In Defense of Greg Mortensen

by on May 11, 2011 · 109 comments

in Culture, Military, Popular, War and Peace

Three Cups of Tea co-author comes under fire for allegedly embellishing accounts in the book, and his Central Asia Institute is placed under a microscope due to allegations of misuse of the charity’s funds.

Greg Mortensen and Admiral Mike Mullen at a school opening in Afghanistan

Anyone who has read the books Three Cups of Tea and its sequel, Stones Into Schools by Greg Mortenson (Three Cups is co-authored by David Oliver Relin) will tell you how riveting and engrossing both works are.  They have become two of the most important and influential books of our lifetime.  They are incredible and inspiring page turning stories about what’s possible in an area of the world that virtually no one understands.

Doubts about the accounts in the books, however, were raised by an investigation aired by the CBS news program “60 Minutes.” The segment raises concerns voiced primarily by Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and a former contributor to Mortensen’s Central Asia Institute (CAI).

Mortensen established the CAI to raise funds to build, staff, and supply schools throughout Pakistan and later Afghanistan on the condition that all such schools be open to the girls of the communities they serve.  The CAI operates on the principle that “if you educate a boy, you educate an individual.  If you educate a girl, you educate a community.”

For those who have not read the books (and you really should—they’re both required reading for any commissioned military personnel or diplomatic corps heading into Afghanistan, and should be required  reading for everybody), they are the personal story of former mountaineer and Army medic Greg Mortensen; how he stumbled into a remote village in one of the most isolated regions at the foot of the Himalayas in Northern Pakistan; and how his pledge to build a school in this tiny, forgotten village became a life’s mission.

Krakauer and “60 Minutes” examine the accuracy of the story Mortensen tells at the beginning of Three Cups about how he got lost on the descent from a failed attempt to scale K2, the second tallest mountain in the world, and stumbled into the tiny village of Korphe (pronounced kor-FAY) severely dehydrated and weak, his very life in jeopardy.  He tells how the villagers took him in and nursed him back to health.

In that village, he found the children studying out in the open, writing their lessons with sticks in the dirt.  It was there that he pledged to build the first school.

But Krakauer and “60 Minutes” insist that that story, while incredible and inspiring, was a near complete fabrication.  They say that Mortensen never did get lost on that expedition, and that he didn’t hear of Korphe until nearly a year later.  True, he built a school there, but it didn’t happen at all like he told it in the book.

They also accuse him of lying about his “kidnapping” by members of the Taliban; how he was detained for eight days while his captors investigated his story.  “60 Minutes” found members of the group that Mortensen claimed held him prisoner, who all denied the accusation and adamantly denied being members of the Taliban.  They criticize Mortensen for his claims, pointing to a photo he took with the group where he was happily holding an AK-47 assault rifle.  (Read the book—the story makes sense, trust me).

They fail to mention, however, another photo featured in the book of Mortensen and his wife, Tara, on her first visit to Pakistan.  Mortensen is holding their infant daughter, and both he and Tara have an AK-47 in their grasp.  It’s part of the culture there.  It’s merely an adornment.  A symbol of how the rural Pakistanis and Afghanis live.

Krakauer and “60 Minutes” also allege that by using CAI funds to promote his books, Mortensen has personally benefitted from the charity.  They cite nearly $3 million of CAI funds used by Mortensen on travel and other expenses relating to speaking engagements and promotional appearances, while the institute has seen none of the proceeds.  Recently two Montana state legislators filed a lawsuit to seize the assets of the CAI (which is based in Bozeman, Montana)—reportedly nearly $14 million—and place them “in a trust for construction of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”  They are also critical of the institute’s shoddy accounting standards, particularly regarding expenses in Central Asia.

There are a few things that must be understood about how the CAI does its work in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and why Three Cups and Stones are so important particularly to the institute’s work.  First, since the inception of the Central Asia Institute, Mortensen has relied on a ragtag assortment characters to run his operation in Pakistan.  These are mostly people with little formal education themselves, but who have latched on to the mission with full throated enthusiasm and thrown themselves headfirst into the cause because they believe in it.

Without the backing and devotion of these locals Mortensen would have been stuck in neutral and gone nowhere.  And since most of the transactions in-country are conducted in cash without the benefit of computers and accounting software, sometimes accounting records get a bit messy.  Such is the price of doing business in some of the most primitive parts of the world.

Unlike other NGO’s and military operations that hire outside contractors and skilled labor to do the work for them, the institute relies almost entirely on local labor to build their schools and other projects (the CAI has conducted several irrigation projects to help revive farmland).  Mortensen learned very early on that in order to gain the support of the villagers he’s trying to help, they must be included in the planning process and they must be allowed to take ownership of the job.  The CAI provides the funds and the materials, and the locals provide the sweat.  This way they are fully invested in the project, which helps to allay suspicions about the outsiders and their motives.  It becomes a matter of pride and dignity, which is often overlooked by even the most sincere of do-gooders.

