The First War of the 21st Century

In his book "Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story," Matti Friedman illustrates the period in Southern Lebanon during the 1990s when, according to him, the elements of modern warfare were created

About a year ago, Matti Friedman, an Israeli-Canadian author and journalist and a reporter with the Middle Eastern Desk of Associated Press International, published in his homeland the English language version of his book. The Hebrew version of the book has been published in Israel just recently. The book tells the story of the "Dla'at" (= Pumpkin) IDF stronghold at Tel Dabsha on the Ali Taher mountain ridge within the Security Cordon in Southern Lebanon, to the east of the city of Nabatieh. Friedman, in those days still a new immigrant (to Israel), served there as a trooper and commander with the antitank company of the IDF Nahal Infantry Brigade in the years 1998 through 1999.

During the 1990s, the period being portrayed in Friedman's book, Israelis were intensely preoccupied (according to Friedman) with "The New Middle East" and the promise of imminent peace. The newspapers of the period published only slivers of information about the war being fought in Lebanon alongside headlines dealing with the Oslo agreements, the peace talks between Israel and Syria and the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan. The IDF was busy preparing for "The Real War", but none of the scenarios they were rehearsing ever materialized eventually. The realization took place in Lebanon, where the two elements – a New Middle East and a very real new war – merged into one.

Friedman uses the story of the Dla'at stronghold to describe the reality that emerged in those days within the Security Cordon in Southern Lebanon – which, in his view, evolved into the laboratory producing the elements of modern war. In the context of this war, extreme Islamist organizations operate within disintegrating states against powerful armed forces whose leaders are surprised to realize how limited or restricted their powers actually are.

Through a quasi-historical analysis, the author outlines the changes in the nature of war according to which "within a few years" new warlike materials, unique to the Security Cordon, would emerge elsewhere around the world and become well-known globally. Among these innovations, Friedman counts Muslim guerrilla fighters operating in underdeveloped countries, small-scale violent confrontations that render generals redundant and empower squad leaders, the use of public opinion and the media as weapons, et al.

Friedman describes the "Flag Incident" of October 29, 1994, where Hezbollah terrorists managed to enter a position of the Dla'at stronghold and raise their flag over it, as a turning point. The video footage taken by Hezbollah during that incident and disseminated through the social media evolved into a weapon in the modern war that had just begun.

Through the eyes of one of the "Four Mothers" – the protest movement that called for the withdrawal of the IDF from Lebanon, Friedman claims that the decision to establish the "Security Cordon" was not the outcome of a structured, definite decision-making process. As far back as 1984, a government resolution regarding the full withdrawal of forces from Lebanon mentioned the establishment of a buffer zone along the border, to be defended by the troopers of the South Lebanon Army "with IDF support". Over the years, this IDF support assumed the form of isolated strongholds, convoys being attacked, ambushes, roadside explosive charges (some of which are described in detail in Friedman's book) – a whole world that became the focal point in the lives of thousands of young Israelis.

According to Friedman, the Security Cordon never appeared to be the result of an explicit decision, but a part of nature – something that has always been there and will always be there. This is also the reason why the fighting in the Security Cordon was never recognized by an official name or a service ribbon. It became known simply as "Lebanon" – a term that betrayed nothing: neither the objective, nor the measures or the duration. "Lebanon" has become a fact of life since then and forever. As long as the price is not too high, the matter will not become the subject of serious deliberation. Over the years of its existence, the Security Cordon exacted its toll bit by bit: a trooper lost to an enemy ambush here, two troopers killed by a roadside charge there. Another family or two – but life went on. The "Helicopter Disaster" of February 4, 1997 and the seventy-three IDF troopers killed in that tragedy are portrayed as a turning point, pursuant to which more and more voices were heard arguing that the presence in the Security Cordon was claiming more human lives than it was saving.

In the last few years of the Israeli presence in Southern Lebanon, the same questions were raised repeatedly: "What are we doing here? Are we defending the citizens of Israel against infiltrations from across the border?" Admittedly, Hezbollah was no longer trying to cross the border. When they wanted to attack Israel, they simply deployed a launcher in Lebanese territory and launched rockets over the strongholds of the Security Cordon into the depth of Israel's territory.

Friedman does an excellent job illustrating the "routine" of the small group of people that served in the front-line posts in Lebanon by describing the military career of the late Staff Sergeant Avi Affner from the combat engineering company of the IDF Nahal Infantry Brigade, who was killed in the Helicopter Disaster, his own personal memories and interviews with former IDF troopers.

The last chapter of the book is devoted to the impressions of Friedman (who carries a Canadian passport) from a visit to the mountain ridge where he had served in the past that was held in 2002, two years after the IDF pullout from Lebanon. The sum-total of all of his experiences is embodied in a fascinating, well-written book, read with bated breath.

***

Brig. Gen. (res.) Dr. Dani Asher is a military historian and researcher who specializes in the operations of the Arab armed forces in the Arab-Israeli wars and in the history of intelligence.

 

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