The Best Book About the Iraq War Isn’t About the Iraq War

June 30, 2016

Matti Friedman, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story (Algonquin Books, 2016).

Iraq veterans finally have their book; a manuscript that really deals with the whole of the Iraq experience. After over a decade at war in Iraq, we now have the best first-person account, not only of fighting against the insurgency, but also what it felt like to come home after. The book gives the most vivid account of what it is like to return to a society that doesn’t understand or support your war. It also draws some conclusions about what this all means for the larger Middle East.

But the best book about the Iraq War isn’t actually about the Iraq War. In Pumpkinflowers, Matti Friedman tells the story of a small outpost — called the Pumpkin, thus the title (“flowers” refers to the code word for wounded soldiers) — during the unnamed Israeli occupation of Lebanon’s “security zone” in the 1990s. The many clear parallels between these two experiences are, quite frankly, haunting. While the two experiences are not identical, they appear plagiarized from each other.

It’s misleading to call Pumpkinflowers first-person, as the book doesn’t slip into personal narration until page 90. The first section is from the perspective of Avi, a soldier who was stationed at the Pumpkin some years before Matti would arrive. The compound literary device works, and provides both a longer historical perspective, and a second viewpoint of the events in Southern Lebanon and the Israeli’s opponents in Lebanese Hezbollah.

Friedman is — of course — hardly oblivious to the parallels with later wars, as he writes with almost two decade’s hindsight and history. In a way, it seems Friedman is haunted not only by his personal experiences in Southern Lebanon, but also the later American experience in Iraq. He sees Israel’s “security zone war” as important if only for being the first such fought by post-colonial Arabs against occupiers (whether this is true, or whether his war is in a long tradition traced to colonial events such as Algeria War of Independence and Iraq’s 1920 Revolution can be argued). Within a few years, elements of the security zone war would appear elsewhere — most notably in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan: “If my ancestors’ great war was the first of the twentieth century, I believe our little one was the first of the twenty-first.”

The little things that the Israeli’s experienced in South Lebanon will also have a ring of familiarity to Iraq’s veterans. I had to laugh at the author’s confusion over his commander’s insistence that they have a Passover seder meal:

It was obvious to us that we would have a seder, that matzah and haroset would appear, that soldiers would risk their lives on the country roads to clean the dishes.

I similarly thought of the logistical mountains moved in Iraq to bring Thanksgiving dinners to the most remote and lonely outposts.

The Israelis who fought in the security zone war also returned to a public unable to understand what they had experienced. One would think that Israel’s conscription policies would have alleviated this issue, but that turns out to be less the case. “Only a fraction of Israeli men serve in combat units, and not all combat units were engaged in Lebanon.” The result was that the discharged, barely-adult Israeli men found that, “back in civilian life the soldiers of the security zone saw no reflection of our experience, no indication that anything important had happened.” I suspect that veterans of the Basra and Mosul streets would have little to add to this sentiment.

Finally, at a more expansive level, the Israelis learned in the 1990s, as the Americans would in 2003-11, that “[w]e might make good choices, or bad choices, but the results are unpredictable and the possibilities limited. The Middle East doesn’t bend to our dictates or our hopes. It won’t change for us.” As America openly debates how — or if — to deal with a post-Arab Spring Middle East, this war-won sentiment is a good, if perhaps incomplete, starting point.

Matti Friedman has done a great service in helping Americans understand our own unpopular and ambiguous war by giving us the lens of Israel’s unpopular and ambiguous war. That his own purpose doubtless has more to do with his own demons is beside the point. I cannot recommend this work enough to those who want to understand the American experience in Iraq through the experience of another nation. This is true regardless of whether one reads despite having no experience in Iraq, or because one is burdened by it.


Douglas A. Ollivant is a Managing Partner of Mantid International, as well as a Senior Fellow at New America and Senior Advisor to Monument Capital Group. A retired Army officer, he is a former National Security Council Director and Senior Advisor in Afghanistan.  He served two tours in Iraq in 1-5 Cavalry and HQ, 1st Cavalry Division. Follow him on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant. Mantid International has business interests in southern Iraq as well as U.S. aerospace and defense industry clients.

Image: CC