H.D.S. Greenway

It may turn out to be three cups of bitter tea

“Three Cups of Tea’’ co-author Greg Mortenson provided America with an inspirational hero. “Three Cups of Tea’’ co-author Greg Mortenson provided America with an inspirational hero. (Associated Press/New Mark Communications)
By H.D.S. Greenway
April 26, 2011

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AMID THE war and futility of America’s efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Greg Mortenson and David Relin’s book “Three Cups of Tea’’ gave us something admirable, something to be emulated. The book about building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan filled a deep need in the American psyche — to be, and be seen as, doing good, even in the midst of war.

It was published in dozens of countries, translated into many languages, and was required reading at more than 80 universities. It was also embraced by the US military, by ambitious young officers as well as senior commanders. Building schools is an acceptable form of soft power, the hearts-and-minds-winning side of COIN, the counter-insurgency doctrine.

“Three Cups of Tea’’ was high up on the Afghan reading list of US Army General David Petraeus. Even the Pakistani government had recognized Mortenson’s good deeds by awarding him the Star of Pakistan.

Of course there were some who grumbled at Mortenson’s endless self-promotion, and the treacle-laden prose. And I had heard among the denizens of Kabul that his foundation, the Central Asia Institute, might not bear too close an inspection.

Relin had made it clear that he wrote the story while Mortenson was the one “who lived it.’’ But, according to “60 Minutes,’’ much of what Mortenson claimed is untrue. How Mortenson was transmogrified from a well-meaning, mountaineering do-gooder into what Time Magazine called one of the 100 most influential people in the world has more to do with America than it does with Mortenson. These are times of disillusion. Our far-flung armies seem endlessly bogged down in Afghanistan, and by no means out of Iraq, and the brave promise of a better world through military intervention has proven to have feet of clay.

In short, America needed an inspirational hero, somebody who appeared to represent the best of America, providing us with an image of what we would like to be. And what could be more inspirational than providing education in benighted lands lacking schools?

Americans have felt the need before. In the early 1950s, just as the United States was getting actively involved in Vietnam, there was Dr. Tom Dooley, a Navy medic who participated in the evacuation of more than a half million North Vietnamese, many of them Catholics, who had moved to South Vietnam, away from Communism, after the defeat of the French in 1954. His book, “Deliver Us From Evil,’’ hit just the right inspirational, anti-Communist tone in those dawning Cold War days.

Dooley was promoted by the CIA’s Edward Lansdale, our secret agent in Indochina, who wanted to drum up support for our man in Saigon, Ngo Dinh Diem, who was also a devout Catholic.

Dooley went on to Laos, where he set up clinics and did for medicine in remote, dangerous places what Mortenson did for education, with a good dose of self-promotion as well. Time Magazine said Dooley “shrugged off the possibility of ambush as he pushed his jeep through guerrilla infested jungles on a daily basis.’’

A grateful Laos gave Dooley the “Order of the Million Elephants,’’ its highest decoration, and Congress awarded him a gold medal. He started his own foundation, and John F. Kennedy cited him as an inspiration for his new Peace Corps.

Dooley died of melanoma at 34, but for a time he, like Mortenson, gave Americans a self-image of selflessness and dedication, of fighting the kind of war that didn’t require killing people, and bringing the benefits of American civilization, “taking up the White Man’s burden,’’ as Rudyard Kipling had called it half a century earlier when America acquired an empire in the Philippines.

Mortenson is fighting the allegations of “60 Minutes,’’ and the jury is still out regarding his reputation. It would be sad indeed for General Petraeus to have a favorite book debunked, just as his favorite Taliban leader in peace talks turned out to be a fraud and an imposter. In Afghanistan, as it was in Indochina, nothing seems to turn out as America would wish it.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.