Mortensen and his band have become successful at what they do because they have found a way to get around the natural distrust the locals have for American meddlers.  The relationships that he and his crew have formed throughout the years have given them the credibility to venture into even more remote and forlorn places.  Word has spread about what they do, and they are typically welcomed because of it.

Back home in the States, Three Cups and Stones have been vital to the promotion of the CAI and its cause.  Without them the efforts of the CAI would have gone almost completely unnoticed, and their ability to fundraise would have been a fraction of what it is.  But perhaps even more important is that the books and the speaking engagements that have resulted from them have served an even larger and more valuable purpose:  Spreading awareness throughout the United States and the rest of the world.

Three Cups almost single handedly changed U.S. policy in Afghanistan and has brought a broader understanding of how their society works.  It has changed the way we view the war in Afghanistan and how to go about changing the circumstances on the ground.

Three Cups taught us how to treat the Afghanis as human beings—human beings that are just as much victims of al Qaeda and the Taliban as the victims of terror attacks.  It reminded us that by treating the innocent civilians with respect we in turn earn theirs.  The experiences of Mortensen and his CAI as described in the book have nudged the powers that be to reconsider their strategy in Afghanistan and helped lead to a shift in the mission from a strictly military operation to more of a public outreach and nation building strategy.  This new approach will hopefully empower the Afghan people to stand on their own, and will ultimately allow us to bring our troops home sooner than might otherwise be possible.

The Central Asia Institute and the two books are inextricably intertwined.  The institute directly benefits from the promotion of the books through increased awareness and an understanding of its mission, which has served to generate an avalanche of donations.  Perhaps Greg Mortensen did embellish some of the stories in the books.  If he did, he should own up to it.  But that doesn’t diminish the books’ impact and the good works that Mortensen and the CAI have done and continue to do.  They have done more than build schools for girls in a part of the world where girls are neglected.  They’ve changed the mindset of an entire nation and shown us how to potentially bring a sliver of hope to a region that has for centuries been mired in conflict.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Kathryn January 28, 2013 at 5:27 am

GregZ:

If you Google Montana newspapers, you might get more up to date information. Mortenson has repaid in full the negotiated $1 million reimbursement for travel expenses. Judge Haddon thew out the case, even after five attempts to amend a complaint that never had one specific criminal act confirmed. Mortenson was never guilty of any crime, and writing a book that has factual errors is not a crime.

Especially in light of David Relin’s suicide, it points to the glaring fact that Mortenson did not write Three Cups of Tea. Relin wrote it based on Mortenson recollections, as we all know, Mortenson did not keep any continuous journal or diary. He was not happy that Mortenson’s name was on the book.

Outside Magazine printed an article claiming he committed suicide because of anti-depressants. Right, having your career ruined, being called a liar, a cheat and a thief, yes, it was anti-depressants that drove him to his death.

So, I hope all the Mortenson haters are dancing on his grave along with the real villian here — Jon Krakauer, who never even read the book (according him) until 6 months before he wrote his vendetta. Five years is a long time to wait to expose this world-wide scandal, unless he is the type of person that let’s a slight–Mortenson declining any assistance from Jon on the CAI board–and that slight festered, particularly since his book on Afghanistan tanked in the bargain bin, while Mortenson was on the NYT best seller list.

That is what stuck in Krakauer’s craw, and that is why he cooked up the whole this with Mark Bryant to launch Byliner, which by the way did donated to AFH, but only the Byliner proceeds, not the Random House. So, Jon is keeping those proceeds oncve he realized he actually had a money making, careering ruining story.

That exactly Krak’s cup of tea.

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avatar GregZ January 29, 2013 at 8:59 pm

Kathryn,
In my view this has nothing to do with Krakauer and everything to do with how and why some people lose their moral compass when they become admired role models. Our very blind unquestioning sycophancy gives them the cover to do things undetected that they shouldn’t. This is a very common and unfortunate problem. The solution isn’t to assign blame but to resolve to recognize the signs and then have the courage to speak out and stop it before it becomes a monster. Many people saw that something was wrong but cowardly walked away and left it to continue unchallenged. Krakauer did the right thing.

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avatar Susan Hale Whitmore January 30, 2013 at 9:22 am

Hi, Greg,
I just want to say that Kathryn is doing EXACTLY as you recommend:
While reporting on the status of both GM and JK, she deems it
necessary to call Mr Krakauer to task, just as you believe he
properly called Mr Mortenson to task.

My own point of view is that, even if JK were correct in your vision
to bring the world’s attention to GM’s methods so they would be
corrected, he went about it in a very ugly manner in which he
profited himself handsomely.

