Politics & Policy

The Petraeus Biography

Paula Broadwell’s valentine to General Petraeus

If, for whatever reason, you didn’t know Paula Broadwell had ever been a freshman in college, you would figure it out real quick from reading her book on David Petraeus. That’s because her prose features the hallmark of every first-year university student’s research paper: the block quote. We’ve all been there: It’s 3 a.m., your paper is due in five hours, you don’t really know what you’re talking about, and you need another thousand words if you don’t want your professor to lose all respect for you. So you resort to God’s gift to 18-year-olds everywhere — the unnecessarily lengthy quote, chosen arbitrarily from a book you swear you read.

If I had a nickel for every block quote in All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, the unfortunately titled biography penned by the woman we now know to have been his paramour, I would have a lot of nickels. That’s how Broadwell’s tome works (and yes, your correspondent read the whole thing — it wasn’t exactly the most fun twelve hours ever): like an anthology of press releases, talking points, and well-written e-mails, strung together with a vague semblance of order, indicative of — maybe, just maybe — some small affection of the biographer for her subject. Petraeus is quoted so much, he deserves to be credited as a co-author.

This book could have been titled The Agony and the Ecstasy of David Petraeus; it’s tricky to write a hagiography of someone who isn’t dead yet, but Broadwell manages. Readers learn Petraeus is “intense,” “relentless,” “lean,” and even Messianic — “It was clear from their eyes that the men were still hurting; Petraeus had come at the right time,” and he “believed strongly in earned redemption.” When McChrystal’s untimely exit leaves American forces in a lurch, our subject sacrificially puts country first and offers himself to the troops, taking on all the weight of their sufferings. Sometimes, when he thinks nobody is creepily watching him, the notably non-demonstrative general puts his head down on his desk. Broadwell writes knowingly that “Petraeus never let anyone see this side of him.” Except, as circumstances suggest, he kind of did. Ruh-roh.

Regardless, one could append “What a stand-up guy” to just about any randomly chosen sentence about the general. Try it with these: “Even detractors conceded that Petraeus’s ability was off the charts.” “Although Petraeus worked people hard, he treated them well and let them know how much he depended upon and appreciated their great work.” “If [Senator Saxby] Chambliss was trying to use the general to score partisan points, he got nowhere.” “There was a new strategic force loosed in Kabul: Petraeus’s will.” Hm.

Young Petraeus is “preternaturally gifted” and praised by a superior for his “pleasant personality.” Middle-aged Petraeus motivates by example. Old Petraeus nobly insists he’ll never be a politician (got that right). Etc., etc. In short, Broadwell depicts a brave general who mentions his wife in his confirmation hearings, remains impervious to the political whims of his day, and draws accolades for his “staying power” — a man who “felt he had passed every test of loyalty he’d ever been given.” Indeed. His greatest setback is that he “could not be everywhere.” If only there was enough Petraeus for everyone.

So naturally, the question arises: Can Petraeus actually do wrong? Did Broadwell pick out a character flaw or eccentricity? Did he ever let fly an ill-timed decision or misplaced word? Good thing you asked, because at one point, “He thought he should have fought harder to remain in command through the end of the fighting season in October.” That would be a damning error — if it was an error, which it wasn’t. As it turns out, “He wasn’t sure what else he could have done.” Paraphrase: There was this one time Petraeus thought he should have tried harder but then it turned out he couldn’t have.

Another potential flaw is “what his critics saw as his ‘spinning’ of events.” Even the greatest saints have been known to tell stories on their own terms, eh? But you’d be wrong again; all that spinmeistering “was really a by-product of two of his greatest strengths: his unrelenting optimism and his insatiable appetite for facts.” But of course.

Broadwell’s book — noted for featuring intimate access to its subject — introduces readers to what might as well be the love child of Achilles and Billy Graham. Petraeus undoubtedly served his country at great personal cost, and saved the war in Iraq. Like all our troops, and especially those deployed to combat zones, he deserves gratitude and respect. But those interested in learning from his example should wait for a slightly fairer biography. This one — alas — came too soon.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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