Thursday, November 15, 2012

Book Review: "All In", by Paula Broadwell

Posted By on Thu, Nov 15, 2012 at 12:46 PM

What about the book "All In: The Education of General David Petraeus"? After reading scores of newspaper stories about the Petraeus affair with "All In" author Paula Broadwell, I felt like I ought to try to read it. Duty calling.

At the Cossitt Library downtown, "All In" has already been moved from the prime space of new releases to the well-deserved obscurity of the stacks. Ms. Broadwell should be thankful. Her book, which had been plugged on The Daily Show and other programs, and her career as an author are among the casualties.

It is hard not to cringe when reading the likes of this:

"She (Holly Petraeus, wife of David Petraeus) is a symbol of the strength and dedication of families around the globe who wait at home for their loved ones . . . she has hung tough while I have been deployed for over five and a half years."

Or this, from the scant seven pages about the general's boyhood and years at West Point: "The preternaturally gifted young David Petraeus delivered." He married Holly Knowlton, the daughter of West Point's superintendent. She was "a beautiful, smart, and witty young woman."

Or this, in the acknowledgments: "special thanks go to Holly Petraeus."

I doubt the feeling is mutual. Ms. Broadwell better hope Ms. Petraeus isn't armed if they ever meet again.

Or this, from the Notes section: "I embedded with various units in the field; in all these locations I was able to view (limited) unclassified reports, cables, calendars, transcripts, and various PowerPoint briefings." According to several news accounts this week, classified documents were found on Broadwell's computer.

In light of the latest news, the most relevant part of the book is the preface, which describes how Broadwell met Petraeus in 2006 when she was a graduate student at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. One West Point graduate to another, she e-mailed him and "he immediately responded to the e-mail, inviting me to bounce ideas off him. I took full advantage of his open-door policy to seek insight and share perspectives."

A Ph.D. dissertation turned into a book, after they shared a run along the Potomac River during one of his visits to Washington. The rest is now old news, if not history. Broadwell cowrote the book with Vernon Loeb. It is not clear who did what. Loeb, metro editor at The Washington Post, said in a story in the Post that he was unaware of Broadwell’s romantic relationship with Petraeus.

"All In" says Major General Jack Galvin was Petraeus's most important mentor and gave him this advice: "When the going gets hard, we need a leader to pull us together. Through your mythology, people create you. Set the example. It doesn't have to be flamboyant . . . Live up to it all with the highest standards of integrity. You become part of the legend."

The book leaves some of the rough stuff to other authors, notably Bob Woodward and his book "Obama's Wars" which includes an unattributed comment from Petraeus about the Obama administration, "They're fucking with the wrong guy."

"When the comment turned up in Woodward's book, Petraeus, known for his accessibility and skillful press relations, felt himself pulling back. As he counseled subordinates in subsequent talks on leadership, someone is always watching. As had long ago become clear to him, very little was private in his life anymore. The scrutiny was enormous, and Petraeus tightened the mask of command further."

And on Woodward's remark on Petraeus's "endless campaign of self-promotion," Broadwell adds that "Even detractors generally conceded that Petraeus's ability was off the charts."

The book does not purport to be a biography but rather an examination of the field education of the commander responsible for "the surge" of 33,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2010 and the strategy of counterinsurgency. "I decided to meld my research with an on-the-ground account of his command in Kabul — his last military command, as it turned out," before Petraeus became CIA director. He resigned that position last Friday.

The tragedy, of course, is that Petraeus has led a full, honorable, and heroic life of service to his country, including three tours of Iraq. And Broadwell was on her way to stardom in the military and/or authorship. Her book has blurbs of praise from Tom Brokaw, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Thomas Ricks, and "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden.

Its credibility simply falls apart, however, in light of the latest news. Irrelevant details substitute for relevant details. Petraeus, as everyone now knows, runs a lot and e-mails a lot, often, Broadwell writes, "maintaining simultaneous e-mail conversations from his laptops in the backseat of his black GMC Yukon. He maintained his poker face, even on e-mail with trusted confidants."

She ought to know.

As a general, Petraeus was hardly a household name. A long magazine article on him or a piece on "60 Minutes" would have done the job. Plus, the effectiveness of his military strategy is far from clear as Broadwell noted: "As the war rages on, it remains difficult to make a conclusive judgment about the outcome."

Authorized biographies of living people might make money in some cases, but are not likely to be as critical of their subjects as, say, Michael Korda is in his contribution to the Eminent Lives series on a more famous general, "Ulysses S. Grant, The Unlikely Hero". Here he is on Mrs. Grant: "Indeed, 'plain' seems like a generous description." A biographer who said that to Grant's face or commented on his drinking or his generalship at Cold Harbor or Shiloh might have gotten punched out.

Paula Broadwell, David Petraeus, their spouses and families, and the American public would all have been better off if Broadwell had not gone all in and, instead, stuck to writing a Ph.D. dissertation.

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