NB: I started this post the day after the CBC doc about Greg Mortenson aired, put it aside, and took too long to get back to it. I don't think anything here is novel at this point, but I think it's worth getting on the record.
The Beach Boys didn’t know how to surf. James Frey didn’t spend three months in jail. Ronald Reagan never served as a photographer in a U.S. Army unit assigned to film Nazi death camps. Greg Mortenson never got lost climbing down K2, never stumbled into a village in Pakistan where he was nursed back to health, and never spent eight days as a prisoner of the Taliban.
Mortenson, as some of you may know, is the author of the massive-selling memoir Three Cups of Tea and the head of the non-profit Central Asian Institute (CAI), which raises funds to build schools in remote villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His writing and his work has been lauded by some of the most important people in
the Pentagon, and he has advised the US military on their campaigns in central Asia. His work is widely credited with influencing the switch from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Or should we say, discredited. In a report that aired last month, CBS's 60 Minutes made three damning allegations. First, that many of the more compelling aspects of Mortenson’s story (and how he came to build schools in Pakistan) are fabricated. Second, that he has seriously mis-managed the finances of the CAI, treating it – by at least one account – as his own personal ATM. Third, a great deal of the work the CAI claims to have done is itself fictitious, that many of the schools Mortenson claims to have built are “ghost schools” that have no teachers, no supplies, and no students.
If you haven’t seen the 60 Minutes piece, you can stream it online. But that piece is itself largely a restatement of the arguments advanced by John Krakauer in this extended essay, where he completely demolishes the myth of Greg Mortenson, of CAI, and the whole notion of fighting terrorism through the soft-power device of school-building. I won’t go through the evidence Krakauer marshals, you should read it for yourself. Instead, the question we should ask is to what extent should we allow Greg Mortenson’s lies about his organization’s founding myths to colour our judgments about his arguments and the work he is doing?
Go back to The Beach Boys, James Frey, and Ronald Reagan. All three of these fibbers are, to varying degrees, committing crimes against authenticity. That is, they involve false or misleading statements about a person’s past or background that are designed to underwrite, or legitimize, their pretension to some sort of artistic, emotional, or political high-ground. Yet the degree of criminality varies. In the case of the Beach Boys, the fact that they posed for album covers holding boards they couldn’t ride was basically harmless. For James Frey, at least some of the ways in which he played loose with the truth were arguably forgivable, insofar as it served a broader story of redemption.
With Reagan, though, it formed part of a much grander pattern of mendaciousness (about his past, and about facts in the world) that was used to justify and gain support for his political agenda. For example, he frequently told a version of a story about a "Chicago welfare queen" who used multiple names and addresses to bilk the government out of $150 000. The problem is that while the story was total bunk, it helped underwrite Reagan’s small-government anti-welfarist agenda.
Where on this continuum should we put Mortenson?
On the one hand, there are critics such as Bing West, who in his book The Wrong War blames Mortenson’s influence on senior military personnel for helping turn the mission in Afghanistan into “a gigantic Peace Corps”. Toward the other end of the spectrum is Andrew Exum, who in a short piece for the Daily Beast warned against “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”:
To the degree that Mortenson’s writings have convinced officers and soldiers to be patient and listen to the people they aim to protect, I applaud the words of the author—whether they turn out to be fact or fiction. But let’s not pretend men who spent the best years of their youth in places like Anbar province and the Arghandab River Valley would not have learned these lessons anyway, and let’s not throw these lessons out if Mortenson proves to be an unreliable narrator.
Writing for PBS, Joshua Foust makes a similar point:
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.
While I don’t agree with Bing that Mortenson single-handedly turned the USMC into a group of tea-sipping pansies, I’m less convinced by Exum and Foust. Why? Because their argument rests on two shaky premises. The explicit premise is that Mortenson’s CAI actually is helping a lot of people, and that his book and work teaches lessons that are relevant to mission in Afghanistan, regardless of whether he made stuff up, and regardless of whether he is a bad manager.
These sort of excuses fall on the Beach Boys/James Frey end of the spectrum. Mortenson’s made up stories about losing his way on K2 and getting captured by Taliban are, on this telling, no different than the Beach Boys pretending to be surf bums – a bit of harmless fibbing in the name of building a valuable brand. Or perhaps they are fabrications that actually do good, by helping build a compelling narrative that has inspired thousands, even millions, of other people.
But the implicit assumption here is that there are no additional harms apart from the lies, and that they actually served a greater good. And there’s not a lot of evidence for that claim. Even if we set aside the mismanagement of CAI and the alleged looting of its coffers, there’s not a lot of evidence that he has done much good.
First: Of all of these schools he is supposed to have built, a lot of them either don’t exist, are empty, are unstaffed, are being used as storage sheds, were unwanted in the first place… you name it.
Second: Of the schools he has built, most are in parts of Pakistan that have no Taliban influence. Which means that any of the lessons that he supposedly learned, and which were adopted by the US military, are completely irrelevant to counterinsurgency.
Third: I’ll let Terry Glavin make the third point:
He's brought shame and disgrace to every Afghan and Pakistani associated with the Central Asia Institute. He betrayed tens of thousands of American schoolkids who contributed to the institute's so-called Pennies for Peace program. He's told outrageous and slanderous lies about the people of Baltistan - which is not a savage Taliban hotbed at all, but one of the most peaceful and welcoming corners of Pakistan - and about Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor, which is not a "front line in the war on terror" but a place that bears more resemblance to Shangri-la than to Kandahar. On and on and on.
This last point is the key one, so I’ll repeat it: By slandering his hosts, by telling the world that he was kidnapped and held hostage when, in fact, he was treated as an honoured guest, Mortenson did something unforgivable: he played off every awful stereotype Westerners already have about the people of the region to elevate himself to the status of some sort of magical white man, the condescendingly noble imperialist come to forgive and to rescue.
Greg Mortenson is no prophet of counterinsurgency, and he's no friend of central Asia.