This story was originally published Jan. 24, 2012.
As her new biography of one of America’s best-known living generals goes on sale today, Charlotte’s Paula Broadwell adds another accomplishment to her resume – big-time writer.
Broadwell, a counterterrorism expert, is author of “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.”
She lives in Dilworth with her husband, radiologist Scott Broadwell, and their sons, Landon and Lucien. For the next few weeks, however, you’re more likely to find her in the national media. She was scheduled today for an early-morning interview on “Fox and Friends.” In coming days, look for her on CNN, National Public Radio and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
They’ll be interviewing Broadwell about her insights into the man Admiral Mike Mullen has described as “one of the great battle captains of American history.” Petraeus, now CIA director, commanded troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan when conflicts in both countries looked bleak.
Broadwell’s 400-page biography is a war chronicle that begins as Petraeus takes command of U.S. forces in the Afghanistan war in June 2010. It tracks the general over his yearlong command, as he directs efforts to take back Taliban-controlled territory, rebuild villages and ensure the safety of Afghan citizens.
“I was trying to portray the war through the commander’s eyes, “ she says.
At the same time, she and journalist Vernon Loeb, who helped write the book (Penguin Press, $29.95), tell the story of Petraeus’s life, starting with his childhood as the first-generation son of a Dutch sailor raised in a modest home in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y.
To report the story, Broadwell, 39, visited Afghanistan six times, spending a total of three months there. She embedded with combat troops and interviewed Petraeus for hours, often during runs they took together. She went on patrols, saw enemy fire, got sick during helicopter rides. And she loved it.
Dissertation to book
So how did a Dilworth mom score this assignment?
The answer begins at West Point. Broadwell, who grew up in North Dakota, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, also Petraeus’s alma mater. She has worked in military intelligence, lived in multiple countries and specialized in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and geopolitical analysis.
She met Petraeus in 2006 when he spoke at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she was a graduate student. When she told him about her research interests, he handed her his card and offered his help. “He really cares about mentoring, “ she says.
Later, with his cooperation, she began a doctoral dissertation that included a case study of his leadership.
At the time, he had commanded the troop surge in Iraq that had pulled the country from the brink of civil war. In June 2010, when President Barack Obama tapped him to take charge in Afghanistan for what would become Petraeus’ final command, Broadwell knew the time was right to parlay her dissertation into a biography.
Soon, she had an agent and a contract from Penguin Press. To help organize and write the book, she teamed with The Washington Post’s Vernon Loeb. Broadwell proved to be an “absolutely intrepid” reporter, Loeb says, dictating from airports, filling up his email inbox and delivering “this fire hose of information.”
Loeb suspects the media’s interest in their book stems at least a bit from Broadwell herself. It’s audacious, he says, “that she even attempted this. Here she has two young kids, a husband who’s a doctor, and yet ... she’s writing a book of this magnitude and hardly breaking a sweat.”
An insider’s view
A major in the Army Reserve, Broadwell says she was comfortable in Afghanistan.
“I was back with my buddies, troopers I’d served with, my military family, “ she says. “I had studied Arabic in the Middle East. I studied in Jordan. It didn’t feel that much different.”
Broadwell talked about her book recently during an interview in her living room while her sons, ages 4 and 6, played nearby. She credits her husband, mother and other family members, along with friends and neighbors, for providing the child care that allowed her time away to do research.
Asked if she ever found herself fearful while taking enemy fire in Afghanistan, she paused.
“Let me think if I was ever really afraid, “ she said. Finally she responded, not about fear, but about nausea: “The worst part was I have vertigo, and I always threw up on helicopters.” She eventually avoided the problem by making sure she didn’t eat before flying.
“All In” begins with a 4 1/2-page list of acronyms and abbreviations of military terms, a big hint that it’s not a breezy read. But the biography has already won praise from high places. A book blurb from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin calls it a “majestic biography.” Another, from NBC’s Tom Brokaw, says it’s a “riveting insider’s account.”
Broadwell portrays Petraeus, who has a Ph.D. from Princeton, as disciplined and intense. He’s a workaholic who consults multiple sources before making major decisions, an exercise fanatic who keeps alert in meetings by chewing Atomic Fireball candies.
From tour to defense
Much of this story, fleshed out with her on-the-ground reporting, recounts his efforts to use counterinsurgency tactics to reclaim Afghan territory from Taliban fighters.
They also instruct soldiers to practice what amounts to community policing - living and working with the locals, patrolling on foot, taking off sunglasses and talking with people.
“One had to wonder, “ Broadwell writes, “what Afghanistan might have looked like, eight years after September 11, 2001, had these tactics been carried out from the beginning.”
As the book ends, it’s fall 2011. The U.S. has begun withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, and the country’s future remains uncertain. Petraeus, 59, has retired and begun a new civilian life as CIA director.
Broadwell, meanwhile, will be on a book tour for several months. She’ll donate 20 percent of hard-copy sales to nonprofit groups that help serve wounded veterans and their families.
She has sent Petraeus a copy of her book. Often, she says, he doesn’t read about himself. But she’ll hear more from the general. After her book tour, she’ll finish her doctorate. Petraeus is one of her dissertation advisers.
From ‘All In’
History has yet to fully judge Petraeus’s service in Iraq and Afghanistan, his impact on the U.S. military and his rank among America’s wartime leaders. But there is no denying that he achieved a great deal during his thirty-seven-year Army career, not the least of which was regaining the strategic initiative in both wars that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. His critics fault him for ambition and self-promotion. I will note in the pages that follow that he is driven and goal-oriented, but his energy, optimism and will to win stand out more for me than the qualities seized on by his critics. Serving, in his mind, is winning.
One of Petraeus’s favorite quotes comes from Seneca, a first-century Roman philosopher: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” This has been true for Petraeus at many turns ...