Small Wars Journal

All In … but for How Long?: A Review Essay

Tue, 02/14/2012 - 5:47am

Paula Broadwell with Vernon Loeb, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, New York, The Penguin Press, 2012, xxxi + 395 pages, $29.95.

I picked up this book with some hesitation.  For me, any book about General David Petraeus has an uphill climbI have known Dave Petraeus since he was a Captain.  We served together twice.  He is one of the most remarkable people that I have ever met, and that fact was as clear when he was a Major as it was when he was a Major General.  Moreover, I have read many other books about my old comrade, including works by real pros:  Rick Atkinson, Greg Jaffe, and Linda Robinson.   This book also focuses on Petraeus’s time in Afghanistan, another source of hesitation.  I have been writing about Afghanistan since 1980, and last year finished a book on the war there.  I visited General Petraeus in Kabul last summer and continue to follow the war closely.  I am a tough audience on the subject of Dave Petraeus or the war in Afghanistan, but I was pleasantly surprised by this book.  All In: The Education of General David Petraeus is a well-researched, clearly written book that taught me much about an old friend, the war in Afghanistan, the kind of struggle going on there now, and the young officers who have to lead and advise soldiers in the Hindu Kush.  

The title, All In comes from a phrase Petraeus used with President Bush that also summarizes how he lives his life.  This attractive volume is actually three interwoven, artfully crafted, well-written tales:  the evolution of David Petraeus, the man; the war fought by his battalion commanders and special operators; and the politics of the high command.   Much of the first tale has been told before, but it is full of lessons and bears repeating: born the son of an immigrant; raised with books, love, and competitiveness; top of his class at West Point; married the boss’s talented daughter, Holly;  served with distinction in infantry units where he challenged his soldiers with tough tactical and physical training; collected important mentors, among them Generals William Knowlton, Jack Galvin, and Carl Vuono;  earned a Princeton Ph.D. by writing on the lessons of Vietnam; and developed a talent for speaking, writing, and telling his side of the story.  Some critics, of course, consider Dave Petraeus a publicity hound, but publicity is risky:  it follows action and exposes hypocrisy without mercy.  (John Edwards, QED) The media can be worked, but it can’t be owned.  It will praise you or cut you with equal facility. The only sure protection as a public official is to play it straight, tell it like it is, and to be lucky in the best, i.e., Seneca’s,  sense of the term:  “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity (p xxx-xxxi).”

Petraeus habitually came out on top of his profession, but not because he avoided hardship.  He conquered his most serious problems with will and persistence.  Shot in the chest in a training accident, his life was saved by Dr. Bill Frist, later an important senator.  Days later he was doing pushups.  Years later, in another assignment, pushing the envelope, he broke his hip in a sport parachuting accident, but kept fit by swimming and returned to duty in record time.  After his third tour in Iraq, with nary a word to the press, he conquered prostate cancer and radiation treatments.  He and his family had to endure his years in the combat zone, and along with that, the knowledge of casualties, many of whom were close friends.   Through it all, his devotion to duty, iron will, and relentless drive never flagged.

Success in conflicts on the low end of the spectrum became the hallmark of Petraeus’s career.  His superiors recorded outstanding performances in Haiti with the United Nations, and in Bosnia with IFOR, hunting terrorists.  Wars came relatively late in his military career.  Already a Major General, he lead the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, into Iraq in 2003, and while fighting well, also made a reputation as an expert in reconstruction and stabilization, telling his officers that he saw “money as ammunition (p 192).” He always remained ready to fight during reconstruction, as the division did in killing Uday and Qusay, the toxic offspring of Saddam Hussein. 

He took the Division back to Fort Campbell, but he was soon recalled to Iraq to revitalize the training of the Iraqi Army and Police.  On his return to the States, the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Pete Schoomaker, sent him to command the Army’s staff college and doctrine factory at Fort Leavenworth, with clear guidance:  “Shake up the Army, Dave (p 194).”  He did just that, forging with Marine Generals Jim Mattis and James Amos, an Army-Marine-civilian expert effort to rewrite counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine for the 21st Century.  He employed the new doctrine for the first time during the Iraq surge.  (Lest this review add to the public’s confusion, many officers in Iraq and Afghanistan used COIN techniques as early as 2003.  Indeed, the new COIN manual was in part based on exemplary work in those two theaters.)

