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The Paula Broadwell I know

Events of the last two weeks have been very tough and sad for all of us as a nation. As a good friend of both Gen. David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, they have been very hard for me personally as well.

Both made big mistakes, and they know it more acutely and profoundly than anyone. Thankfully, the nation knows how great a leader he has been, and that will never be forgotten. But I feel the need to correct the increasingly common and very negative perceptions about her. This is not to deny or excuse any of her mistakes, only to paint a more complete and fair portrait of her as an individual. I would offer just a few points:

•Having known them both throughout the period before their affair apparently began, I am confident that it was not planned or calculated in any way, and that they share blame equally for the decisions that made it happen. It was not, as some would apparently want to believe, a result of some devious plot by a wily female.

•Recently, there has been a good deal of media scrutiny about Paula's ambitiousness, and how it supposedly led her to exaggerate her record, associate too much with powerful people, or what have you. My first response would be that she never struck me as more ambitious than the average Washingtonian, and she never seemed cutthroat in how she pursued her ambitions. On balance, I found her a driven person but not a cunningly calculating or mean-spirited one.

•For those saying that Paula exaggerated her fitness ranking at West Point, believe me, she is incredibly fit — just try running with her sometime. I could offer similar rebuttals to at least some of the similar charges against her of late, but my goal here is not to do that but to talk about the part of her that people don't generally know.

•Some criticize her access to General Petraeus as his biographer and as a journalist in Afghanistan. Her degree of access can be debated. But she was always serious about the book project and always willing to debate and discuss how she portrayed him and his accomplishments therein. The book should not be confused with objective, critical history. But as a book on his leadership style and his career, it is a significant contribution nonetheless, and she was diligent and serious in how she approached it.

•Paula's devotion to her family always struck me as sincere and profound. Clearly she has hurt them deeply and has a long road back, but I never sensed disinterest, cynicism or indifference in her views toward her husband and kids. She always spoke of them proudly and warmly, and clearly much of her life has always revolved around them.

•Paula's commitment to wounded warriors has been a major part of who she is too, in recent years, and has occupied a good deal of her time and interest.

•Relatedly, her book also describes the work in Afghanistan of her contemporaries in the military, many of them of her West Point generation. It is not just a book about General Petraeus. It also is an admiring and serious account of midlevel officers commanding brigades and battalions out in the field, where she spent most of her time on visits to the war zone. It honors and respects their service, because Paula honors and respects them.

It is easy to demonize Paula now. She has made huge mistakes, helped bring down a national hero in the process, and caused deep pain to herself and her family. And she knows it. All the more reason not to pile on but instead to understand this sad episode as a case study in human weakness, and not human evil. At least, that's my take.

Michael O'Hanlon, a Maryland resident, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author, most recently, of the book "The Wounded Giant: America's Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity." He can be contacted at

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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