Susan Hale Whitmore
Niagara Falls NY

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avatar GregZ January 31, 2013 at 8:38 am

Hi Susan!

Krakauer did donate $75,000 to CAI. He, quite reasonably, might have felt really ripped off and angry when he discovered what was happening. I am sure other people spoke out but they weren’t loud enough to be heard. What if he hadn’t and this sham was still going on?

I don’t fault either Krakauer or Mortenson. Krakauer gained from the way he played it to us. Mortenson and company lack a moral compass.

I’ve studied this same problem in reference to serial socially skilled child molesters. People are afraid to speak out because no one listens to them and they end up getting condemned. We are seeing the same situation with rape victims in the military and India. Bernie Madoff is another example. Its happening all around us. First we blame the victim then we blame the perpetrator. As a society we need to understand why we do this and find a safe way for people to speak out and be heard when they see immorality. I celebrate that Krakauer got heard and Mortenson was corrected.

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avatar Susan Hale Whitmore January 31, 2013 at 11:56 am

Hi, Greg — I don’t want YOUR work in helping to build schools go without mention here! How is it going? I hope you are maintaining your health as you do so much traveling back and forth. While I used most of the embroidered cards made in those
villages for the 2011 Christmas season, I’ve held a few back for special people and special occasions. Everyone is amazed by both their quality and their backstory.

I can celebrate Greg Mortenson for his restored health and CAI for their renewed board and procedures, because together they are all leading to increasing their contribution to building schools, improving teaching, and helping girls grasp new opportunities available to them.

Searching my heart, I cannot celebrate anything I know of Jon Krakauer. Perhaps someday he will earn my respect. — Best wishes, Susan

Susan Hale Whitmore
Niagara Falls NY

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avatar Kathryn January 31, 2013 at 4:19 pm

That explains a few things. GregZ, as a competing NGO with the CAI in Afghanistan. Your condemnation of Mortenson remains unabated no matter how much evidence to the contrary you are presented with. That sounds like “giving envy,” that you resent Mortenson for being so successful while you struggle.

I am sorry for your struggle. I admire anyone who devotes their lives to educating others. I’ve devoted mine to it. How many rich teachers do you know? None. We don’t do it for the money, we do it because we get something back, a sense of who we are that we can be proud of, so our egos can not be left out of the discussion. Not yours, not mine, not Mortenson’s, which yes, no doubt grew quite large with all that sudden success after toiling for 15 years in obscurity.

As a biographer, and a teacher of literature, academia has decided that the the core of the book is inherently true, and they continue to use it, and keep it not only in the libraries, but in their curriculum. Three Cups of Tea continues to sell world-wide in spite of all this hell fire and brimstone. Because it’s true.

Perhaps you should write a book. And feel free to post your 990 on here or elsewhere. One side-effect of this case is many more people are looking at the financial documents prior to donating to any fund, including yours. Exactly how good a business manager are you? Have you never made any errors in your own books? Has anyone else ever been responsible for record keeping in your organization, and could you stand up to the fire Mortenson and the CAI have had to walk through?

We tend to dislike in others things we dislike about ourselves, but in your view am I now blaming the “commenter”, another arm of your conspiracy theory of blame?

You above all people know it is easier to throw rocks than build schools. Stop throwing rocks at Mortenson. There is no case, there never was a case and there never will be a case.

If Three Cups of Tea is a lie than so must be Stones Into Schools, the book Mortenson actually wrote. Why is there no class action suit against STS? Why has the class action suit gone on and one with TWO count them TWO plaintiffs who want their money back? Where are the hoards and multitude of deceived buyers clamoring for their money back?

Open your eyes to what this really is, and it has nothing to do with being a humanitarian or not and everything to do with other’s trying to profit on Mortenson’s and the CAI’s success.

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avatar GregZ February 1, 2013 at 7:52 am

Kathryn,
The NGO I direct is very different from CAI. Everyone, including the teachers, are volunteer. I’ve concluded that money donations create corruption and so avoid them in favor of time donations. The students do give the teachers something which they earn partly by selling the cards we USA volunteers help to sell but also from the new skills they gain. The students and teachers, who are mostly women, run the schools and I am proud to be their friend. They are the heroes.

Watch 60 the Minutes episode again. It stands essentially uncorrected. The case is closed that CAI defrauded the public in a very big way. My point has always been that Mortenson lacked a moral compass and went off course, this was nurtured by people who refused to see it and the only solution was for those that did to speak up. Krakauer did that and my hat is off to him regardless of the fact that he is no saint either. It isn’t a perfect world and everyone fails from time to time, more or less.

CAI and Mortenson are moving on. We all should but we should also learn our lessons and not forget them.

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