Echoes of Sassoon: A Conversation with Matti Friedman
by Brian Castner
When Matti Friedman was seventeen years old, he moved from a typical middle-class neighborhood in Toronto to a kibbutz in Israel, to work as a farmer. A few years later, he was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, and fought in Southern Lebanon in 1998 and 1999, in a conflict that still has no official name. After his military service ended, he settled in Jerusalem and became a journalist with the Associated Press. It took him fifteen years to write about his war. His memoir of that time, Pumpkinflowers, was published last year, and was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book.
More Canadian soldiers died in the Great War than in any other conflict, and its influence can be felt throughout Pumpkinflowers. This puts Friedman at odds with most contemporary American veteran-authors, who often reach to other conflicts for comparison—Vietnam for Iraq, and Korea for Afghanistan, have become typical—when writing about their wars. Recently, Friedman and I discussed why that might be, and how and why World War I would color a Canadian’s view of a very different war in Middle East.
Castner: Pumpkinflowers takes its title from two agrarian images from the kibbutz: the "pumpkin" is the outpost you occupied in southern Lebanon, and "flowers" is the Israeli code-name for soldiers killed in action. The horrible consequences of war, your lost comrades, are hidden in such a peaceful natural symbol. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the fields of poppies at Flanders. How did the WWI poets affect your writing of this book?
Friedman: I think the guys who wrote about that war understood that the power of the experience doesn't lie in descriptions of combat, which can't really be described anyway, but in the gap between normal life and nature on one hand, and the war on the other. So they give us those poppies first, as in the famous poem—and then these dead soldiers speaking to us from underneath them. Or you'll get a poem starring an oblivious rat working both sides of no-man's land, in Isaac Rosenberg's "Break of Day in the Trenches," and through that character you see how sick the whole thing is. In Siegfried Sassoon's trilogy about the war he spends almost all of the first book just writing about horses and cricket and bucolic England, to set up what happens afterward: the fall. I think they were on the right track. (Image above, candid of Friedman with Israeli Army members, Lebanon).
I moved to Israel at 17 but grew up in Canada, where people wear red poppies on Nov. 11 and recite "In Flanders Fields" (which was written by a Canadian, John McCrae). Both of my mother's grandfathers fought in WWI, which still looms very large in the country's collective mind. I think that conflict was much less present for Americans our age growing up in the '80s and '90s, maybe because of fresher memories like Vietnam. Am I right? Do you remember hearing much about it, and did any of the writing affect your attempts to describe Iraq? (Image right, Dutch WWII survivor and Canadian citizen, Peter Melkert, helps with annual Canadian poppy sell on Nov. 11. Photo credit: Andrew Vaughan, The Canadian Press).
Castner: I think you are right. My family's tradition of military service is extensive—Civil War, World War II, Vietnam—but it skips World War I. I'm not alone in that. America joined the war late, fewer served. Most small towns in America have a Civil War monument, and the Vietnam memorial is famous, but the Great War was obscured. So I don't think it’s freshness or importance, exactly, but connection. Our grandfathers were in World War II, our dads and uncles in Vietnam, the Civil War in our text books and playing out in the civil rights struggle, but World War I was....where? I grew up in Buffalo, on the Canadian border, watching hockey night in Canada, and remember asking my dad why all the coaches wore red poppies the month of November.
That said, my connection to World War I started during my first tour in Iraq, because the security for my EOD unit came from the 3rd Infantry Division. They are known as "The Rock of the Marne," for defending that French river in 1918. And the war we were fighting looked similar in that offensive technology—machine guns and artillery in WWI, IEDs in Iraq—was far outpacing tactics and armor.
I think my writing of Iraq, though, was much more influenced by modern culture: cinematic descriptions, chopped up narrative like a hyper-edited music video. The question in a horror movie is always "when do you show the monster?" In The Long Walk, I show the monster on the first page, and then beat the reader over the head with it for the rest of the book. I admire what you did in Pumkinflowers because it is far more restrained. The violence has a different kind of impact when it's anticipated, with tension. As you say, many WWI poems don’t start in the trench, they start with something natural, pastoral. Did you plan this out from the beginning, when writing Pumpkinflowers? Or did form follow function, since in the pumpkin, you were stuck in your own trench? Do you feel some affinity for those Great War soldiers, in the military experience and not just in literary treatment?
Friedman: There's an energy and a directness to The Long Walk that makes it feel urgent. You came back disturbed and things hadn't settled and the reader really feels it. I wrote my book more than a decade after the events, so I thought about them differently.
I was looking for inspiration when I was researching Pumpkinflowers, and just wasn't finding it until I read Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory and was introduced in earnest to the world of WWI literature. I dove in and found what I was looking for – these voices that were sensitive but also removed, almost cool. I was surprised at how effective that turned out to be, especially in delivering scenes of violence.
And in a strange way, the wars felt similar. Not in terms of the violence, of course—if you count fatalities, the entire war I'm describing in Lebanon was probably a good morning on the Western Front. But in the way the soldiers were static for years, not conquering land or retreating, just hunkered down, waiting, observing the landscape, wondering what the enemy was up to. In Lebanon we were in these sandbagged trenches, with machine guns. We called our positions "the line," and we had a dawn alert, just like the soldiers in WWI. The scale and context of the war were obviously completely different, but I think if you’d dropped a 1917 grunt into our outpost he wouldn't have been confused about what to do.
Castner: I'm struck by how our tracks begin in parallel, and then diverge in the final product. Meaning, you and I are the same age, we both grew up on Lake Ontario, only a hundred miles apart, and then we both fought in Middle Eastern wars that featured roadside bombs and general futility. But your memoir is full of floral restraint, and mine is frenetic and technological. To overgeneralize, yours ended up stereotypically Canadian, and mine similarly American. Is that right? In your future writing, do you think this Great War perspective will continue to hold? Is it baked into your worldview? (Image left, Castner on airfield in Iraq).
Friedman: I never thought of the style question that way, but it’s an interesting point. I think both styles as you described them might be attempts specifically to deal with this experience, the soldier’s experience, and aren’t necessarily going to work in other writing – unless all we’re planning to write is military memoirs, which isn’t the case with either of us. Right now I'm writing a book about spies, and while I still think the reserved tone is effective, in this case the elegiac and floral tone of the Great War writers doesn't really fit. It’s important to write a war book if you’ve seen something like that, but you don’t want to get stuck there, either in terms of subject or style.
Brian Castner is a nonfiction writer, former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, and veteran of the Iraq War. He is the bestselling author of All the Ways We Kill and Die and the war memoir The Long Walk, which was adapted into an opera and named an Amazon Best Book. His journalism and essays have appeared in the New York Times, WIRED, Boston Globe Magazine, VICE, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Buzzfeed, The Daily Beast, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and on National Public Radio. He is the co-editor of The Road Ahead, a collection of short stories featuring veteran writers, and has twice received grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, to cover the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2014, and to paddle the 1200 mile Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean in 2016. His newest book, Disappointment River, will be published by Doubleday in the spring of 2018.
Matti Friedman's first book, The Aleppo Codex, won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize, the American Library Association's Sophie Brody Medal, the Canadian Jewish Book Award, and other honors. It was published in Israel, Australia, Holland, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Russia, and South Korea.
Matti's reporting has taken him from Israel to Lebanon, Morocco, Moscow, and the Caucasus, and his writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He is a former Associated Press correspondent and a regular contributor to Tablet Magazine. Two essays he wrote about media coverage of Israel after the 2014 Gaza war, for Tablet and The Atlantic, triggered intense discussion and have been shared together on Facebook more than 100,000 times. He was born in Toronto and lives in Jerusalem.