By Bret Stephens
May 6, 2016
From 1985 to 2000, the Israeli military occupied an 11-mile-deep “security zone” in southern Lebanon, in an effort to prevent the area from becoming a staging ground for attacks by Hezbollah into Israel itself. Some 250 Israeli soldiers were killed fighting in the zone and another 840 were injured—numbers that, for a country of Israel’s size, proportionately exceed America’s casualties in Iraq. Yet the campaign was never given a proper name, and the soldiers who fought in it never received a ribbon for wartime service.
This was the Jewish state’s forgotten war. Yet as Matti Friedman notes in “Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story,” the fighting anticipated the kind of conflicts the U.S. would soon find itself waging in the Middle East—conflicts in which a modern army, technologically sophisticated but weakly supported by public opinion at home, gets bogged down in a failed state trying to hold the line against primitive but cunning adversaries motivated by religious zeal and determined to sustain the fight for decades, even generations. It’s the kind of war the West has yet to figure out a way of winning.
Mr. Friedman, a Canadian-born Israeli writer, served in Lebanon in the late 1990s at an exposed Israeli outpost called “the Pumpkin.” (His title comes from Israeli military jargon, where “flowers” mean wounded soldiers and “oleander” means a dead one.) This superb book is partly a history of the war, partly a personal memoir, and partly a work of political analysis. But mainly it is an effort to tell the story of the young men who fought to defend something “the size of a basketball court”—not all of whom survived.
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