By Steven Martinovich
Since his retirement last August not much has been heard from David Petraeus, probably leading many Americans to presume he's enjoying a well-earned retirement after nearly four decades in the military. Petraeus is, of course, actually the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. For a former military man Petraeus is probably happy that his newest job is necessarily lower profile while still enabling him to fight the war against terrorism at the highest level.
Paula Broadwell's All In: The Education of General David Petraeus chronicle's the man's career with particular emphasis on his time in Iraq and Afghanistan. The picture she paints is of a soldier of nearly inexhaustible energy, impressive intellect, an extraordinary determination to succeed and capable of juggling enough balls in the air to earn the respect of any circus professional. No surprise why Petraeus is often credited with rescuing both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from certain failure.
The son of a no-nonsense Dutch immigrant sea captain and American librarian, Petraeus was driven to be a success from birth. From an early age he seemed to succeed at virtually everything and proximity to West Point all but assured he'd chose the military as a career. His rise through the ranks seems, at least to an observer, to have been almost effortless as high profile assignments followed each other without interruption. His first class intellect was fed by being seemingly at every important posting during the Cold War, its aftermath and the rise of international terrorist networks.
Although Petraeus gained his greatest fame for commanding the surge in Iraq, All In notes that public awareness of him actually grew in 2006 after his initial tour in Iraq when he co-wrote a new field manual on counterinsurgency tactics – an effort informed by the 2003 war, time spent in Central America and his doctoral dissertation on American tactics in Vietnam. That book was essentially his road map in 2007 where he used the surge to combat the Iraqi insurgency not only through military power, but a multi-pronged approach designed, to employ the vernacular of another war, to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi populace.
As Broadwell shows, that success prompted his move to Afghanistan to oversee a similar, if far more difficult effort. With American attention focused on Iraq, previous gains in Afghanistan were reversed and the Taliban was able to re-establish itself in many parts of the country. With tactics refined in Iraq, Petraeus was able to pacify large sections of Afghanistan and force the Taliban on the defensive. As All In argues, however, those gains are and remain tenuous and could be reversed once American forces largely leave the country in 2014.
Most readers will probably be most interested in the military aspect of Petraeus' career but All In does explore his interactions with the civilian political power structure. Widely viewed as a "Bush general", Petraeus faced ongoing skepticism from many in the Obama White House. Though he went to great lengths to avoid anything that could be construed as a political statement and publicly supported all of Obama's decisions, one can read between the lines and divine that Petraeus did not support the White House's ambitious force drawdown plan in Afghanistan. As a soldier, however, Petraeus publicly maintained that it was his duty to carry out whatever the decisions were by the president regardless of his own personal opinions.
If there is a weakness to All In it may be that we never truly learn about the private man himself, though to be fair to Broadwell that examination didn't seem to be one of her motivations. Although Petraeus occasionally admits to difficulty maintaining an emotional mask when hearing of the loss of soldiers under his command, his private inner life remains cordoned off to us. Perhaps, though, in this age of over-sharing that isn't a mark against this book. If anyone doesn't, and shouldn't, need to share their emotions with us it should be a commander of soldiers in battle.
The two wars and Petraeus' efforts probably could have covered multiple volumes and still left much left to be explored. All In is, however, does a fine job covering that ground – not surprising given Broadwell's access to Petraeus and many of the other players. Thanks to her efforts we are given a glimpse into the life of a man who is remarkable for a number of reasons, not only because he refused to admit defeat in two of America's wars. All In proves, despite America's recent woes, that it is still capable of turning out the best and the brightest and allowing them to fulfill their destinies.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.
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