In both Iraq and in Afghanistan, he was the relief pitcher, called into to stop the opponent’s offensive and captain a “surge” of home team efforts.  He was the “go to” General for two radically different Presidents.  Petraeus paid close attention to the soft side of counterinsurgency, but in Iraq and Afghanistan, his time in command was also characterized by a marked increase in the use of force and rising enemy death tolls.  Militarily, the surge and socio-political change in Iraq ended the war there on a relatively high note, but Afghanistan has proven to be a harder case.  Night raids, drone strikes, and an increase in the use of close air support created lots of progress, but not without significant political downsides.  Despite considerable expense and the valiant service of 140,000 ISAF troops, seven months after Petraeus’s departure from Afghanistan, progress there still remains “fragile and reversible,” in his signature phrase. 

One could not exaggerate the difficulty of applying the tenets of population-centric counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.  A mountainous country, fractious ethnic groups, a weak indigenous government, interference from neighboring states, a world class drug problem, and the detritus of 33 years of war have combined to create a harsh operational environment. The officers who have to deal with the physical and human terrain, the commanders and advisors who guided Petraeus’s legions, are the second strand in the trilogy of tales in this book. 

Broadwell and Loeb do an excellent job of chronicling the triumphs and tribulations of three battalion commanders --- LTCs David Fivecoat, David Flynn, and J.B. Vowell--- from the 101st Airborne Division; and an Army Special Forces Major Fernando Lujan, an Afghan hand, who worked closely with the Afghan National Army, fighting both the Taliban and his own officious bureaucracy.  The role of skeptical observer here was played by civilian COIN advisor, Doug Ollivant, an Army veteran of Iraq surge planning and, later, the National Security Council staff.  Ollivant’s well-informed observations come from his comparative perspective, his deep knowledge of COIN best practices, and lots of time in various Afghan districts, where all politics is surely local.  Amazingly, all five of these mid-grade operatives forged a personal connection to General Petraeus, whose multidimensional networking is a truly impressive aspect of his command style.

The third tale in All In is the story of the politics of the high command.  Broadwell and Loeb take the reader through a number of key issues:  the push for the Afghanistan surge; the McChrystal affair, where Petraeus went from being one of McChrystal’s bosses to being his successor; and Petraeus’s interaction with Ambassadors Holbrooke and Crocker, and their three way dance with an increasingly difficult Afghan President, Hamid Karzai. 

The most noteworthy Broadwell-Loeb vignette in this area comes toward the end of Petraeus’s command, when President Obama decided in 2011 to drawdown the surge force much faster than any of the Generals had recommended.  Retired General Jack Keane --- a Petraeus mentor, former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, and an outside advisor to President Bush --- was concerned and asked him: “should you consider resigning ?” Petraeus replied: “I don’t think quitting would serve our country.  [It would be] more likely to create a crisis.  And I told POTUS I’d support his ultimate decision.  Besides, the troops can’t quit…. (p 296).” In this civil-military crisis, Petraeus set a textbook example of proper civil-military relations and exemplified the model senior commander that Clausewitz talked about:  a statesman who never forgets that he is first and foremost a general. 

The authors of All In get it right. Petraeus was and is a transformative leader.  It is hard to argue with Secretary Gates who, in writing to Petraeus toward the end of his command tour said:

To call [your] service remarkable is an understatement…. You have stepped forward as the indispensible soldier/scholar of this era, transforming the U.S. Army, and the entire military approach to war fighting, from training to capabilities. In the field, you have changed the course of two wars, an unprecedented accomplishment…. But I believe your greatest legacy will be as the leader, mentor, and role-model of one of the most battle-tested, adaptive, and innovative generations of military leaders the United States has ever known … (p 325).

Petraeus remained all in until the last days of his command.  When he took off his uniform he became the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he continues to serve in the highest traditions, even if he has not yet motivated the masses at Langley to run in formation or conduct pushup contests in their secure vaults.  His successors in Afghanistan have continued his policies with a new wrinkle:  they will turn over the combat lead to Afghan forces in 2013, changing the primary ISAF mission to security force assistance, minimizing the Western footprint, and increasing assistance to the growingly capable Afghan national security forces.  Reconciliation efforts have also picked up, but their prognosis remains uncertain.

All In: the Education of General David Petraeusends at the point where the United States and its allies must now begin:  determining the future of its war effort in Afghanistan.  While McChrystal, Petraeus, Crocker, et al. clearly wanted to finish the job, it is not clear what will happen in 2014 when the allied expeditionary force leaves.   Will we repeat the mistakes of the 1990s, when we thought our work was done and turned our backs on the Afghans, or will we design an appropriate force structure and aid package to give Afghanistan a fighting chance to become a decent government, with an excellent Army and Police force? 

