgotten ever since, and always unnamed, was actually the harbinger of the larger war which has since overrun the region and sent tentacles across the globe. The IDF generals at the time, he remembers, were still preparing for the big wars with the tank divisions; the civilians were focused on the big peace which was certain soon to arrive.
So civilians in Israel were thinking about the new Middle East, and the army about the real war, but nothing came of either - it turned out that what was happening in Lebanon was both the new Middle East and the real war. Something important was afoot while everyone looked elsewhere, and marginal events turned out to be of the most significance. This is often the case.
Then there's another paradox, which he describes well but never fully spells out. Israel's war in the Security Zone in the 1990s was a stupid war, but the political and military leaderships were committed to it so it took a major effort of sections of civil society to convince the voters to convince Ehud Barak to run in the 1999 elections on the promise to leave, which he and we did in May 2000. By the end that year the pervasive Israeli expectation of peace was destroyed. So the war of the Security Zone ended because Israeli society had had enough of futilely spilling blood, but the stage was now set for what looks to be decades of off-and-on violence and further rounds of war. A dialectic result if ever there was one, compounded, to be honest, by the uncertainty of the wisdom of allowing Hezbullah to assume it had won. If the coming 40-50 years see no further wars between Israel and Hezbullah, we'll be able to say the war of 2006 corrected the false message sent in 2000; if there are, the withdrawal of 2000 will look less justified. Historical perspective takes time.

Until then, Friedman's book is a moving guide to those confusing days, and a poignant memorial to the soldiers that survived it and to those that didn't.

Matti Friedman, Pumpkin Flowers, a soldier's story.

1 comment:

milton said...

Yay! Yaacov Lozowick has been posting blogs a little bit more frequently these last weeks-cause for celebration!