Photo by Paul Avallone
I have struck up some mighty fine e-meetings of the mind through my column over the years; none more appreciated than my military penpals. After last week's musings and column on the spectacular unravelling of Greg Mortenson, Pentagon "Three Cups" guru-sage, I received the following email from Paul Avallone, who served in Special Forces in Afghanistan (Nangarhar) in 2002-2003, later returning as a photo-journalist in 2006 and 2008. Along the way, I have published some of Paul's work, notably his you-are-there series of essays titled "Flirting with Afghanistan," and photos such as the one above (take another look at this one). When I received the following letter, I wanted to post it because it adds a perspective missing from the reportage on this story: that of the men who not only fight the enemy but also drink his tea.
You are correct, Greg Mortenson did not go to the Pentagon to con them, the Pentagon went to him like a sinner to Elmer Gantry.
I don't remember when I first learned of Three Cups of Tea, whether or not it was by the time I was in Afghanistan in 2008, but I do remember that I immediately discarded the theories (I gathered without even caring to read the book) as bogus -- heartfelt and most likely honestly come upon, as is the case of an open-hearted do-gooder, but bogus nonetheless simply because I know the Afghans.
You know that I have sat through innumerable three-cups-of-tea, first as a Green Beret thinking it worked, then soon afterwards simply as a show of return polite hospitality, and by 2008 when I was embedded with the 101st Brigade then in Afghanistan, I went to the same, better called shuras, and could just laugh them off, even as a "journalist" ignoring anything discussed with the GIs and Afghans, knowing nothing nothing nothing meant anything. Period. "Flirting With Afghanistan" was about this futility, and my choice of "flirting" was appropriate, with its connotation of love, hearts and minds, etc.
Again, since the military, as you correctly point out, is liberal (following the commands and feelings of its society) and hearts-and-minds had already been accepted as the method of "winning" the Afghan war, it is natural for the Pentagon to have hitched itself to Mortenson rather than to a Paul Avallone.
I knew in 2008 when I created this postcard that it was my most concise summation of the absolute futility of success in this perpetual war, but did not realize that it would be such a clear and concise argument against the entire Three Cups of Tea concept (just look at these guys' eyes), because that's exactly what's happening here, the American soldiers off-camera drinking tea.
Here again, I send you this postcard...
And thanks to Jon Krak- for admitting his own mistake and using his own great journalist skills to bust open the Mortenson sham. Again, I'm with you; the flim-flam con man aspect I can accept, accepting that deadly sin, greed, as a natural part of life; it's the Pentagon's groupie, moon-eyed infatuation that is angering.