One hopes we will do the right thing, but one looks in vain for signs that the Administration or the NATO alliance is marshalling its domestic forces and lobbying the allies for the force needed to help the Afghans help themselves.  I have argued in this journal that an appropriate force for that task must be approximately 15,000 allied soldiers, backed by 20 billion dollars of economic and security assistance funding.  Many experts tell me that this modest force and budget --- a bit more than 10 percent of the 2012 effort --- are wildly optimistic projections.  Political will in the West is weak, they say.  Wise bureaucrats say the future really depends on the United States and Afghanistan quickly completing their long-lingering strategic partnership agreement.  Other skeptics tell me that nothing will happen before the U.S. presidential election, and then our war in Afghanistan --- but maybe not the war in Afghanistan --- will come to complete end, as it did in Iraq.  

In any case, success is still quite possible.  However, if we don’t get the wavering Allies on board at the Chicago summit in May 2012, we will miss out on our best chance to design a future worthy of the sacrifice of David Petraeus and the heroes that he led in Afghanistan.  Our leaders are making the right noises, but the solid plans needed to be all in for the long term are not yet in evidence.  

Another Petraeus legacy is at risk.  Will we continue to develop our expertise in irregular warfare or will we see post-Vietnam history repeat itself, and watch the U.S. Armed Forces turn its collective back on the last decade to pursue the more familiar forms of high intensity warfare?  So far, DoD has come up strong, declaring counterinsurgency and stability operations a priority mission area.  At the same time, however, it has approved plans to reduce the Marines and the Army and pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region.  There is no short-term organizational risk here, but the long-term signs suggest that our expertise in small wars issues could wane due to budget cuts or lack of command emphasis.  Hopefully, smart analysts --maybe at the CIA -- can remind the national leadership of the prevalence of irregular warfare and the need to keep those tools sharp and ready. 

This essay should not start and end with the reviewer’s trepidations.  It should end by saying that All In: The Education of General Petraeus is a superb book, well-written, and true to its purposes.  Its readers will come away with a deeper understanding of David Petraeus, his legacy, and the wars and warriors that he left behind.  Staff and War College students looking for a great book on strategic leadership or transformational leaders will not be disappointed.   May one day we be able to say the same thing about our future policy toward Afghanistan.

About the Author(s)

Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army Colonel, served DoD in and out of uniform for four decades.  His decade plus in the Pentagon was capped off by service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, 2001-04. He taught for 25 years at West Point and the National War College, and for more than two decades in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. He is an author in and co-editor (with Richard Hooker) of Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War, NDU Press, 2015. Collins is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and holds a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University.



Tue, 09/28/2021 - 10:10am

Great essay review, as a professional writer it was a great pleasure to read this. I am a huge fan of The Crucible, a playwright by Arthur Miller, so I have written many essays about him and his work, you can find the details of my essays on The Crucible here. I am sure that they will be useful to many since there is a very detailed analysis from which you can find details and details that you did not know about before. 

Nate F.

Wed, 02/15/2012 - 10:49am

COL Collins - I appreciate your summary of All In, but have to say I'm a little disappointed overall. I've spent the past few years immersed in your works, and the review seems to fall short of your usual insight. I'm sure my disappointment stems from my own expectation of (or more likely, desire for) the studied analysis I have come to expect.

Unfortunately, all the reviews I've read for All In follow the same vein - a good story that highlights the man, but glosses over the choices he made and the effects they had (whether positive or negative). However, I do recognize, as you've said in the comments, that the end game is still up in the air, so GEN Petraeus' contribution is truly still to be determined.

I wholeheartedly agree with you that he was a transformative leader in the Army that has many qualities to emulate. I look forward to someone in the future analyzing his overall strategic choices and leadership style - the positive and the negative.

Thank you again for taking the time to review the book, and I would love to hear any constructive criticism on what was missing in the book (and other books on GEN Petraeus) if you have some time.

joseph collins

Tue, 02/14/2012 - 7:40pm

Gian, re your latest. I can't sign up to every line in All In , but I do think that good generals are an important part of getting good results. Bob Gates, not one to suffer poorly performing or unlucky generals, certainly thought that P4 had made a significant contribution. My study of the Vietnam war indicates that Sorely on Abrams is essentially correct. He (CA) made a great contribution, and in the end, we left the ARVN to swing. [OK, neither Sorley nor I are objective about their subjects. Guilty as charged.]

In Iraq, the surge worked for a number of reasons, but Iraq today ... sorry, we are back to "only time will tell." It could return to being a state nearly as bad as it was under Saddam. Going into Iraq will never pass a cost benefit test. Operational results are not perfect. The results of war are not permanent. We should not have gone in.

