A Soldier’s Story

Matti Friedman

Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2016, 256 pages

Book Review published on: April 28, 2017

Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force against Terrorists in response to 9/11, formalizing the start of the Global War on Terror.1 The United States initially relied on conventional, general-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Lower-visibility and clandestine counterterror tactics and operations emerged; their success or failure rested more fully on the shoulders of junior- and midgrade soldiers working alongside intelligence operations officers. On the same Friday before a holiday weekend that candidate Hillary Clinton met with the FBI regarding her use of a private mail server to discuss national security matters (with speculation in the press that some communications dealt with covert action-directed drone strikes), the administration released a report noting the United States killed between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants in counterterrorism strikes outside areas of active hostilities (i.e. outside Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan).2 The inference one could make of course is that the number of combatants killed inside these three “active” locales was therefore much, much higher. How much higher? Orders of magnitude? One might also reasonably ask if these operations are having the intended positive strategic impact on the Global War on Terror. Is the United States winning?

Matti Friedman’s Pumpkinflowers is at one level a compelling and insightful soldier’s memoir. On another level it acts as an equally evocative warning not to forget history, particularly with regard to extended counterterrorism campaigns. Since its creation, the State of Israel has been surrounded by existential threats—suffering through neighborly attempts to develop nuclear weapons capability, conventional invasions, state-sponsored terrorism and unconventional warfare. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in response to terrorists (or guerillas) who had been exploiting a weak, central government and conducting raids from Southern Lebanon. Initially seen as a success, via the expulsion in 1982 of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut, just three years later Israel had retreated to a thin strip of geography between Israel and Southern Lebanon they called the “security zone,” more akin to a buffer zone. Hezbollah, local Shiites financed and armed by Iran, took up the fight and introduced the term “suicide bomber” to our shared lexicon of terror. Both sides settled down to years of stalemate, with Israeli soldiers manning isolated outposts looking north into Lebanon, defending against an enemy that blended into and in fact emerged from the citizenry of the small Lebanese towns looking south.

How did this all end? As Friedman relates, things started to disintegrate in October 1994 when guerillas infiltrated the hilltop outpost Israel codenamed Pumpkin and filmed themselves victoriously planting the Hezbollah flag:

The significance wasn’t clear right away. That the TV images were the real weapons, that the Hezbollah fighters and Israeli soldiers had been turned into actors in an attack staged for the camera – these things weren’t things anyone understood yet.3

Then in 1997 two helicopters heading to Pumpkin crashed, killing seventy-three Israeli soldiers. The resulting emotional toll was felt most deeply by the loved ones of the dead; and from there came the activists—initially and derisively called “the four mothers”—who eventually convinced the government it was time to withdraw in 2000. This distinct Israeli War on Terror lasted eighteen years; not much was gained. The losses were tallied most obviously in lives lost and budgets depleted, and perhaps diminished national pride after being forced to retreat.

The historical parallels are striking. Much as with our own “train and equip” efforts of the past sixteen years, the original Israeli government resolution called for a shorter term commitment and only the support of the Israeli military to indigenous Lebanese forces. As Friedman highlights, the army never withdrew, which resulted in years of creeping “support.”4 In another passage he makes the comparison explicit—“the Americans did what we did, which was armor their convoys and become heavier and slower the more men they lost, and dig in and build hilltop outposts to control hostile territory, all of them very important until they were not and were abandoned.”5 Futility is the author’s point and he makes it well and often. Is there hope for our own efforts? Will a few thousand more counterterrorism strikes make any difference? I think I know Friedman’s answer.

Book Review written by: John G. Breen, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas


  1. Authorization for Use of Military Force, Pub. L. No. 107-40, 155 Stat. 224 (2001), accessed 26 April 2017, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-107publ40/pdf/PLAW-107publ40.pdf.
  2. Adam Entous and Devlin Barrett, “Emails in Clinton Probe Dealt with Planned Drone Strikes,” Wall Street Journal online, last modified 9 June 2016, accessed 26 April 2017, http://www.wsj.com/articles/clinton-emails-in-probe-dealt-with-planned-drone-strikes-1465509863 (subscription required); “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence website, accessed 26 April 2017, https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Press%20Releases/DNI+Release+on+CT+Strikes+Outside+Areas+of+Active+Hostilities.PDF; “Obama Administration Releases Death Toll from Airstrikes,” New York Times online, 1 July 2016, accessed 26 April 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/07/01/world/document-airstrike-death-toll-executive-order.html.
  3. Matti Friedman, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2016), 34.
  4. Ibid., 186.
  5. Ibid., 99.