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Turns Out He Wasn't An Ugly American

Read the rest of On Violence's Most Intriguing Event of the Last Six Months here:

- Greg Mortenson Killed Counter-Insurgency

- You Broke My Heart, Mortenson

- Is Lying Getting Tougher?

- Numbers Don't Lie: Putting the "Three Cups of Tea" Fiasco in Context

- Sorry, I Forgot to Mention Contractors Yesterday

At the end of 2009 and 2010, we decided to choose our “Most Thought Provoking Event of the Year” (Iran’s Green Revolution and WikiLeaks respectively). Well, half-way through 2011, it’s pretty clear what is 2011’s most intriguing event--*cough*Arab Spring*cough*.

Unfortunately, this year has just had too much thought provoking stuff. For an idea of how big this year has been, the Osama Bin Ladin take down is only in third place. To shoe horn in another week on just one topic, we decided to invent "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Event of the Last Six Months: the Three Cups of Tea Fiasco".

We mean, of course, the tag-team take down of Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute by writer Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft. We waited until July to see if Mortenson could debunk his debunking. Since he hasn’t, and instead remains mired in legal controversy, it’s pretty safe to say that Krakauer/Kroft effectively rewrote the public narrative on a former hero.

Why does this debacle intrigue us more than, say, the bin Ladin killing? Because it touches on so many of the issues we write about at On Violence from war to counter-insurgency to memoirs and truth.

So over the next few days we’ll provide a few thoughts on the implications of the Three Cups of Tea fiasco, first with Michael C’s thoughts on Mortenson’s larger legacy with respect to philanthropy, and on Wednesday how he killed counter-insurgency; on Thursday, Eric C takes on the lifetime of a lie, and on Friday, what Mortenson means for memoirs.

First Thought: Mortenson was not an Ugly American

In a weird change of language over time, the phrase an “ugly American”--which currently means an overweight American tourist yelling loudly in English at a French waiter for serving water without ice in it--originally meant something positive.

The original phrase “ugly American” comes from the title of the book The Ugly American, by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, which was also the subject of a glowing review by me (Michael C) a year ago. The titular “ugly American” is just ugly in appearance. But he’s an amazing foreign diplomat, aid worker and human being.

Sadly, we’ve ruined this phrase, turning it into an epithet, when it should be a compliment. (It didn’t help, as well, when the “Ugly American” was played by not-ugly Marlon Brando in the movie.)

Which is an even bigger shame because we need “ugly Americans” now more than ever. The Ugly American takes place during the ideological Cold War between the U.S. and Russia in the fictional country Sarkhan. The “ugly American” of the title, with others, struggles to promote the interests of America as the military and State department unintentionally derail most of that good will.

The “ugly American” is, in other words, a great counter-insurgent. He let’s the people of the fictional Sarkhan solve their own problems, and puts a Sarkhanese face on the solutions. He helps people and shows them the virtues of American values--ingenuity, self-reliance, and creativity. The war in Sarkhan isn’t a shooting war, but it’s hard not to see a similar ideological war raging in contemporary times between Islam, Western secularism, Christianity, Judaism and whatever ideology China ends up adopting.

I feel like I need to explain the background of “ugly American”-ness because, until I read Jon Krakauer’s essay Three Cups of Deceit, Mortenson fit into this mold. (Example: “We need more people like Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute. He uses a budget of only a few million dollars to build hundreds of school. Imagine if the US could send hundreds of Greg Mortensens armed with tens of millions of dollars.”) An American with an inclination toward languages who could seamlessly blend between Pakistan and Afghanistan and America and builds hundreds of schools for several hundred thousand dollars each? Sounds like an “ugly American” to me, in the original, good sense of the phrase.

Unfortunately, it’s likely that Mortenson spends more time telling stories about his “ugly American”-ness then he does “ugly American”-ing. That, in short, is a shame.

So the question becomes, do Mortenson’s actions condemn the idea of “ugly Americans”? Does this mean that philanthropy and development and foreign aid are farces?

Not at all. If anything, good “ugly Americans” keep themselves out of the spotlight, which Mortenson clearly did not. And, more importantly, Mortenson will be replaced. As soon as the fiasco broke, Rye Barcott released his book, It Happened on the Way to War. Then NPR’s Planet Money podcast aired a few shows about their attempts to build a school in Haiti and the lessons they learned. And then the Economist ran an article about new, more intelligent ways to use philanthropic dollars.

Simply because Mortenson was not the “ugly American” we thought he was doesn’t mean we don’t need more “ugly Americans”. We do. And we have them. We just need more. Let’s hope this fiasco doesn’t derail those efforts.

eleven comments

Be careful you don’t promote the “Quiet American”.


Had no idea there’s a time limit in place before the bell rings and the accuser is declared the winner, no matter actual determinants of truth and falsehood.

More likely, you’re just not used to an Ugly American with a growing hole in his atrium and an anuerysm to boot. (Maybe open-heart surgery did not exist when Lederer and Burdick were writing?) GM’s cardiac rehab is apparently going smoothly, as his next trip to the Roof of the World is already scheduled.

No doubt we will all hear from him before he leaves…

While I genuinely enjoyed your bringing the original meaning of UA to folks’ attention, I think you’ve confused two concepts to the detriment of both: An Ugly American cannot be replaced ~ s/he continues the work s/he believes in come hell or high water. It’s the HERO who is replaced, because being one is solely the result of people projecting their desires onto that person.

Mr. Mortenson certainly IS responsible for both the good and the bad he’s done, from the funding of education for girls to whether he broke the law or simply got sloppy to handing power for “3CofT” to Viking Books and author David Oliver Relin. He IS NOT responsible for your opinion of him, so it matters not whether you regard him as hero or antihero or simply a nobody.

The work of Central Asia Institute and its co-founder is not “World Wide Wrestling” — it’s real, it’s good, and it’s continuing as we write.


Steve-Yes that comes up whenever I mention the Ugly American. People always say, you mean “The Quiet American” and I have say, no, no I don’t.

Susan- We will make this point more in future posts, and I think Jon Krakauer already made it, GM isn’t Bernie Madoff. He isn’t Osama bin Laden. GM was doing great things in many parts of the world.

That said, and I truly believe this, too much of the philanthropic world gets a free pass. As a result, many so-called “charities” are either out right frauds, or just wastes of money.

To me, the biggest problem highlighted in the 60 Minutes article wasn’t the lying that they allege in Three Cups of Tea, it was the fact that the Central Asia Institute does not have audited financial statements. CAI also spends more money, according to their one audited financial document, in America than in central Asia. That is something I cannot condone.

I wish GM the best in his recovery, and I hope he can rebound and bring the millions of dollars in his charity back to Pakistan and Afghanistan.


@ Steve Connors – Why?


“In all that we do, we must remember that what sets America apart is not solely our power -– it is the principles upon which our union was founded. We’re a nation that brings our enemies to justice while adhering to the rule of law, and respecting the rights of all our citizens. We protect our own freedom and prosperity by extending it to others. We stand not for empire, but for self-determination. That is why we have a stake in the democratic aspirations that are now washing across the Arab world. We will support those revolutions with fidelity to our ideals, with the power of our example, and with an unwavering belief that all human beings deserve to live with freedom and dignity.”
President Barack Obama, June 2011.

I’ll assume that you’ve read Greene’s book. I’ve always assumed that he used the same methodology for this as he did for most of his other books. Greene was essentially a reporter whose final product was “fiction”. The best place to observe this is by first reading “The Lawless Roads”, a reportage commissioned by the Vatican in the 1930’s that explores the persecution of Mexico’s Catholic clergy. Then read “The Power and the Glory”, a novel using the same reporting in a fictionalized setting. What you will find is a great similarity of character and circumstance with an emphasis provided by novelstsic licence. Orwell also used this method at least once, using characters from “Down and Out in Paris and London” for his novel, “The Clergyman’s Daughter”.

If Greene did use this method (he was certainly a very frequent visitor to the region where he would indulge his opium habit) it’s reasonable to assume that Alden Pyle was less a figment of Greene’s imagination and more likely an intricately portarayed character (or amalgam of characters) he met along the way.

Now, I don’t wish to insult anyone but Americans are brainwashed from an early age with the sort of guff I’ve quoted at the beginning of this post. Unfortunately, tens of millions grow up with that sense of messianic mission deeply embedded in their belief system as it is burned into their minds through political dialogue, religion and right the way through the educational system – including the higher seats of learning.

Where this becomes most destructively dangerous of course, is when it is sent abroad. Whether soldiers, foreign service officers or religious evangelists, these are the Quiet Americans of Graham Greene’s “fiction”. Iraq and Afghanistan were given their full attention, as were Vietnam, Chile, Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and the Philipines in other eras. They will tear the heart out of a political system or a culture, comfortable in their belief that it’s all for the greater good. And heaven help anyone who rejects their lover’s overture.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” is full of these people. Starry eyed young (and not so young) Republicans flocking to Baghdad to remake that society in their own image. Democrats sneered at their incompetence but in doing so perhaps gave away much more than intended. The subtext was clear; that “liberals” would have carried out that Mission with greater proficiency but there was little argument that it was their destiny to do so.

So no, please don’t promote the Quiet American. The world has had a bellyfull of his ilk.


@ Steve – I haven’t read “The Quiet America” yet, so I’m glad I got your take on it. I was actually planning on reading “The power and The Glory” after I finish “Matterhorn”, so I’ll continue on that path.

And I really want to read Chandrasekaran’s book, so i think we ar ein accord on this. Just curious for your take.


I won’t spoil it for you but the most amazing part (for me) of the QA is Phuong’s reaction when she learns of his death, very early in the book.

I’ve always thought the book should be on evry American high school curriculum. But, alas, GG was banned from entering the US. so not much chance of that.

There is also a very good film starring Michael Caine.


Michael C. — Afraid your response neither speaks to my concern nor tells me anything new.

Simply put: You believe about CAI / GM what CBS News / JK want you to believe. Then, because some “set” period has elapsed without contrary evidence, you believe the allegations are now facts.

On the other hand, I believe that waiting until we read the Montana AG’s report on CAI donations, book sales, and expenditures is the proper “innocent until proven guilty” approach. (I hope and expect the AG’s report will also outline CAI’s new, legal, credible, sensible way of accounting and reporting.)

I hope we can talk again after that. Thanks…


From a practical point of view, there has been no lawsuit for defamation of character. Further, from my experience, 60 Minutes’ exposes are generally not presented as opinion but unbiased reporting. Not that a report indicates guilt, but the volume of evidence brought forward is an excellent indication.


First, to address your concern Susan, I can make up my mind. The Montana AG shouldn’t have to release a report defending GM. The week after the 60 Minutes article, CAI should have released a rebuttal post detailing all the factual inaccuracies of the report. They should have launched a media counter-narrative campaign explaining in hard numbers exactly how much they spend in Asia each year, and how little Mortenson spends on himself and his family.

The Montana AG shouldn’t have to do that. CAI shouldn’t need a “new, legal, credible, sensible way of accounting and reporting.” The CAI should have already had it!

None of which speaks to the allegations of lying. If Mortenson had truly been kidnapped by terrorists, why didn’t he immediately refute that claim? Or the claim that he never got lost coming of K2? Those are huge claims, it shouldn’t take the Montana AG to decide that.

Susan, I know I’m not going to change your mind, nor you mind. I will say I have made up my mind according to the evidence I have read.


Michael C, re: your last sentence. Honest? YES. Open-minded? NO.

That is exactly my point. (Guess I should have just said it that way in the beginning!)

Looking forwward to the next installment of this series.