Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Stranger than fiction

What we're really losing with Greg Mortenson’s fall

When I first heard allegations that Greg Mortenson, the co-author of the hugely successful book “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time,” had fabricated substantial portions of his story, I went back to re-read the nice things I’d said about him over the years. In 2007, when I reviewed that book for my blog, I wrote that, “Where Mortenson is coming from is almost as important as what he actually does.” Those words now have a haunting quality to them.

Greg Mortenson, his son Khyber, and daughter, Amira Mortenson, with students at Gultori War refugee school, Bromolo Colony, Karakoram mountains. Photo: PRNewsFoto/Central Asia Institute, Deirdre Eitel

At the time, I was describing Mortenson’s decision, sometime in 2001 or 2002, to refuse millions of dollars from the Pentagon in exchange for detailed information about the location of his schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the identities of the people who worked there. He framed his decision as a deliberate choice to remain independent from the military in every way, and speculated that his success up to that point was largely because of said independence.

It was wanting to help people on their own terms and not ours, one of the central themes of his book, which resonated with me deeply. I returned to this concept many times during the period when I was deployed to Afghanistan a little over a later. There, while staying at FOB Morales-Frazier, in the French-controlled province of Kapisa, I tried to follow Mortenson’s lead by thinking locally instead of through the military.

Case in point: We had a warm rapport with the local kandak, or battalion, of the Afghan National Army (ANA), and they would complain constantly of the persistent puddles by the front gate of the base. The puddles were nothing to laugh at: Mud in Afghanistan very quickly gains the consistency of thick snot when it’s wet, until it refuses to absorb more water and becomes a bog. At this gate, the water was more than three-feet deep in the biggest puddle, and the smaller ones were permanent slicks of muck that got onto everything regardless of how careful one was.  Although trucks — western military vehicles mostly — could enter the base just fine as they had the tires and the ground clearance to shrug at such a barrier,  local traffic could not, and visitors were often required to wade through waist-deep filth or climb on top of the HESCO barriers that ring the base.  The ANA did not drive military-grade vehicles; they drove slightly modified Ford Ranger pickup trucks, which, while great fun to toy around in, did not handle the deep water very well. In the depths of winter, even, you could see the rust and mold building up from the constant flooding. I was also worried that when the weather turned warmer, so much standing water would become a serious malaria hazard.

So one day, my colleagues and I wandered over to the nearby bazaar, where we had a good working relationship with the main shop owner. We asked him how much it could cost to pay some workers to come dig culverts under the HESCOS and install pipes to let the water drain out down the hill. After some haggling, he agreed to do it for $60. That is, $60 for about two days’ worth of work for four to five people digging ditches and laying pipe.

We walked over to the French, and asked them what they thought. The French, it turned out, had been planning to “re-engineer” that gate entrance for a long while, but hadn’t gotten around to it. We got them to promise not to shoot the Afghan men digging at the base of the HESCOs. We scrounged up from behind one building on the base some discarded pipe of an appropriate length to let the water drain. We then walked back to the shop owner and gave him $60 we had pooled from our personal funds. Inside of 48 hours, the worst of the puddles had begun to drain — and the ANA was ecstatic. The net result of this minimal amount of effort and money is that five Afghans were given work for two days, a health and equipment problem at the base was resolved and the ANA’s relationship with the Westerners at the base was vastly improved.

In retelling this story, I can still recall how much “Three Cups of Tea” inspired me, and how the idea of trying to relate to people on their own terms has deeply affected my work ever since. Quite possibly, the greatest danger of the fallout from Mortenson’s scandal (he vigorously denies the allegations of fraud and financial mismanagement lodged against him) is that his influence on foreign policy — what I’ve jokingly referred to as the “don’t be a jerk” school of counterinsurgency — will become discredited as everyone rushes to explain how clever they were to have seen through it all.

Despite the many charges that Mortenson now faces — inflating the number of schools he’s built, fabricating his personal history and the origins of his charity, and so on — his basic message still makes sense. People are going to focus on the ancillary parts of the scandal, like the military’s surprising obsession with it (as if drinking tea would somehow  unlock the secrets of counterinsurgency). Or, perhaps the allegations of  financial mismanagement, which are probably more attributable to incompetence rather than malice, will resonate in the future. But his fundamental message of helping people by working locally is still very much a good one, even if it makes no sense for the military to adopt it as a war-fighting strategy.

Certainly, all the NGOs operating in the region will now face more scrutiny, especially if their employees come forward with inspirational stories of triumph over adversity and poverty. And Mortenson can and should answer for what he’s done and not done. His charity has allegedly built 141 schools; even if the real number is significantly less, the achievement is still a substantial one. However, it’s important to keep in mind that within Pakistan itself, approximately 25 million children — more than the entire population of New York State — still lack access to basic education. Can efforts like the ones Mortenson describes in his now-disputed book affect change on a scale that seemingly intractable problems like this require?

But maybe that’s not the point. Just because you can’t help everyone doesn’t mean you should help no one. Sadly, Mortenson’s good work is going to be overshadowed — possibly destroyed — by this scandal (albeit one that looks like it was largely of his own making). And the losers, besides wide-eyed Americans who’ve lost an unassailable hero, will ultimately be the people his schools were helping.

This latest fabricated-memoir controversy also serves to remind us of the questionable veracity of most autobiographical works . In ruminating then-recent discoveries that John Steinbeck may have invented large swaths of his classic, “Travels with Charley,” Washington Post Editor Rachel Dry said, “Nothing” — not even knowing that some of the stories were not true and the book was not quite memoir it is sold to be — “is likely to change my mind” about it. “Particularly the truth.” Maybe that’s the best response we can hope for with Greg Mortenson.

Related:

60 Minutes” on Greg Mortenson

 

Comments

  • Eli Wurth

    Whether counterinsurgency is the work of “jerks” or noble-minded people like Mortenson, it has and will continue to be discredited because it is, by its very nature, foreign intervention.

    Why can’t interventionists like you simply recognize that different societies and cultures are at different stages of development, both economically and intellectually, and that it’s best to stay out of their affairs and allow them to evolve at their own pace?

  • Job #12 CAI

    I’m Jon Krakauer. I heard you made up your whole story about thr mud and tha gate and the money.

  • http://profiles.google.com/mclartygarrett garrett mclarty

    Compensation and literary license aside, if what Jon Krakauer reports is true, Greg Mortenson is no longer effectively promoting education in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

    As is reported by the ex-staff of CAI and also Ted Callahan, Mortenson’s well intentioned efforts have become ineffective due to poor management and communication both within CAI and in the regions where he is trying to promote education.

    The issues that must be validated or proven false are whether or not CAI and Greg Mortenson are building effective schools, supporting those schools, and meeting the educational needs of the people in the region. It is clear that Mortenson has done much to educate people in the West about the needs of the people of Afghanist and Pakistan, but has opposing accountability, transparent accounting, and the recommendations of his previous board members, lead to Greg delivering what is needed to raise money instead of what is needed to educate the children he is advocating for.

    I do not question Greg Mortenson’s motives or intentions, however if the facts presented by Krakauer and substantiated by the many ex-CAI staff who truly do believe in the mission of CAI are true, we must hold Greg and CAI responsible if we are to advocate for education and developemnt in the AF/Pak region.

    People seem stuck on whether or not Mortenson has done any good or if he is a good or bad person, this is not the question. The question is, has CAI become ineffective in promoting education in the AF/Pak region and are the monies being given to CAI being used to build, support, staff schools or to simply promote a noble idea. Krakauer and many others truly believed in the mission of Mortenson and CAI and thus were truly saddened as I am to learn of the gross mis-management that appears to have occurred.

    Don’t give up on CAI or the work of providing education to those in the world who have none, yet also do not let dollars that could go to a good cause be squandered by even a well meaning person such as Mortenson.

  • Unicorn

    I do not believe all of the Bible, but I still think the message is one worth following. So it is with Greg Mortenson. The Devil’s always in the details, but you move on with the program.

  • Anonymous

    Mortenson isn’t an interventionist.

    He was asked to build the schools, and almost his entire staff is from the countries where the work is being done.

  • Dan Bloom

    It’s just like the people who come to Afghanistan for really brief visits and only make it outside the wire a couple times in Kapisa but exaggerate their brief time outside the wire to give the impression they were there longer.

  • http://happening-here.blogspot.com/ janinsanfran

    Have you read Mortenson’s “Stones” book? Mortenson seems to have dumped his independence from the military line. In that one, he crows over setting up a photo op for Admiral Mike Mullen at one of his Afghanistan schools. That distresses me more than the fabricated narrative.

    The NGO mismanagement stuff also distresses me. It’s not okay to flunk financial management of funds given to charity.

  • Ersilia

    I’m sure he never intended for it to happen and that his initial efforts were true and valiant regardless of whether he stayed in a particular village or not. Its sad that what Mortenson started out to do, to put the less fortunate 1st and give them a better life and the chance for a better future, has ended up with less for the less fortunate and more in his pockets for self-promotion. Money , and lots of it, corrupts even those with the best of intentions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.whitlock Bill Whitlock

    Weather Greg Mortenson built one school or a thousand schools…He still made a miracalous difference in the lives of more people than we could ever touch while living in a Self-serving country that tends to forget the millions of people in this world that live without the most minimal of comforts, but seem to live with more happiness that money can buy

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1170262736 Thomas L Mischler

    “Greg Mortenson’s fall?” Who the hell are you to make such a pronouncement? Who the hell are you to declare that this controversy was “largely of his own making”? This wasn’t created by Greg, it was created by self-serving, alleged journalists who have nothing better to do than attempt to destroy an icon of peace and compassion. And with your glib pronouncements of judgment, you are joining that clamor. Shame on you.

    Did you read Greg’s reply to all of this? Guess what – I believe Greg a great deal more than I believe a self-important Glenn Beck wannabe like Steve Kroft. Shame on all who join in this disgusting fabrication of wrongdoing.

    I appreciate your confirmation of the fundamental truths Greg promotes, and your faith in his cause – but it is very upsetting to have you and others effectively assume Greg’s culpability based on a couple of examples of crass, ambush “journalism”.

    Jon Krakauer said of Mortenson, “He’s no Bernie Madoff”. Exactly. If I had millions to invest today I would not hesitate to hand a huge chunk to Greg, who has given selflessly for so many years to promote such a worthy cause. Greg has changed the world – what have you people done?

    Move along, people – there’s no story here. Go back to your tantrums about Ground Zero Mosques and birth certificates. Allow Greg to continue his noble work, quietly and faithfully, and let Steve Kroft return to his Penthouse suite as Greg spends another night with the people no one really cares about.

  • http://www.newviewfilms.tv Virginia

    I think all of them should read the Journalist’s Code of Ethics: http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp 60-minutes for coming down too hard on one angle, Mortenson for at the very least, exaggerating and/obscuring the truth, and Krakauer for profiting on a sensational story. I haven’t read the book, I think because I was so immersed in Afghanistan, and saw many US NGOs using Afghans as a way to raise money for US-based interests, not Afghan’s. Yes, he built some schools, but Afghans I spoke with were sick and tired of things started and not finished, or when they were given a hundred pencils and then forgotten about. Then I think about his $35K speaking fee. That alone could build 140 schools in Afghanistan!

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I noticed that in “Stones” and it troubled me, although at the time I still felt Mortenson and CAI were doing much more good than harm.

    This whole story is very troubling and I look forward to getting the full story (or at least most of it) so I can properly re-evaluate my support for CAI.

    At a minimum, it appears that Mr. Mortenson and his story are much more complicated than we’ve been led to believe.

  • NP

    YES!!

  • NP

    YES!!

  • Pattypax

    You’re so smug. try getting your people right. It wasn’t jon krakauer who said “you;re no bernie madoff”, it was the other man on the interview. ha

  • Pattypax

    Not funny pretending to be someone else. sounds like greg

  • Anonymous

    I knew this guy was a phony from the get go – call it intuition….

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_MHJUXTEPGC2IARLQSOM44AGBTA Wade

    Thomas ,I can feel  your anger .i was fortuante enough to share a private jet with Greg ,we  both laughed and high fived ….he gave me one of his books funded by his charity and he giggled about his royalities