Afghanistan? We can only do our best and work for a favorable outcome. My fear is that our leaders, once the expeditionary force is gone, will turn a blind eye to what can be done and what should be done, in favor of a face saving, cheaper exit. We turned our back (that term again!) on Afghanistan in 1990. I don't want history to repeat itself. That's why I recommended the 15:20 plan in SWJ. The Afghans will need our help after 2014. [USMA by the way is doing great work w their Military Academy]


First, let me say that I enjoyed reading "All In," and I would recommend it to anyone. However, I would also recommend that one reads it with the proper amount of intellectual scepticism. Whenever a book emerges about events that are still unfolding and inviduals who are still so clearly involved in those events, it is difficult to achieve any sort of objective analysis. In this case, the fact that both Broadwell and Loeb are clearly Patraeus "insiders" makes objectivity even less likely. It's not impossible, just difficult.

After finishing "All In," I was left with the feeling that I was reading a love story. Lots of hero-worship poured out on the page by the authors. The reader leaves with the impression that David Patraeus is infallible: everything he touches turns to gold. All criticism of Patraeus is either (A) completely ignored or (B) attributed to the envy of lesser men. I don't recall seeing a single negative assessment of anything that the General said or did throughout his career.

None of this should have come as a surprise. In her introduction, Broadwell talks about how she was selected to meet with General Patraeus when he came to speak while she was pursuing her PhD. She spoke to him, mentioned her research interests, and he took an interest in mentoring her. I can't really blame her for having an extremely positive spin on every aspect of the General's story, but that doesn't mean that I'm blind to the built-in bias.

Overall, it's an enjoyable book, but I think that anyone who reads it should also read "The Fourth Star, "Obama's War," and "The Gamble" in order to even things out a bit. I acknowledge General (ret.) Patraeus' intelligence, leadership, and accomplishments. However, I think that "All In" is more about hero worship than it is about objective analysis.

gian gentile

Tue, 02/14/2012 - 4:13pm

The problem with books like Broadwell's Joe, and your review of it, along with other books like Sorley's on Abrams is that they turn these generals into events themselves that radically alter the situation on the ground. But in wars of area security, senior generals dont matter nearly as much as people like you, Broadwell, Sorley and others think they do. It is not that they are not important, but that they should not be seen as game changing events. I mean shoot, how else can you explain lines in Broadewell's book like there was a new FORCE in Afghanistan, and it was the "will" of David Petraeus. Really, Really, the Force? come on.

Lastly Joe I ask you, did we win in Iraq? What appreciable strategic and policy gains have we achieved there after 8.8 years of war. Are we winning in Afghanistan?

You seem to have a much more rosier view of these two places than I do. Maybe you know things that i dont.


joseph collins

Tue, 02/14/2012 - 10:37am

In reply to by gian gentile


Semantics! Turned its back on ...vice turned toward a new direction? COIN is tool in the military toolkit, and we did not keep our tool in good working order after Vietnam. We could easily have been better prepared in 2002 and 2003. Iraq, in my view, was a mistake, but not Afghanistan. As you have noted elsewhere, selected units employed COIN techniques in Iraq before FM 3-24 was published, and I reflected my agreement with that in the review. Doctrine tends to follow practice ... just as theory does.

I think you miss the point on "All In." It's an attitude, a way of commiting self. It did not mean that the surge of America in Afghanistan represented all of our assets. Indeed, as in Petraeus's original use of the word suggested, the Iraq commitment at the surge point was much closer to being physically all in than our commitment to Afghanistan.

Petraeus would be the first to agree to your suggestion that there "were ... limits to what we could accomplish militarily" in Afghanistan. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, we accepted severe limits on using American military power. Military operations were one of many lines of operation in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he went to Afghanistan as commander, P4 knew that he would command for a part of one phase of an effort that we quickly learned would change much after 2014.

Petraeus as Westmoreland ... not a chance, unless we make the same mistakes in Afghanistan that we did in 1990.

... and Happy Valentine's Day to you, Gian, and all at West Point. jjc

gian gentile

Tue, 02/14/2012 - 10:10am


The US Army did not turn its back on Coin after Vietnam. Rather it turned its focus, rightly, toward a different direction, and a direction that the purported savior of Vietnam Creighton Abrams directed. This trope of the American Army turning its back on Coin is alas trapped by the Coin myth that better coin tactics can save wars fought under failed strategy and that if only the American Army had paid more attention to Coin in the 80s and 90s then somehow Iraq and Afghanistan would have turned out differently.

Joe Collins misses the essential criticism of Broadwell's book that needs to be highlighted: and that essential criticism is embedded in the title of the book "All In." You see Joe there rests the problem with Petraeus, that he went all in, that he saw no limits to the use of American military power in Iraq and then later in Afghanistan, but only its unlimited promise of success.

In fact, and in a dripping, ironic way, Petraeus is much like Westmoreland in Vietnam because for both their flaw was to never understand the fact that in these limited wars of choice, there were in fact limits to what we could accomplish militarily.