This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
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