Powerful account of youthful Israelis maturing, fighting, and dying at a forgotten Lebanon outpost.
In this limber, deceptively sparse take on the Middle East’s tightening spiral of violence, Friedman (The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible, 2012) combines military history and personal experience on and off the line in deft, observant prose. The narrative is reminiscent of novels by Denis Johnson and Robert Stone, linking combat’s violent absurdity to the traumatized perspectives of individual participants. Friedman covers the period from about 1994 to 2000, and most of the action takes place at a fortified border emplacement, nicknamed the Pumpkin, meant to prevent guerrilla incursions from southern Lebanon. The author notes that he and his predecessors found themselves “in a forgotten little corner of a forgotten little war, but one that has nonetheless reverberated with quiet force in our lives….Anyone looking for the origins of the Middle East of today would do well to look closely at these events.” In the first section, Friedman dramatizes the experiences of an early unit serving there, focusing on Avi, a soldier who fulfills the infantry archetype of the rebellious miscreant who was changed by vicious combat, here against an increasingly professionalized Hezbollah. Avi’s death in a helicopter accident fueled the civilian peace movement, represented by the anguish of the mothers of such casualties. Yet, as Friedman discovered during his own tour of the Pumpkin, the enemy they faced was quietly mutating: “Israel found itself facing an enemy other than the one it thought it was fighting.” Throughout, the author grapples with questions regarding both Israeli aggression and the nature of the state’s survival. In a chilling final section, he chronicles his travels as a Canadian tourist to his former combat zone in Lebanon, encountering friendly residents in thrall to Hezbollah and seething with anti-Semitism.
A haunting yet wry tale of young people at war, cursed by political forces beyond their control, that can stand alongside the best narrative nonfiction coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq.