Over the last few years, a Montana nurse named Greg Mortenson has been building an international reputation as a world-class hero and future Nobel Peace Prize winner for having built scores of schools, mostly for girls, in war-torn Afghanistan. At this writing, his 2006 book Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time has been on the New York Times’s paperback nonfiction bestseller list for 220 weeks. But everything changed on April 17, when 60 Minutes broadcast an exposé of Mortenson. The next day, Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air and a former supporter of Mortenson, published online a detailed takedown of Mortenson entitled Three Cups of Deceit. Among the richly substantiated charges was that Mortenson had invented key episodes in his book (and in its 2009 sequel, Stones into Schools), that many of the schools he claimed to have built did not exist and that some of those that did exist had not received help from him or his charity, the Central Asia Institute, since their construction, and that he was guilty of serious financial irregularities. (One former colleague accused Mortenson of using the CAI “as an ATM.”) The fallout from the takedown made it clear that zillions of Mortenson’s fans around the world were shocked by the allegations.
I wasn’t. When I first heard Mortenson speak at a conference two years ago, I was unaware what a big deal he was. Indeed, as far as I can remember it was the first time I’d ever heard of him. I was immediately appalled. He was swaggering, slick, self-satisfied. These attributes especially stood out in contrast with the other speakers at the conference. For the occasion was the first annual Oslo Freedom Forum, at which many if not most of Mortenson’s fellow speakers were genuine heroes — men and women who’d stood up for freedom in autocratic countries and been punished for it with years of imprisonment and torture.
Those heroes had a right to swagger. Only they didn’t. On the contrary, most of them seemed embarrassed by the attention they were receiving. They weren’t comfortable in the limelight. They recounted their experiences in halting voices, their sincerity shining through. Plainly, they were telling their stories not to sell books or build a brand but because they knew that, for the sake of human justice, their stories desperately needed to be told. The focus of their testimony wasn’t on their own courageous endurance but on the cruelty of the tyrants who’d made them suffer — and on the need to free others who still chafed under the same yoke. Such was their humility that, to my shame, I came away not being able to remember most of their names.
But it was impossible to forget Greg Mortenson’s name. For he was the star of his own story. The whole point of his talk was how much one brave, selfless individual can accomplish in this world even against the most formidable of odds. And that individual was him. The premise of his spiel was that he’s a miracle worker, pacifying belligerent jihadist types by sitting down with them over three cups of tea and listening to their concerns. Yet the egomaniac I saw that day was somebody you couldn’t picture listening to anybody else for more than thirty seconds.