Book Review: "All In: The Education of General David Petraeus" by Paula Broadwell with Vernon Loeb
All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. By Paula Broadwell with Vernon Loeb. The Penguin Press, 2012, 394pp. $29.99. Writing a first book is challenging in its own right, much less doing so as events unfold. In All In, The Education of General David Petraeus, Paula Broadwell chose to add a third hurdle: writing the story of an individual, General David H. Petraeus, who has not only accomplished much in a high profile arena, but whose career has not yet completely run its course. In her 400 page work, based on her in-progress doctoral dissertation on the development of General Petraeus’ career, Broadwell has delivered a solid treatment of the General’s on-the-ground experiences in what was to become his final mission in uniform – command of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan from July 2010 until July 2011.
For many reasons, All In will be one of the must-reads for any serious student of military affairs and international security issues. All In is not a comprehensive biography of General, now Director, Petraeus, nor is it a comprehensive history of the war in Afghanistan. Those who seek either will come away disappointed. Nor is All In the cocktail party circuit “tell-all.” Indeed, Broadwell does a proper job in relaying the personal stories of the key players without betraying confidences or gossiping. In doing so, she does a valuable service to future writers by capturing insights that otherwise would be lost to history with the passage of time. While writing All In, Broadwell benefitted greatly from the labors of veteran journalist Vernon Loeb, whom she credits on the cover. The voice, however, is unmistakably that of Ms. Broadwell, and despite a few areas where editors could have reduced repetition and smoothed out transitions, All In is eminently readable, engaging, and will provide an excellent bridge for future scholarly treatments and more detailed assessments of various aspects of Petraeus’ career (e.g. Iraq) and the still-ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Broadwell tells the story of how General Petraeus became, as the late Richard Holbrooke candidly told a small group of civilians shortly before his death, “the greatest operational commander of our time.” All In is the story of those who shaped Petraeus’ thinking as a young officer and a story of a General whom the nation called to be the face of two unpopular wars – Iraq in the beginning of 2007 and Afghanistan in the summer of 2010. Likewise, this is the story of the challenges and successes that some of Petraeus’ protégé’s have faced during that latter conflict. Specifically, Broadwell follows three of the 101st Airborne Division’s Battalion Commanders and traces the outlines of military operations in 2010 and 2011 in Afghanistan, particularly those in Kandahar and Helmand. Broadwell chronicles the often vicious fighting against Taliban insurgents and her blow by blow description of battles in the Arghandab bring the reader into the situation as experienced by the commanders on the ground.
Broadwell also chronicles the exploits of two members of the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team (CAAT) and brings the reader into the struggle to prod the U.S. military to overcome its endemic aversion to small wars and insurgencies. While she does not address head-on the issue of whether “too much” has been attempted in Afghanistan as a matter of policy, her telling of the story does remind the reader not all in uniform were “true believers” in the value of COIN and that, indeed, some were simply dismissive of any complex and nuanced notions of conflict. Broadwell’s style may remind readers of James Kittfield’s Prodigal Soldiers (1995) – a story of U.S. military leaders who sprang from the experience of the Vietnam War.
Broadwell alternates between Petraeus’ command in Afghanistan and the career that shaped him prior to the challenges of Iraq and Afghanistan. She describes his relatively unassuming childhood where Petraeus’ father taught him that results and not excuses are what matter. She also chronicles his experiences as a junior officer and field grade leader, and the story is fascinating enough that the reader is left wanting more about what truly shaped and drove a young David Petraeus into such a tenacious and effective leader. Clearly, one of Petraeus key strengths as a leader was not only finding mentors, but also in seeking out junior officers (and civilians) to mentor himself and providing them opportunities to grow into even stronger leaders. Additionally, All In gives the reader an understanding of the importance Petreaus placed on building the right team as well as the challenge of ensuring that these teams did not tell him simply what they thought he wanted to hear. Broadwell uses her study to demonstrate how Petraeus’ experiences – not simply in Iraq, but more importantly over a lifetime of assignments around the world shaped his analytical and decisonmaking processes in Afghanistan.
Perhaps the most important take away during his career was that Petraeus felt that the enemy should not be allowed to define the rules of the fight: “when the enemy defined their rules, we just changed ours,” a young Lieutenant Colonel Petraeus explained to one of his subordinates during training exercises. Broadwell deliberately focuses much more on the operational nature of his command in Afghanistan and his interaction with his former protégé’s than with Petraeus’ dealings with peers, subordinate general and flag officers, senior civilian officials, and the Afghan military and civilian leadership. While there is some discussion of non-U.S. NATO forces, All In focuses on the U.S. military, almost exclusively the U.S. Army.
Broadwell’s measurement of his handling of sensitive issues such as air and ground rules of engagement, civilian casualties, and the Afghan Local Police program illustrate that Petraeus practiced what he preached in terms of understanding that “people are the center of gravity,” whether those under your own command or those you seek to protect from the insurgents. While it is understandable that there is not more of a discussion of General Petraeus’ interactions with often difficult Afghan senior officials and the complexities of Alliance politics, this does mean that the reader misses seeing how truly skilled Petraeus was as not only a soldier, but, in perhaps a way not seen since Eisenhower or Marshall, as a diplomat. Likewise, there is only scant discussion of the challenges Petraeus faced in dealing with a dysfunctional U.S. Embassy that had a critical role to play in the stabilization and development dimension of the COIN campaign.
In writing All In, Broadwell had tremendous access not only to Petraeus, but to those who were working or had worked with him. She interviewed over 150 individuals to include not just the General’s closest advisors, but former mentors and subordinates. The challenge Broadwell faced, of course, was not just filtering the subjectivity of those she interviewed, but to seek objectivity in her own analysis. The pride she has in her mentor/subject, his protégés, and her belief in the mission in Afghanistan most certainly shines through. While some will choose to disagree, this does not detract at all from the quality of the book.
In many ways it lets the reader understand how many of those who have served in the U.S. military feel about serving under such a uniquely capable set of military leaders such as Petreaus, McChrystal, Mattis, Stavridis, McRaven, and Rodriguez. No doubt, for Ms. Broadwell, it was hard not to be proud of the camaraderie, professionalism, and willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice that she witnessed while conducting her interviews. In the end, the strength of this book indeed lays in both Broadwell’s ability to empathize with her subject matter and that her access uniquely gave her the ability to obtain the views of participants as events happened or shortly thereafter when the emotion was often still raw. Indeed, for this alone, All In will stand the test of time and prove invaluable to future scholars and students of history.
Mark R. Jacobson is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund. He served as the Deputy NATO Senior Civilian Representative and an advisor both Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal from 2009-2011.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.