The term "asymmetric warfare" refers to any conflict where there is a large disparity between belligerents. This disparity may be reflected in size, organization, equipment, tactics, strategic objectives and even philosophical beliefs. To put it a little more crudely, asymmetric warfare generally consists of a modern military force combatting some kind of guerrilla army, insurgency, uprising or armed resistance. In many ways, large-scale conventional wars are a thing of the past; almost every conflict in the world today is asymmetric. Indeed, Canada's recent expeditionary efforts in Afghanistan fit this bill perfectly, and one might argue that we still don't quite know what to make of the whole thing. That's why Pumpkinflowers: An Israeli Soldier's Story, by Toronto-born author Matti Friedman, may prove instrumental.
Conflict – both asymmetric and conventional – has been a defining feature of Israel, where Friedman currently resides, since its founding in 1948. In the early 1980s, Israel invaded Lebanon, ostensibly to disrupt the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had been operating in and striking from the southern part of the country. By 1985, the conventional aspect of the war was finished. Lebanon had more or less collapsed on itself while Syria and the PLO – former allies – fought against each other. Meanwhile, Israel had all but withdrawn, leaving a narrow strip of defensive outposts along Lebanon's southern borders (crucially, this South Lebanon Security Belt, as it came to be known, was inside Lebanese territory, which did nothing to soothe tensions).
What followed for the next 15 years was asymmetric warfare, as Lebanese resistance led by Hezbollah became increasingly aggressive. The road network became dangerous, militant attacks found their way into northern Israel and the Israeli Defence Force outposts throughout the Security Belt became more and more isolated. (It's interesting to note that IDF personnel did not receive ribbons for their service in the Security Belt, as senior political and military leadership insisted that the conflict was "low intensity.")
The titular Pumpkin of Friedman's book refers to a hilltop outpost in the Security Belt. Other such outposts bore similar names, Crocus and Red Pepper, among others. The other part of the title – Flowers – was the IDF codeword for casualties. Thus, whenever "Pumpkin Flowers" was transmitted over the radio, military personnel behind the lines would know exactly what the situation was.
And there were many casualties throughout this protracted, unnamed, asymmetric war. Some 250 Israeli soldiers alone lost their lives in the Security Belt. Figures on the Lebanese side are a little amorphous, but in any case, civilian deaths and displacement likely outnumbered any other figures. So much for low intensity. The day-to-day life of the Security Belt in general and Friedman's Pumpkin in particular was characterized by roadside bombs, firefights captured on video, short skirmishes with vague adversaries, coffins airlifted home (the same kind of fighting Canadians would learn all too well in Afghanistan). All of this is captured in Friedman's stark, unflinching prose, and it's not for the faint of heart.
Pumpkinflowers is divided into four parts. Each serves as a long-form essay or piece of literary non-fiction. In the first part, we are introduced to Avi, a young and somewhat misfit soldier who served at the Pumpkin during the mid-nineties. Through access to Avi's journals and letters – contrasted against a background of nineties movie and music references – Friedman gives us a fascinating glimpse of asymmetric warfare through the eyes of someone scarcely out of high school. I'll refrain from giving away the resolution of Avi's story, but it does involve an incident with strategic implications. The second part of the book picks up in the late nineties, as the Four Mothers movement gained momentum in an effort to pressure the Israeli government to withdraw from Lebanon. At first, the movement was small and met with a great deal of public derision, but within a few months (and with the assistance of what would become extensive media coverage), the movement had accrued thousands of supporters, and by the year 2000, the IDF began its withdrawal from the Security Belt.
Part three details Friedman's own service at the Pumpkin in 1999, shortly before the withdrawal operations began. Friedman's personal account is a testament of long stretches of boredom interrupted by intense close calls and short bursts of action – a contrast of experiences familiar to many soldiers the world over. Most evocative in part three is Friedman's description of how he and his comrades related to the human world outside their sandbags. A pair of game-hunters (are they the enemy? Should they be shot?), a nearby Lebanese town called Nabatieh (where the IDF soldiers could see flags displayed in support of various nations during the 1998 World Cup), a partly ruined red villa inhabited by a woman dubbed "the Babe" and a small restaurant on the bank of the Litani River. Friedman's prose makes these features both humanizing and, at the same time, isolating. This separation of worlds, and Friedman's tenuous straddling of both, is true asymmetry, and is perhaps the beating heart of Pumpkinflowers. On one hand, life goes on, even in this hard part of southern Lebanon; on the other hand, everything is imbued with threat.
Friedman saves the best for last with part four, where he provides a travelogue of his return to Lebanon in 2002. By the time of his return, he was a civilian, travelling with his Canadian passport and background to protect his anonymity, and Israel had formally withdrawn from the Security Belt. Friedman takes us from Beirut to the south. To Nabatieh, to the riverside restaurant, to stretches of road he and his comrades had fought along, and lastly to the rubbled remains of the Pumpkin itself. Throughout the telling of this journey, Friedman's prose – as direct as it is philosophical – shines the brightest. The trip is not without peril – more than once, Friedman senses people growing suspicious of his Canadian cover story, and Hezbollah and its sympathizers are everywhere. Yet, it's an astonishing opportunity nonetheless, to return to a dangerous and unpredictable place simply to see it as a civilian. As a human.
Israel's role with its neighbours is no less complicated or hazardous today than it was when the IDF withdrew from the Security Belt in 2000. Fortunately, Friedman doesn't moralize anywhere in Pumpkinflowers. He just offers his insights and observations as a thoughtful, articulate person – someone who was there. In the end, there are no answers to this conflict, or to asymmetric warfare in general, but there is at least the sense of coming full circle. Maybe that's the only symmetry anyone can expect.
Matt Lennox is the author of two novels, The Carpenter and Knucklehead. He is also an officer with the Queen's York Rangers, a Toronto-based army reserve unit. Lennox served in Afghanistan in 2008.