All In: The Education of David Petraeus

  • Paula Broadwell with Vernon Loeb
  • Penguin Press
  • 352 pp.

Given firsthand access to her subject, the author looks at the superstar general’s intellectual development and how he put it to action.

That urge to tug on Superman’s cape — our innate curiosity almost demands it. What kind of person does it take to influence the course of history? How mortal are the seeming immortals that walk among us?

Gen. David Petraeus, the most lionized American general in the post-9/11 period, is one such larger-than-life figure.He has a reputation as a visionary, as a master strategist, tactician, diplomat, economic-development expert, media handler and even public intellectual.

His reputation is based on accomplishments. In 2006 he developed a revolutionary manual on counterinsurgency, based in part on successful nation-building efforts he led with aplomb in Mosul, Iraq, in 2003-4. In 2007 he applied the manual with great effect during his command of the “surge” of 30,000 additional U.S. forces that pulled Iraq back from the brink of civil war. A subsequent promotion gave him theater responsibility for, among other things, the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He soon agreed to what was, in effect, a demotion: becoming senior commander in Afghanistan with direct control of U.S. forces. Petraeus, President Obama believed, was the best hope the U.S. had for stabilizing the country enough to allow for a planned drawdown of forces there ina year’s time. Next, the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed his nomination to the directorship of the CIA, a position Petraeus took after retiring from the military in 2011.

Even his body seems unbound by human limitations: Over the course of his 37-year career in the army, Petraeus seemed to have shrugged off a major gunshot wound to the chest, a crash landing while skydiving that fractured his pelvis and a bout with prostate cancer.

How did Petraeus become Petraeus?

All In: The Education of David Petraeus, a new book by Paula Broadwell with Vernon Loeb, is the most recent and highly anticipated contribution to a growing body of work that seeks to answer this question.

Broadwell’s credentials make the book more than just a run-of-the-mill biography. The book is grounded in her Ph.D. dissertation research, which traces key themes in Petraeus’s intellectual development — his education, his experience and the influence of key mentors — and examines how he put these intellectual principles to action during his career. Her research and interviews were supplemented with assistance from Loeb, a reporter and editor who has worked for many major U.S. newspapers.

But what will draw readers deep into this book is Broadwell’s unprecedented firsthand access to her subject. Petraeus, who has a penchant for reaching out to intellectuals and the media, unexpectedly offered her a front-row seat at what would become the final act of his military career. Over the course of 15 months, Broadwell embedded with Petraeus’ headquarters in Afghanistan as well as with units in the field; conducted a wide range of interviews; was given access to Petraeus’ private notes, letters and e-mails; and accompanied the four-star general on trips back to Washington.

All told, the book is based on three years of research and 700 interviews with 150 individuals. Although far from exposing the man behind the Lone Ranger mask, it is well worth reading.

The bulk of the book traces the arc of Petraeus’ command in Afghanistan. The starting point is his arrival at the White House to accept the job less than two hours after Obama removed Gen. Stanley McChrystal from the position over a controversial article in Rolling Stone. The symmetrical end point is Petraeus’ return to D.C. nearly a  year later to discuss the start of the drawdown with U.S. policymakers and to be confirmed as CIA director. Interspersed throughout are flashbacks to key developmental stages of his life and career.

The book concludes by weaving together accounts of Petraeus’ last few weeks of active duty, reflections on the two U.S. wars in the Middle East and key themes in his career, particularly his last assignment in Afghanistan. The subjects treated here include counterinsurgency, coalition management, Petraeus’ leadership strengths and the impact that the Petraeus legacy will likely have on the military going forward.

Readers will find the book wide in scope, rich in detail, authoritative and peppered with insights. Particularly riveting are the firsthand accounts of key historical events, such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ final visit to Afghanistan, the periods when Petraeus’ boots were on the ground in D.C. as he engaged with the White House and Congress, and even, tangentially, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound.  

It is a tall order, though, for one relatively slim book to cover the history of a great man’s intellectual development, provide detailed coverage of his command of a major ongoing war and link the two in a way that provides clear and compelling conclusions. This book inexplicably ranges across even more ground by also chronicling the war at the tactical level through the eyes of three battalion commanders and one Special Forces officer.

The scope, then, is ambitious. Perhaps as a result, this reviewer occasionally found the narrative difficult to follow, with the focus on the over-plentiful trees at times obscuring the view of the forest. Readers may wish that the author had injected more of her own voice into the narrative, both to explain the takeaways from the descriptive and analytical sections and to sharpen a larger argument about leadership development.  

Author voice is important for a second reason. In many places it is unclear whether a particular statement or perspective belongs to Broadwell, Petraeus himself or others.  For example, when discussing the initial response to Petraeus’ counterinsurgency manual, Broadwell states, “Petraeus welcomed the constructive criticism.” Yet there is no mention of how the author knows what Petraeus felt about the criticism, raising questions about the objectivity of the broader analysis.  

True, the holder of each and every perspective cannot always be revealed in a book on a high-profile figure in a high-profile war, particularly when the subject still remains a heavyweight player in U.S. policymaking. But Broadwell’s exhaustive research and firsthand experience provide her great authority. I, for one, would be fascinated to know not only her own opinions but also exactly whose opinions and analysis she drew on to reach her conclusions.

This is important because the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not minor conflicts, Petraeus is no insignificant man and the larger issues raised in the book — especially how Petraeus developed into a leader who shaped world events — are not trivial matters. For decades hence, researchers will be analyzing these two wars. Specificity will be key as we seek to understand how Petraeus’ development might inform the grooming of future American superheroes.

Andrew Marble holds a Ph.D. in political science, has worked for more than a decade as an editor in the field of U.S. policy on Asia and is currently writing a biography on the leadership of Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs (1993-97).

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